Audrey Hepburn’s Neck offers perspective and an out of the ordinary insight into modern Japan and its wartime past, a clever study of cross-cultural obsessions, of erotic, romantic, and familial love.
It tells the story through the eyes of a young Japanese cartoonist, Toshi Okamoto. Toshi traces his intense attraction to Western women back to his ninth birthday when his estranged mother took him to see Audrey Hepburn in the movie “Roman Holiday.” Traditionally in Japanese culture, the nape of a woman’s neck as it disappears below her kimono collar is an important beauty point of attraction in Japanese women. It is at this moment in the film that Toshi spies Audrey’s neck, indelibly marking his view of women and sending a surge of stimulation to his developing attraction to women and driving a latent fascination for foreign culture and its influences.
Toshi grows to boy-manhood and leaves behind his childhood, spent living in two rooms above the family noodle shop on an isolated peninsula in far-flung Hokkaido, and moves to Tokyo to pursue his career as a cartoonist. In Tokyo, his fascination is given a feast of influence with connection to three Americans. The first is his best friend and confidante, the generous and extroverted Paul, a gay advertising copywriter who seems in constant state romantic mishaps with Japanese men. He falls under the spell of Jane, to his naïve eyes, a somewhat glamorous (but emotionally unstable) teacher at his eikaiwa school, the Very Romantic English Academy, and with whom Toshi has a hazardous sexual affair. And, finally, the calm and collected, lovely and talented composer, Lucy, with whom Toshi falls in love.
The novel moves smoothly back and forth between present and past, intermittently starkly real then as surreal as any David Lynch film, Toshi explores his unhappy childhood, the reasons behind his mother’s unexplained abandonment when he was eight years old, and her move to a seaside inn across the peninsula. The story is enriched by its setting against a backdrop cascade of events typifying. Japanese struggle to reconcile it’s past and traditions with the modern world. The sudden anti-Western sentiment, an oil shock, the death of the Emperor, that brings past and present together, revealing the painful truth of Toshi’s parents’ lives during World War II, and as it draws to a close, the shattering revelation of Toshi’s own past that reconciling his fascination for all things foreign, in the end, imbuing in him the strength and knowledge to confront the future.
This is Alan Brown’s first novel and I dare say a somewhat insightful and fun ride from beginning to end. It is one of the few novels set in Japan written by a foreign resident that simply tells an honest and at the same time rather captivating tale without trying to present the author as some kind of authority on Japan.