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Sticking His 'Neck' Out

Author Alan Brown's 'Audrey Hepburn's Neck' Shatters Japanese Stereotypes and Is Headed for the Screen

March 31, 1997|LOUISE STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was in the Shy Boy Bar, in Osaka, Japan, that Alan Brown discovered the title for his first novel. "The Shy Boy was a lesbian bar, and there were two takarazuka there, women from a very famous theater troupe who specialize in male roles. They were chain-smoking and singing along to Edith Piaf," the 45-year old author recalls gleefully. The whole place was plastered with Audrey Hepburn posters.

"I said to the bartender, 'What is it about the Japanese and Audrey Hepburn?' He looked up at this poster with great reverence and said, 'Her neck.' I got out the writer's notebook I always carry with me and almost never write in, and I wrote down: 'Audrey Hepburn's Neck.' I had a title, and I didn't even know I was writing a book."

It's been more than five years since that jovial night, and Brown is now touring the U.S. for the paperback release of his marvelously titled novel. The book has received an exuberant critical response ("the beautiful control of a born novelist," said Time magazine), was recently awarded the first Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Award (for a work contributing to understanding among Pacific Rim nations) and has been optioned for a film by Wayne Wang, director of "The Joy Luck Club."

Through the startling perceptions of his characters, Brown subverts cultural stereotypes. The protagonist of "Audrey Hepburn's Neck," set entirely in Japan, is a dreamy young manga (comics) illustrator named Toshi Okamoto. Toshi is from rural Hokkaido, a timeless place where in winter the foxes nest in trees and the fishermen sit on the "sea wall like seals, smoking Hope and Peace cigarettes." Toshi's father runs a noodle shop that advertises, though rarely serves, bear meat, and his sad and unsmiling mother tends a nearby inn.

When Toshi was 8, his mother took him to see the movie "Roman Holiday," where he glimpsed the divine Audrey Hepburn (and experienced "the first important, the first truly rhapsodic, erection of his young life"). Ever since, in perpetual search of his idol, Toshi has had only American girlfriends. In hip-hop '90s Tokyo, where office workers rent dogs by the hour to reduce stress and prevent them from "going postal," Toshi is pursued by his manic instructor from the Very Romantic English Academy.

He notices strange customs among his American friends: They make wishes when looking at the stars, or breaking dried chicken bones, and "offer up their unhappy childhoods like movie plots, or like gifts." His best friend is Paul, a generous American copywriter, who likes Japanese boys but respects Toshi's heterosexuality. In the background of the story, Japanese rice farmers dump imported American rice, and a blimp hovers over Tokyo broadcasting the rectal temperature of the dying Emperor Hirohito. Hepburn, Toshi's barelegged and short-haired guardian angel, visits him in moments of blissful reverie and feverish stress.

Brown, wiry from running and daily yoga on the road, rummages in his friend's Beverly Hills kitchen for a snack, then settles cross-legged on the carpet before his reading at Dutton's Books.

"I've been told that 'Roman Holiday' is the single most popular film in Japanese history," he offers. "That film came out in 1954, when Japan was very poor. The whole theme of a princess giving up her personal happiness, her freedom--giving up Gregory Peck!--for her duty to her country . . . was so resonant for the Japanese because that was when they were really buckling down to bring their country back." It was also around the time when Michiko, the current empress, became the first commoner in history to marry into the Imperial family.

Television came to Japan in the early '50s, but for the first several years, all programming was from America. The American occupation did not end until 1952, almost twice the length of the Pacific war itself. A whole generation of Japanese grew up with deep, complicated feelings about American culture.

"I used to get together with a movie actor friend of mine in Tokyo," Brown says, "and we realized we both grew up watching 'Leave It to Beaver,' even though I was a Jewish kid from Scranton, Penn., and he grew up in a traditional inn in Chiba. Once a Japanese friend told me, weeping, about the first time he ate a hamburger."

The press in Japan has warmly embraced the book, and a professor at a prestigious Japanese university recently published a study proclaiming Brown to have written the first "post-Oriental" novel. And just what, exactly, does Brown think that means?

"I think it means that my book does not treat the Japanese like the 'exotic other,' " he explains. "My book trashes those stereotypes. I just came back from three days at the International Asian-American Film Festival in San Francisco, and these young Asian and Asian American directors are blowing all those Asian stereotypes sky-high."

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