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Tale of Erotic Love Is Steaming Across the Pacific Ocean to U.S. Bookstores

A social phenomenon in Japan, 'A Lost Paradise' drew fans, critics galore.

August 22, 2000|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — 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 will be able to decide for themselves this month when "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.

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

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 are frequently serialized in newspapers, but it is unusual to pick such a provocative one.

On any ordinary morning, the middle-aged males 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.

And that was just the beginning. 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.

Still, the public's appetite was deemed unsated. And so, 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.

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," enjoy scenic hot springs and allow falling cherry blossoms to scatter over Rinko's moonlit flesh. 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.

"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.

As a titillating trendsetter, "Shitsurakuen" was unusual in youth-driven Japan because it appealed mainly to people in their 40s and 50s--much like the wildly popular but more chaste "The Bridges of Madison County," which has sold 2.6 million copies here. "Shitsurakuen" in Japanese is "Paradise Lost," but the translator suggested the inversion to "A Lost Paradise" to make the English title more modern-reader friendly than Milton, Watanabe said.

The book has now been translated into Chinese and Korean--selling 150,000 copies in South Korea--and is on the market in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. It is also circulating, in both authorized and bootleg editions, in China, where it has sold roughly 60,000 copies and hasn't triggered any complaints from the authorities, according to the author. "I'm told they toned it down in translation," Watanabe said.

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