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Sunday, May 9, 2004

MEDIA MIX

If only divorces were scripted by TV writers


It's easier to get a divorce in Japan than anywhere else in the world. If both parties agree, all they have to do is affix their seals to a document and their union is instantly dissolved -- no trial separation period, no grounds, no mess.

One of the myths of the modern age is that marriage as an institution has weakened because people's values have become more decadent. Rising divorce rates can just as easily (and more credibly) be pinned on greater economic opportunity for women. In the West, liberalized divorce laws have made it easier for both men and women to get out of unsuccessful marriages, but in Japan it's always been easy. The reason for the recent spike in the divorce rate in Japan is that Japanese women now have wider economic options outside of marriage. They don't have to remain in a miserable union to survive.

Of the 16,000 lawyers now practicing in Japan, only a handful do divorces as a habit. Obviously, in a country where you can get a divorce in less time than it takes to finish off a bowl of ramen there's no money to be made from it. Ninety percent of Japanese divorces are kyogi (mutual agreement) while 9 percent are handled by arbitrators. Only 1 percent are hammered out in court.

So one can't help but be curious about the new drama series, "Divorce Lawyer" (Fuji TV, Thursday, 10 p.m.). What, exactly, will the stories be about? The suspense-packed courtroom dramas that comprise a separate genre in American popular culture have never been successfully copied in Japan because there is no believable cognate in real life.

In the premiere episode, Takako Mamiya (Yuki Amami), an attorney in a high-powered corporate-law firm, is planning to open her own office with a colleague, but at the last minute the colleague pulls out and returns to his old job. Unable to afford the glitzy office they had rented, Mamiya settles for digs in a dumpy old building and is reduced to going out on her own to drum up business, like a saleswoman.

Her first case, however, is a messy divorce she wants nothing to do with. In addition to the minimal retainer she can expect, divorce involves emotions, meaning clients who may very well change their minds along the way. To Mamiya, the beauty of the law is that it's immutable and concrete.

In the end, the couple ends up reconciling. The second episode was even less instructive in the ways of Japanese divorce, since it wasn't even about divorce. A young Ginza bar hostess wants Mamiya to extract isharyo, or "consolation money," from a company president with whom she had an affair for several years. The hostess felt that she was dumped unceremoniously, and though marriage was never discussed she thinks he owes her.

The setup is promising. The hostess is initially portrayed as a ruthless gold-digger and the president as an imperious old frump, smoking cigars and talking down to everyone. In addition, Mamiya's scheme is less than kosher -- she contemplates blackmail (telling the media) with the idea that "the law is something you manipulate to your own advantage."

The episode drops a few interesting tidbits about the legal cost of spurned love, but once again sentiment triumphs. The hostess is not a gold-digger, but gave up her dream to go to school in order to take care of the president in his old age; while the president, a lonely widower, cut the hostess loose because he didn't believe a beautiful young girl like her could love an old man like him. However, a reconciliation would mean no money for Mamiya, and the scriptwriters work it out so that the president agrees to pay for the hostess's education and Mamiya gets a cut.

Mamiya still doesn't consider herself a "divorce lawyer," which is why in the third episode she tries to deflect a custody case that a former colleague steers her way. Alimony and property division are the meat-and-potatoes of American divorce lawyers, while custody battles are the tear-sodden stuff of many a legal-themed fiction.

In Japan, joint custody is almost nonexistent. One parent, usually the mother, is given sole custody of the children and the other parent never sees those children again. A good example is Japan's current prime minister, who has never met his third son because he divorced his wife when she was pregnant.

The episode was instructive up to a point, but the courtroom scenes, which consisted of lawyers giving prepared speeches, were as suspenseful as a Diet session. And while one could argue that the joint-custody outcome had admirable didactic purposes -- especially since it made the child's opinion central to the decision -- it might have been preferable, both instructively and dramatically, to see a messy fight over a child that ends badly. Such tragedies do happen in real life in Japan, except that they don't usually play themselves out in a courtroom.

There are plenty of potentially juicy scenarios that "Divorce Lawyer" might tackle before its 11-week run ends, but given the obsession with happy endings that characterizes Japanese drama series it's unlikely we'll see anything like the real-life divorce cases that are sometimes discussed on the morning "wide shows." There, the dissolution of marriage is always messy and, at least for one of the parties, the outcome isn't happy.

"Divorce Lawyer" wants to have it both ways: the topicality and the happy endings. One could say that the producers mean to show that divorce doesn't have to be contentious and destructive, but that would contradict the premise behind the title, not to mention human nature.



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