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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2001

Fairy tales for modern Japan

GHOST OF A SMILE: Stories, by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Kodansha International, 2000, 288 pp., 2,900 yen (cloth).

Imagine Lafcadio Hearn venturing to 21st-century Tokyo reincarnated as a single American woman with a penchant for the exotic and erotic, and you will have a sense of the stories in "Ghost of a Smile."

Author Deborah Boehm knows her territory. She's a travel writer specializing in Japan, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, and a former magazine editor and sumo reporter.

Boehm has also written an engaging memoir, "A Zen Romance," and has translated Akimitsu Takagi's "The Tattoo Murder Case."

Here, she mixes a delightful trio of interests in Asia -- eros, crime and the spiritual -- by putting a contemporary spin on popular old Japanese folk tales.

While Boehm owes a great debt to Lafcadio Hearn, the vivid, organic, sweat-and-blood flavor of her stories is reminiscent of Angela Carter.

Using the classic tales of "Kwaidan" as inspiration, Boehm's modern adult fairy tales depict a woman's search for passion and adventure, wherein the usual complexities of romance are compounded by the shape-shifting form prince charming can take.

In "Ghost of a Smile," he is more often a werewolf or a metamorphosed spirit than a flesh-and-blood prince. In this way, history and myth meet the present, as foreign vampires, egg-faced monsters, skeleton wives, fox-women, demon badger-dogs, hungry ghost monks and goddess-nymphs people these strange and delightful modern-day tales.

Boehm mixes the old and the new, the natural and the supernatural, the real and the unreal, dead and alive, humor and horror, in surprising turns.

In "Naked in the Moonlight," for example, she takes a symbol of traditional Japanese delight and innocence, the goldfish-peddler, and brings him to the brink of obsession as he plots a way past the bouncer at a snobby Roppongi techno disco and ends up finally wowing him with his traditional attire.

Who else would dream up stories like "The Beast in the Mirror," where a Hawaiian sumo "rikishi" discovers he's a werewolf after waking up in a back alley with a fetid taste in his mouth and blood on his hands?

Many of the tales revolve around women falling for the most inaccessible of Japanese men -- Buddhist monks.

A hot-spring romance heats up in "Hungry Ghosts in Love," when the mysterious monk our heroine falls for turns out to be something other than human, and the would-be lovers have to paint sutras on each other's bodies to prolong the monk's human incarnation.

"Kissing Gaki-san was pure ahhh, the openest sound the human mouth can make, the most receptive feeling the human heart can support without dying of rapture. Did I undress myself? . . . Gaki-san's kiss was like life support and oxygen, it was like all the fruit in the world."

Overall, the narratives are lush, evocative and extremely creative. Occasionally the prose grates with moments of self-indulgence or valley-girl babble, but these moments are few.

Although many of these short stories are quite long, the reader gets caught in their dreamy spells.

How appropriate that these supernatural tales should rise from the grave at the end of the 20th century, revealing the "medieval magic concealed beneath the dreary modern veneer." After all, it was toward the end of the 19th century that the Japanese fascination with the supernatural found its way into art and popular literature.

With the breakdown of the social order, the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the impending onslaught of Westernization, realism gave way to fantasy, and the social anarchy of the times was reflected in wild expressions of the anima -- fears and fantasies that had been kept in check by the rigid social order.

Perhaps there's a parallel between the end of that century and this one.

Boehm's stories embrace the wild "matsuri" aspect of Japanese culture, celebrating the ecstatic, erotic nature underneath the increasingly staid and Westernized exterior. Boehm's considerable knowledge of Japanese culture and dazzling writing skills are enhanced by the dual gifts of a vivid imagination and an open heart. This is an extremely creative and visionary writer who takes risks with language and narrative. The payoffs are wicked and dangerously delicious.

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