Prose or porn?

Japanese tale of erotic love steams across Pacific

— Is it literature, or pornography dressed up as cherry-blossom art? Is it a mature, modern interpretation of a classic Japanese lovers' tale, or a stereotype-laden tour of the dark side of sexual passion?

American readers can decide for themselves as "A Lost Paradise," an English translation of the controversial Japanese blockbuster "Shitsurakuen," hits U.S. bookstores, one of the few Japanese titles to make it across the Pacific this summer.

"I wanted to write the story of an overwhelmingly mad, passionate and violent love. In Japanese society, love is seen as light, as trivial � men don't admit to reading love stories, though, of course, they secretly do."

� Jun'ichi Watanabe

The steamy novel of adulterous love and dangerous sexual obsession, by Jun'ichi Watanabe, became a pop culture phenomenon in Japan a few years ago. Although scorned by feminists and many literary critics, the story became so ubiquitous that in 1997 the title suddenly popped up in the famously dynamic Japanese language as a verb. "To Shitsurakuen" meant "to have an illicit love affair."

Serial sustenance

The novel first appeared in 1995 and 1996 in serialized form on the back page of Japan's version of the Wall Street Journal, the respected but stodgy Nikkei financial daily newspaper. Novels frequently are serialized in newspapers, but it is unusual for them to choose such a provocative one.

On any ordinary morning, the middle-aged men who make up the lion's share of Nikkei readers spend their train ride snoozing over the stock tables or scanning the front-page headlines on banking reform. But during the 13 months of "Shitsurakuen," these "salarymen" could be seen in intense communion with the back page. In offices and bars, the tale of the lovers who defy the rigid constraints of Japanese society and then plot their ultimate escape was a hot topic for months.

"Bar hostesses on the Ginza were saying they had to read it or they couldn't work," said Yutaka Akiyama, head of public affairs for the Nikkei. Although the newspaper hasn't made a direct correlation, the Nikkei saw its burgeoning circulation soar even faster during the serial.

The two-volume novel, published by Kodansha Ltd. in 1997, has sold 2.7 million copies to date, the publisher said. It was made into an award-winning movie starring the gruff and beloved actor Koji Yakusho, who agreed to do the film after the director assured him it wouldn't be pornographic. It was the biggest hit of the year.

Later in 1997, "Shitsurakuen" made its television debut as a miniseries, although the TV adaptation was neither as well-cast nor as popular as the book or movie, said Seiko Yamazaki, research director of the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, a Tokyo think tank. "It wasn't the kind of thing you wanted to watch in the living room with your wife and kids," Yamazaki explained.

Sex and seminar

The novel is told through the eyes of Kuki, 54, a mid-level salaryman at a major Tokyo publishing company who has fallen from favor. He has been demoted to the status of a "window-sitter," given little work and is expected to wait with dignity for his early retirement orders. His lover, Rinko, 37, is a calligraphy teacher trapped in a loveless marriage with a distinguished but cold professor of medicine.

Over the course of a year, the two meet in a variety of scenic locations, all well known to readers of Japanese literature, for trysts that become increasingly abandoned and then downright kinky.

Along the way, they discuss the motivations of the characters in the ancient Japanese court novel "The Tale of Genji" and enjoy scenic hot springs.

They also become fascinated by the confessions of Sada Abe, Japan's most famous murderess of the 1920s, who strangled and sexually mutilated her married lover. Abe insisted she did it purely for love.

Language barrier

"I wanted to write the story of an overwhelmingly mad, passionate and violent love," said Watanabe, 66, who trained as a doctor then quit to write more than 100 novels � but none as incandescently popular as "Shitsurakuen."

"In Japanese society, love is seen as light, as trivial � men don't admit to reading love stories, though, of course, they secretly do," Watanabe said.

Kodansha International decided to bring the book out in English as part of a push by the highbrow publisher of Japanese classics to introduce more popular works to an overseas audience, Keith Roeller, head of marketing for the U.S. edition, said.

"Shitsurakuen" made people "re-examine their lives, their marriages, what love is about, what passion is about," Roeller said. "I want this to be on every bookshelf in Barnes & Noble, and not just in the (Japanese bookstore) Kinokuniya in L.A."

While roughly 3,500 English-language books are translated into Japanese each year, only about 200 Japanese books make it into print in English, according to English Agency Japan, which handles international publishing rights.

Critics questioned Kodansha's decision to choose "Shitsurakuen," of all recent Japanese popular novels, for the rare privilege of an English translation. "Nobody here is reading it anymore, and its reputation is fading," said independent literary critic Junichi Takita. "It remains as a social phenomenon, however."

Drawing fire

Feminist attorney and English literature specialist Yoko Tajima blasted the book as indecent, sexist, stereotypical and dated.

"I'm ashamed that this is being published now in the United States," she said. "This isn't literature � I have no idea why Americans should read it."

Critics say Kuki and Rinko are egotistical, irresponsible and lazy. The lovers don't bother to confront their spouses, explain themselves to their families or fight to make room inside Japanese society for their love.

Readers who haven't already guessed where this tale is headed should stop here.

For those who are familiar with Japan's literary tradition of double suicide, a theme of books and plays dating back to the 17th century, Watanabe said his goal was to offer a modern interpretation that would seem both realistic and inevitable.

"In the Japanese life view and aesthetic, to retreat and to choose death can be just as beautiful as to advance forward in life," Watanabe said.

As for his ending, Watanabe said, "I did quite a lot of medical research and decided that it just might be possible."

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