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Tuesday, May 13, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Off-the-wall fiction feeds weird ideas about Japan

Ignorance is bliss for novelists writing on Japan


If you review novels set in Asia, as this writer does, it follows that you read a lot of books. To call some of them "terrible" may be putting it kindly.

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The cruel beauty epitomized by the 'Dragon Lady,' Milton Caniff's 1930s-era cartoon character, made the Asian female vamp a stock figure in movies and adventure novels set in East Asia. ALL IMAGES SHOWN HERE ARE COPYRIGHTS OF THEIR RESPECTIVE HOLDERS
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Long before "The Karate Kid" made his film debut, martial artists in books had become increasingly exoticized. Once it was enough to snap boards with a swipe of the hand. Now, you're expected to become invisible, defy gravity and breathe underwater.

Author Eric Van Lustbader, whose novels feature a murderous Ninja who crawls up the sides of New York skyscrapers, once boasted in an interview in People magazine that he did not want to visit Japan, because seeing the country as it really was would cramp his writing style.

I had a hard time convincing my young nephews there are no ninjas to be found lurking about my neighborhood in Setagaya. ("They're there, you just don't see 'em 'cause they make themselves invisible," nephew Nick insisted.)

Nick, after seeing "The Karate Kid," enrolled in an Okinawan karate school in Syracuse. This film, you may recall, shows actor Noriyuki "Pat" Morita giving a nerdy teenager a crash course in martial arts, and within a couple of weeks the nerd manages to wallop an experienced brawler.

Fortunately for Nick, the other guys in the karate school were even nerdier than him. (The girls were tougher though.)

In fiction and movies based in Japan you can still find femmes fatales like Milton Caniff's Dragon Lady, or Asian heavies speaking in this weird language, with remarks like, "Kindly convey to your honorable employer that we expect him to show generosity to our organization, or we will most regrettably be obliged to ravish his daughter and burn his house to the ground."

As can be gleaned from any number of recent works, writers keep serving up more of the same old, same old.

Richard Setlowe's "The Sexual Occupation of Japan" (1999) echoes the Madame Butterfly, girl-he-left-behind theme. Clive Cussler's "Dragon" (1991) features yet another powerful, rightwing industrialist bent on avenging Japan's defeat in the war. Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor" (1994) has a Japanese pilot crashing a jumbo jet, kamikaze-style, into the U.S. Capitol building.

Martin Cruz Smith's "December 6" (2002, entitled "Tokyo Station" in the U.K.), moves Rick's Bar from Casablanca to Tokyo, where a rabidly nationalistic Japanese Army officer decapitates the Tokyo bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

And in Grant Blackwood's "The End of Enemies" (2001), secret agent Briggs Tanner plays yet another white Tarzan who overcomes four inept natives who attack him with switchblades and survives to make it with a cutie -- a weak rehash of Ian Fleming's 1964 novel "You Only Live Twice."

"The images of Japan portrayed in Western fiction actually preceded this country's opening to the West in the 1850s," says Charles Wordell, professor of English and American Literature at Nagoya's Nanzan University, author of a book on Japan in U.S. fiction and editor of the massive reprint series "Japan in American Fiction, 1880-1926."

"Some of the common images of Japan you see in stories today, such as powerful leaders who blend cruelty with aesthetic sensitivity, and delicate, sexually available women who live only to please men, were appearing in books as far back as the mid-19th century," Wordell says.

The really bad stories are at least good for a few laughs.

The problem is, every now and then, a writer of fiction spoils things by attempting to take up a serious issue.

"Rising Sun," Michael Crichton's bestselling novel, was one such book.

For those of you who missed this gem, it portrayed Japanese business investment in the U.S. as an insidious and sometimes murderous conspiracy. Crichton angrily rebuffed accusations of racism, but I felt his book was inflammatory and one sided.

The 1993 film starring Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes and Harvey Keitel didn't exactly win rave reviews. Rottentomatoes.com, a film review site, accords this work a remarkably low 0 percent recommendation.

I happened to attend the first preview screening here. Sitting in a theater full of Japanese who were about to watch Japan get bashed in an American film, I felt more than a little uncomfortable.

About 20 minutes or so into the film, Sean Connery visits the research facility of a major Japanese electronics firm based in southern California.

As he walks past an immaculately sculpted garden, a sign bearing the company's name, "Hamaguri Corporation," comes into view.

At this point, giggles began to emerge from the audience, which soon grew into chortles, guffaws, and finally uproarious laughter.

Hamaguri, which is a type of shellfish, is an unlikely name for a corporation: it does happen to be a familiar euphemism for the female reproductive organ.



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