Socrates in Love
 Kyoichi Katayama, Akemi Wegmuller (translator)
Language: English Release: 2008
Publisher: Viz Media Pages: 174
Genre: Fiction ISBN: 1421513927

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Nicholas Driscoll

Socrates in Love is a book with a big reputation. Originally published in Japan in 2001 under the title Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (or Sekai no Chuushin de, Ai o Sakebu), it eventually went on to become the best-selling novel of all time in that nation, spawning a blitz of further media adaptations, including a comic adaptation, a television drama, and two different movie adaptations, one of them produced in Korea. I first encountered the Japanese movie version and, not realizing what a phenomenon it was, largely dismissed it as an overly-melancholy, but otherwise unremarkable tearjerker. Upon learning of its considerable money-making pedigree and phenomenal popularity, I became curious about the book itself, and why on earth it was titled Socrates in Love in America, since there was certainly no Greek philosopher present to pine over a pretty paramour.

The story is simple enough. From the very start we know that the girl dies, as we find teenage Sakutaro weeping over her loss on the very first page. Not that there was anything particularly remarkable about his relationship with his fellow teen, cute and popular Aki Hirose, except that they were very close, classmates and class leaders together for a time before falling into gooshy, emotionally dependent love with each other, and engaging in a series of pseudo-philosophical conversations about the meaning of life, the reality (or lack thereof) of God, and the existence of heaven. All of this supposedly heady conversation is made much more urgent and applicable upon the discovery of a life-threatening strain of leukemia alive in Aki's blood. As Aki's life ebbs away, Sakutaro struggles to bring a few of her dreams true before she dies, and also attempts to find direction in his own life after spending the last several years deriving all meaning in existence from his relationship with his precious girlfriend.

While reading Socrates in Love, I was amazed at how many significant changes had been made to the story when it was adapted to film; for such a high-profile and exceedingly popular story, I would have expected the filmmakers to carefully adhere to the novel's plot for fear of alienating the fans. Not so. Although both versions are told largely in flashback, in the movie Sakutaro is an adult with a career and a new girlfriend but is still in love with his long-dead former girlfriend Aki, whereas in the novel narrator-Saku is still a teen mourning the fresh loss of his love. In the movie Saku and Aki's relationship blossoms slowly; in the book, once romance is sparked, they grow close very quickly. In the movie version, a large portion of the story and much of the character building is quite effectively achieved through cassette tapes that Sakutaro and Aki swap as sort of a series of aural love letters; the cassettes weren't in the novel at all, and I missed them. In the movie Aki knew about her leukemia even before she started dating Sakutaro, whereas in the book Sakutaro learns about the disease first. The list goes on and on; I can just imagine the fan outcry, even though the movie version did very well. In retrospect, I think some of the changes in the movie improved on the story; most notably the cassette tapes and the more leisurely development of their affections. On the other hand, making Sakutaro a morose, depressed adult still pining over Aki in the film version years after her passing, I think, was a mistake. Though in both stories there is an idealization of "love forever" even past the death of the paramour, the movie portrays that love as an obsession while championing his outlook, and it's never clear if Sakutaro quite recovers even in the end. I like how the book handles those themes better, and I prefer the sense of hope that the book maintains.

As far as the actual characterizations of Sakutaro and Aki go, in the novel Sakutaro is something of a passionate individual, irreverent, often insensitive. He likes to say inappropriate things just for the reaction. (The movie Sakutaro is more subdued, even shy.) Aki, meanwhile, is pensive and introspective, taking on a stereotypical "pure" female character that is often seen in Japanese fiction—she doesn't want to have sex with Saku, she's sensitive to people's needs, always kind, etc. Her strength of character sets things up for what is supposed to be a more emotionally impactful death, the loss of a perfect flower. (In the movie, Aki is more flirtatious, even seductive, at one point asking Sakutaro if he can feel her breasts as she presses up against him.) Sakutaro, meanwhile, is often very selfish, getting so caught up in his infatuation with Aki that nothing else matters to him. Aki is slightly more level-headed; she is the one who leads Sakutaro into conversations about God, heaven, the meaning of true love, and other "deep" topics.

