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Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004

WEEK 3

Drawing on love

The "Da-rin" books detailing a couple's quirky ways are a publishing marriage made in heaven


Staff writer

She is a Japanese manga artist with a piercingly sharp eye for human traits and foibles. He is an American writer and language buff who can chat with equal ease in four languages. Together, they make for a magnetic -- not to say a "mangaetic" -- couple.

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Tony Laszlo and Saori Ogura

That's because for Saori Oguri and Tony Laszlo (above), their life together has also spawned a side-splitting comic-book series which, in two volumes, has recently topped the million-sales mark.

In the first of the books, "Da-rin wa Gaikokujin" (which means, "My Darling Is a Foreigner"), 37-year-old Oguri turned her life with 44-year-old Tony into a hilarious read.

Published in December 2002, "Da-rin" depicts Tony as a sensitive, naive and reflective guy with markedly chiseled features.

In one episode, bearded Tony is so emotionally affected by seeing a bus fly through the air off the middle of a broken highway in the action film "Speed" (only to miraculously land on the unbroken other side) that he has to get up and lean against the wall for a while "to soften" the shock. Meanwhile, Saori comes across as an articulate, no-nonsense type -- a spouse Tony had no chance of shifting when she'd decided to buy two luxurious 200 yen buns at a bakery, despite him urging her to just get one 100 yen bag (with two buns in it) to save money.

"But what if we died tomorrow?" she retorts, her eyes narrowing into fiery slits. Next moment, she's morphed into a woman on her deathbed, a worn-out futon -- whispering feebly from between sunken cheeks: "I . . . wanted to eat that 200 yen bun . . . "

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In this episode, titled "Garasu No Kokoro" (A Fragile Heart), Saori gets mean and decides to scare her husband. Tony looks horrified as she tells him about how divers' eardrums can rupture, and how they can lose their sense of direction and dive deeper when they are really trying desperately to get to the surface. Tony nearly faints. Saori then says: "Tony! You poor thing! You are so hurt ... you look so sad ..." Then the next moment, she mischeivously starts telling him about some birds in the Galapagos Islands that peck at other birds and drink their blood.

Talking recently with the couple at a trendy cafe near their home in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, that same comical chemistry came to life from the pages of their book, with Tony waxing lyrical and reflective while his wife, in total contrast, cut straight to the chase.

Their first encounter dates back to 1995, when Saori volunteered to help at an event organized by a nongovernmental group that Tony had founded. Which one of them first had a crush on the other is a bone of contention, with each claiming the other was the first to look him/her in the eye.

Tiffs over 'subtleties'

But anyway they clicked, started dating, and eventually got married. Although the book describes their budding relationship humorously, it was rocky at first, Saori said. That wasn't just because Tony hails from the United States and has Hungarian and Italian parents, or just because Saori grew up in Japan. The tiffs came from differences in "subtleties" -- like feeling that the efforts you've made to adjust to the other went unrecognized.

It was Noriko Matsuda, an editor at the Tokyo-based publisher Media Factory, who persuaded Saori, her older sister's friend, to create a comic book based on the couple's life. Matsuda had been a longtime fan of Saori, whose style before "Da-rin" had been relatively low-key, often allied to serious story lines and with dramatically different graphics from "Da-rin," featuring lots of gorgeous girls and guys.

After she agreed to rise to Matsuda's challenge, Saori drew the first volume of the book in just six weeks -- from October 2002 -- after taking time off from a series she was doing for a comic magazine.

Riding the success of the first "Da-rin," whose total print run is now up to 550,000 copies, Saori came up with a sequel, simply titled "My Darling Is a Foreigner 2," which was published in March.

Initially, the books were targeted at cross-culturally married couples. But they have turned out to have a much wider public appeal.

Nonetheless, the scale of the books' success -- with a combined 1.03 million copies printed so far (for which Saori receives 10 percent royalties for every one sold) raises the question of whether its popularity is connected to the rising number of Japanese getting hitched to non-Japanese (36,039 in 2003, up from 26,657 a decade ago, according to official statistics). Or does it mean that more Japanese are finally embracing multiculturalism -- or at least feeling obliged to tune into the English-speaking world?

According to Matsuda, the book's success has little to do with any of that.

"Whether you marry a Japanese or a foreigner, marriage, at the end of the day, is about living with someone else," she said. "And readers probably resonated with the author's message, which is, if you try to understand each other better, it makes life so much more enjoyable."

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Tony's chiseled features become a subject of serious studies here, with his wife Saori calling his tear duct the "Tony Canyon" and attempting to measure its depth. Tony resists. Saori goes on to wonder whether, if her features were as chiseled as his, her field of vision would change.

Saori agrees that it's not the theme of "international marriage" that has fueled the "Da-rin" boom. In fact more than 70 percent of the 60 to 100 postcard responses she gets from readers every month are from Japanese married to Japanese, she said -- or from Japanese who are single.

Long after the book's publication, there was one significant other whose opinion Saori was denied. Tony stopped himself from reading it, because he didn't want to get caught up in all the hype.

Characteristically, though, when he did recently delve between its covers, he minutely examined its every detail. That was after contracts were signed for an as yet untitled English-Japanese bilingual version of the first book -- and Tony was assigned as the translator. Now, he faces the daunting task of ensuring that all its many jokes and entertaining nuances equally successfully bridge the linguistic -- and cultural -- divide.

"I trust him," Saori said. Then she turned to him with just a hint of intimidation in her tone, and said: "I'm counting on you, really."

Keys to cohabitation

So just what are the keys to enjoying living with someone else?

"Talk a lot with each other, but don't meddle in the other's business," Oguri replied directly and without hesitation. "I want him to clean up his stuff, but I don't tell him persistently."

I asked for Tony's input. He paused, then started talking -- in impeccable and soft-spoken Japanese -- about the limitations of space in big cities and how it is important for a couple to secure enough living space to avoid needless conflict with each other.

"To overcome the shortage of space, you should learn how to put things upward, instead of sideways," he said. "It's been some 15 years since I came to Japan, but it's still hard to master that. In Japan, stereos and other electronic appliances are all stacked up . . . "

"Everyone is doing it," Saori cut in. "You're trying to justify your inability to clean up, aren't you?"

"And it's important not to interrupt someone when they're speaking," he continued.

Saori sighed, as Tony went on to stress at length the importance of community support in a disaster-rich nation like Japan. Eventually, though, his orbit brought him back to the area of relationships.

"It would be nice if you could be flexible so that you can adjust to your partner, while at the same time retaining your solid, individual self," he opined.

"Yes, flexibility is necessary," Saori concurred in an ever-so-slightly un-"Da-rin" way.



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