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Sunday, Sept. 2, 2001


They say breaking up in public is hard to do

Pop culture has given us many marriage archetypes. At one extreme, there was "Thin Man" Nick Charles and his wife Nora, who epitomized a partnership based on privileged cynicism: witty, alcoholic, rich and inseparable. At the opposite end are "The Honeymooners," Ralph and Alice Kramden: the short-tempered, blue-collar blockhead and his harridan wife, who, though constantly fighting, couldn't live without each other.

In Japan, there's Mayo and Kaiya Kawasaki. Though their celebrity status places them near the Charleses in terms of privilege, in temperament they're closer to the Kramdens. However, a more convenient pop-culture comparison would be Ricky and Lucy Ricardo.

But in reverse. On "I Love Lucy" it was Desi Arnaz who played the linguistically challenged spouse, while in the Kawasakis' case it's the American wife, Kaiya (given name Caroline), who takes on the funny foreigner role. Cuban Ricky, constantly dumbfounded by Lucy's habit of screwing up, didn't have the English to describe his feelings. Similarly, Kaiya, flummoxed by her husband's penchant for conducting sexual dalliances in broad daylight, rants before the TV cameras in broken Japanese like a squawking bird.

Kaiya used to be a model, but she wasn't famous in Japan until she met Mayo in 1988. At the time, Kawasaki, a former idol singer, was trying to make a career in stage musicals. A baby girl, Kate, soon followed, and then marriage. The still boyishly handsome Mayo and his glamorous new American wife were candy for the wide shows. They were always described as a "sweet couple," which is mediaese for married folks who display their affection in public. To the delight of the Japanese press, Kaiya played the free-thinking, free-talking American to the hilt, discussing their bountiful sex life in rapid-fire, ungrammatical Japanese.

Mayo eventually strayed, thus fulfilling his destiny as a geinojin (celebrity). Japanese wives are expected to put up with such behavior because it comes with the job, but Kaiya, being American, didn't. She went on TV and cried and complained. Mayo would come crawling back, the two would make up, and the cycle would begin again.

Within the past year, Kaiya has intimated that she has had enough. She talks of divorce but can't seem to make up her mind. Mayo, of course, doesn't seek a divorce at all, because he is only doing what comes naturally. At the same time, he has grown tired of his wife's willingness to talk to anybody with a microphone about his supposed unfaithfulness. Isn't he a good father? Isn't he a good provider?

Maybe. Yet Kaiya is as much, if not more, of a breadwinner. The 38-year-old American has spun her wounded-wife routine into a lucrative gig as a talent, becoming a celebrity who would quickly lose her topicality if she and Mayo split.

Thus the spectacle a week ago of the couple and their two children, 11-year-old Kate and 4-year-old Sean, embarking on an embattled family vacation in Hawaii with a TV crew to record the couple's attempts at salvaging their wrecked marriage.

Conceptually, the special, broadcast by Nihon TV on a Sunday afternoon, was brilliant. Japanese television is lousy with travel shows featuring married couples acting nice for the cameras. Here was a couple going through all the same moves -- eating at restaurants, shopping, visiting famous tourist sites -- while carrying out a knock-down-drag-out marital battle.

It was clear that many of the confrontations between Mayo and Kaiya were set up, but the heat generated by the arguments seemed very real. One fairly good indication of the genuineness of the couple's antipathy for each other was the attitude of Kate, who, during one frightfully irrational argument in the car (Mayo: "It is easier to be dead than married to you.") kept yelling "Shut up!" in both English and Japanese.

Sean, on the other hand, is at the Crayon Shin-chan age. Throughout the trip, he made childish sexual comments about "papa liking breasts" and "mama liking penises," and, considering Kaiya's unnerving habit of grabbing her husband's crotch to get his attention, one could assume that in the Kawasaki household, sex was openly screamed about.

The encouragement of open hostility was similar that found on American trash talkathons, like "The Jerry Springer Show," a dubbed version of which Kaiya occasionally hosts on late-night TV. But the special did have an agenda. By the end of the 90-minute program, Kaiya would decide whether or not she would seek a divorce. Every so often, each spouse was asked separately their chances for staying together. After one particularly bad fight, Kaiya estimated the chances at minus 5 percent.

But, in the end, during dinner in a nice restaurant with Kaiya's elderly mother at the table, Mayo serenaded his wife with a rendition of "I Can't Help Falling in Love" that reduced her to tears.

Kaiya concluded that, for the time being, she would stick with her man.

The ambiguous response was predictable. Kaiya's and Mayo's respective careers depend on their marriage teetering on the brink without falling into the abyss. If they were one of those married manzai comedy duos, they could use a divorce as material for their routines (not uncommon), but they're not. Divorce would make them celebrities without a context. Call it a new archetype, but the Kawasakis' marriage has already lasted longer than the Arnazes' did; and the Kaiya and Mayo Show has played more seasons than the original "I Love Lucy."

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