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Sunday, May 20, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Audrey Hepburn's neck


"I don't understand cats and I don't understand women," confessed a foreign friend, half to me and half to his mug of beer. I leaned in closer to listen.

"Yet I can live with that. But . . . this other thing . . . it's driving me nuts. If you know the answer, please, please, tell me."

The man had a Japanese wife whom he had left at home and a facial tic that he had brought along. His left eye jerked like a frog leg wired to a dry cell.

"Just what is it that the Japanese see in . . ." he paused, creased his brows, ". . . Audrey Hepburn!?"

Not one of life's eternal questions, perhaps, but still a puzzler. Images of Audrey Hepburn crowd the entire archipelago -- in posters, calendars, books, postcards, print advertisements and, most recently, in computer-doctored TV commercials. An overexposure that once prompted the following comment from my vacationing mother: "What's the matter with these people? Don't they know she's dead?" And has been dead for nearly a decade.

While the current queen of Japanese marketing, Norika Fujiwara, is even more ubiquitous, one has to wonder how the fair Fujiwara will withstand the fickle winds of advertising as she ages -- let alone when she's a corpse. Meanwhile, Audrey Hepburn continues to fascinate.

"Did you know," my friend slobbers, the tic having spread to both eyes, "that my wife has seen 'Roman Holiday' 18 times? That she wears her hair bobbed just like the Hepburn character in the movie, Princess Ann? And that every morning she likes to pretend she's having breakfast at Tiffany's?"

I answer him the only way I can. "So what?" My own Japanese wife has seen "Roman Holiday" 30 times, and for years she slept with a giant poster of Audrey Hepburn tacked right by her bed. Then when we planned our first overseas trip minus our kids, there was only one place she wanted to go:

"Rome!" she cried, echoing you-know-who in you-know-what. "By all means, Rome!" So we went.

As for the Vatican, she thought it was OK. The catacombs, swell. The chic shops of Italian leather goods -- all right. But . . . "Oh!" she squealed on the Spanish Steps. "This is where Princess Ann ate ice cream!!"

And at the Trevi Fountain, "This is where she cut her hair!" And at the Palazzo Colonna, "This is where she met the press!" Neither gladiators nor popes nor cheap pasta mattered. Rome was Audrey's town.

My wife was not the only one to think so. Guests from Japan crowded all the "Roman Holiday" highlights. And 70 percent of visitors to Hepburn's grave in Switzerland come from Japan.

"I know all that," blurts my friend, his lips now twitching to match his eyes. "But it doesn't explain why!"

"Well," I offer, "she's cute. And, in this country, cute counts."

"Yet . . . the movies bulge with cute girls. Why her?"

"And," I keep rolling, "she's slender. Director Billy Wilder once even claimed, 'She's gonna make bosoms a thing of the past!' Back then, with Monroe, Mansfield and others, a slim starlet was a rarity. Perhaps the Japanese could just relate."

"But that doesn't explain now! And to me it seems bosoms are big here, too!" He slaps himself, both as punishment for his jest and to keep his face from vibrating off onto the table.

"OK," I now cut straight to the source of sources. "Hepburn herself, when asked why the Japanese loved her so, put it this way: 'It's curious. Maybe I just look Japanese.' "

He blinks ferociously. "Nah. That can't be it. She looks about as Japanese as my grandma."

So we go over it: Hepburn's smile, her long neck, her bushy brows, the connection between her Princess Ann romance and the commoner played by Peck, and the 1959 wedding of the current Emperor and his commoner wife, which came years after the success of "Roman Holiday." Nothing seems to figure. Except . . .

"Hers is a mournful beauty," my wife has said. "In 'Roman Holiday,' Princess Ann has to surrender her love -- her dream -- for family duty. She does so reluctantly, yet with grace. We Japanese admire that. Especially in the early '50s, what with the wreckage of the war and with everyone giving of themselves for the sake of the nation, we understood such sacrifice well."

Thus, to a generation of Japanese baby boomers, even today Audrey Hepburn stands as a role model of how to live with dignity under adverse circumstances. Her impact here may not pass till they do. My friend's face is starting to calm.

"OK. So maybe that's it. But now, how about Fujiwara? What do they see in her?"

We exchange glances and reach the same answer at the same instant. At which point we raise our mugs and trade a well-rounded toast to the obvious.

"To bosoms!"

Sometimes, it seems, Japan is not so inscrutable after all.



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