THE SEXUAL OCCUPATION OF JAPAN

By Richard Setlowe

HarperCollins. 309 pp. $24.

Reviewed by Janice P. Nimura

Recession in Japan has sent the glittering-eyed Tokyo executive the way of the KGB spymaster: Both have lost their power to chill American spines. In his fourth novel, Richard Setlowe turns the tables. His hero, Peter Saxon, is a Los Angeles lawyer representing a powerhouse entertainment conglomerate. Saxon's delicate mission is to convince the Kuribayashi Electric Industrial Company to join his company's bid to "take over the world" by dominating the market for high-definition television, thus becoming the leading entertainment and communications giant -- the "first Japanese-American keiretsu." Translation: For the first time, Americans would take a controlling interest in a major Japanese company.

If only Setlowe had stuck to this, sketching an epochal shift in Japan-U.S. relations on a taut fictional canvas. His ear for characterization is sharp enough and his grasp of the technology fluent enough to make it work. Instead, as his unsubtle title makes clear, this is another novel preoccupied with the legacy of Madame Butterfly: a familiar romantic tragedy of strapping Western soldier and heartbreakingly beautiful Japanese ingenue, with an implied subtext of seething, emasculated Japanese manhood. Seen in these terms, the emergence of Japan's captains of industry from the ashes of World War II has been one long act of focused and sustained revenge on Americans, starting with Gen. MacArthur.

So the future of global communications is given short shrift, and we cut quickly from the boardroom to the home of a top Kuribayashi executive, where Saxon is transfixed by the man's elegant wife, Michiko Hara. Her soft laughter echoes in his memory "like old chimes." Flashback to 1964, when Saxon was a navy pilot based in Tokyo, flying reconnaissance missions over Vietnam. He had a girlfriend then, a bar hostess who called herself Lilli and dazzled him with her "subtle lush dark beauty." Lilli once showed him an antique dagger that her mother had carried to protect her virtue in anticipation of the American invasion in World War II. Back from dinner with the Haras, Saxon opens the door of his room at the Imperial Hotel to find a set of male genitalia pinned to it with an eerily similar knife.

What follows is a cliche-driven cat-and-mouse chase, with Saxon staying a step ahead of a pair of Yakuza thugs hired by right-wing nationalists fiercely opposed to any Japanese collaboration with U.S. business. The nuances of negotiation degenerate into a comic strip: Super-Saxon against the evil Oriental Protectionists. "Remember, despite their London-tailored suits, the high tech, the rock 'n' roll, you're still the foreign devil in a devilish place," counsels one of Saxon's stateside advisers, and Saxon nods along without a trace of irony, despite his supposed sensitivity to Japanese mores.

Meanwhile, we are treated to more flashbacks of Saxon and Lilli in the '60s, barhopping and jitterbugging and trading intimate glimpses of themselves meant to set their affair apart from the classic pattern. They are often joined by Saxon's buddy Tommy Cochran, who fascinates the girls with the "dark, moody, poetic outbursts to which the Irish are often wont after a few belts." Setlowe excuses the bad-movie elements of the scene by asking, "How do you translate another time, another world to the politically correct sensitivities of the millennium?" He wouldn't have to translate if he stopped speaking in stereotypes.

Behind the static of memory -- Saxon's close shave behind enemy lines in Vietnam, Cochran's own graphically tragic romance, the "black glossy feathers" of Lilli's hair -- and the distraction of sword-wielding assassins in the present, Setlowe weaves in a thread that deserves foreground treatment and doesn't really get it. "Here in the East," says a wise man whose identity would spoil the plot, "the truth is the way something must be to satisfy your obligations. And spiritually, the truth makes you who you ought to be, and not, in the factual Western perspective, who you are." It's a philosophy with Confucian roots: Fulfill your role, and you will be fulfilled. It has important ramifications for American interactions with Japan and the rest of Asia. Here, philosophy is shouted down by melodrama, and poor Lilli gets lines like "My pain has made me more Japanese. Your pain has made you more American."

But melodrama isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially in the summer. As melodrama, The Sexual Occupation of Japan has plenty going for it: nonstop action, accurate local color, old loves and secret wounds. And if we pick up a few useful tidbits about Japan along the way, so much the better.

Janice P. Nimura is a writer and editor in New York.