That's where the book's puzzling title comes in. As author Katayama explains in a brief afterword, he had originally meant for his book to be titled Socrates in Love because he wanted to write about how love is an impetus for serious thought. Thus, Sakutaro, who is naturally selfish and immature, goes through a relationship that forces him to reconsider his understanding of the world both through his love for someone outside of himself and via the earth-shattering event of her death. (It's possible that Sakutaro is actually loosely based on Socrates. Although both in the movie and the novel, people try to guess the source of the protagonist's name, the most popular suspicion being that he was named after poet Sakutaro Hagiwara, he never actually confirms this.) I admire Katayama for making an attempt to write a novel with a little more depth than just celebrating the heady emotions of romance. However, the "philosophy" contained in his novel is never particularly complicated and rarely very interesting. Aki (and Sakutaro's grandfather) are presented as voices of wisdom. Aki believes there is no heaven; by her estimation, heaven is a figment created by people unsettled by the prospect of death. (Eventually she decides there must be a heaven, although she seems to just mean that being with Sakutaro is heaven by itself.) She believes there is a god of some sort, but has little conception of what that means or why there should be a deity. Sakutaro is too dull-witted to have much of an opinion on any of this, and when his grandfather pitches in, he more or less supports Aki's fragmented beliefs. When the young couple discusses how Saku's grandfather was likely having an adulterous relationship with his true love, Aki finds such a concept romantic and desirable; being true to one's feelings trumps marital fidelity as long as no one "gets hurt," if that were possible. I never felt that her worldview was especially cohesive or particularly useful outside of promoting some forms of selflessness. Katayama seemed most interested in exploring the central issues of life lightly, in a manner calculated to induce an emotional payoff rather than intellectual satisfaction.

In serving that emotional catharsis, the plot has been constructed to manipulate, setting up a series of unlikely events to underscore the central theme of inevitable death. In a particularly unrealistic event, Sakutaro inadvertently predicts Aki's disease by sending in a letter to a radio contest early during their acquaintance. In the letter, Sakutaro describes Aki, who at that point is still perfectly healthy, as a fellow student stricken with leukemia, all in a bid to play on the radio broadcaster's sympathies and win a prize. Aki chastises Sakutaro, and Sakutaro registers for the first time that she really is a girl, and thus presumably a potential locus of his affections. However, it wouldn't be until later that her physical charms really overtake his senses—at a funeral. With the subtlety of a 747 through the window, Katayama sets up a love ignited and snuffed by death, and continues to pour it on when Sakutaro's grandfather talks of his one true love, a woman who married another man. Circumstances denied them each other, and so Gramps married someone else. Thus the two star-crossed lovers pined after each other, hoping their significant others would hurry up and croak so they could be together. (I'm not making this up.) Ah, but alas, in a land where the women have life expectancies significantly longer than the men, both Gramps' wife and his true love die before he does, and so the old man does the only sensible thing—he recruits Sakutaro to help him rob her grave so that, one day, after Gramps dies, Sakutaro can have the privilege of mixing their ashes together so thus fulfill his dreams at last. Katayama simply stacks up event after morbid event in an attempt to steer reader sympathies and force tears, but the story comes out feeling more than a little absurd after reflection.

Something should be said about the translation. This is the first translated book I've attempted to review, and for the most part translator Akemi Wegmuller (who also translated the Kamikaze Girls novel) does a decent job. Socrates in Love reads easily most of the time, although there are a few stumbles. Most noticeable are a number of conversations in which it becomes unclear who is speaking. For some reason, rarely does the text employ "Aki said" or "Sakutaro said," relying instead on context that isn't clear enough by itself to instantly distinguish between the two. The reason that such overt labeling of the dialogue was avoided may stem from the Japanese language; in Japanese, there are words, phrases, and ways of speaking that are easily identifiable as male or female, so it may have been immediately plain who was speaking in the original Japanese even without "Sakutaro said." Nevertheless, in English, more direct clarity is needed.

Socrates in Love is a lot like a similar American novel sensation that took place back in the seventies—Erich Segal's Love Story. Both books center on tragic romances ending with the beautiful young lady perishing by disease, and both try to push forward some odd ideas, whether about pseudo-philosophy/religion like in Socrates in Love, or the unfortunate catchphrase from Love Story: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Both stories have their merits on the level of light romantic entertainment, but neither is particularly special except in their acceptance into pop culture superstardom. That said, I gleaned some minor enjoyment from Socrates in Love, and because of its phenomenal success, it is worth reading simply as a window into what the Japanese general reading public like to consume.