Many modern people have probably formed their idea of romantic love through the popular arts. We know from Jane Austen novels that marrying for love is an idea that preceded Hollywood, but people still wed for many other reasons, including simple companionship, convenience and money. Nevertheless, love is the only one they will admit to.
Those few who reject romance out of hand are considered so strange as to be practically extraterrestrial. In the hit movie “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which has just opened in Japan, the title character, a guy named Andy, has passed through four decades on this planet without once going to bed with anyone. But he’s not miserable or misanthropic. He is perfectly happy in his celibacy until his friends find out about it and convince him that he has to have sex in order to find fulfillment as a guy.
The movie’s jokes are generated by the contrast between our media-fueled obsession with sex and Andy’s disinterest in it. In the end, the filmmakers decide to have him fall in love anyway, which, given the boldness of the movie’s comic premise, feels like a cop-out. What’s more transgressive than a man who doesn’t pursue love, not because he’s psychologically deficient or a misogynist, but because he really isn’t interested?
This idea is the premise behind “Kekkon Dekinai Otoko” (Fuji, Tuesday, 10 p.m.), one of the summer’s most popular drama series. The title translates as “The Man Who Couldn’t Marry,” but a more apt title is “The Man Who Wouldn’t Marry.”
Hiroshi Abe plays Shinsuke Kuwano, a successful 40-year-old architect who has decided to never get hitched. Unlike Andy, Kuwano isn’t an innocent. He’s a slightly cynical, somewhat patronizing man-of-means who simply enjoys coming home to an empty apartment. He likes cooking good meals for himself and keeping his apartment tidy, and is particular about what he wears, though his predilection for striped polo shirts might indicate he isn’t as mature as he thinks he is.
Still, he’s an odd one, and it’s a measure of Abe’s comic skills that Kuwano’s eccentricities are funny and endearing in spite of his off-putting condescension. Though Kuwano isn’t as caustic as the obsessive-compulsive romance novelist played by Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” like Nicholson’s character he says exactly what he thinks regardless of the effect it will have on his interlocutor. In Japan, where social niceties are considered paramount, that makes him a misfit of the first order.
Nonetheless, it’s important that he be endearing because otherwise there would be no credible reason for women to be attracted to him, and thus no romantic undercurrent to move the plot along. During the course of the series, Kuwano draws the attention of several women. The closest to him is Maya Sawasaki (Reiko Takashima), a housing professional who steers business his way and acts as a kind of buffer since Kuwano’s manner is so abrupt that on those occasions where he has to meet clients by himself he invariably drives them away.
The main romantic possibility is hospital physician Natsumi Hayasaka (Yui Natsukawa), whose own slightly eccentric interests (pachinko, horror movies, manga coffee shops) are presented as the most likely reason for her still being single at the age of 36. The difference, of course, is that the doctor is a woman and in the universe of the TV drama, women are constitutionally inclined toward marriage. Kuwano has no inclinations, only obsessions: classical music, building plastic models, and red meat at every meal — which explains why he visits Dr. Hayasaka so regularly.
There is a larger social context to “Kekkon Dekinai Otoko.” According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the percentage of unmarried Japanese between the ages of 35 and 39 increased from 7.5 in 1990 to 18.6 in 2005. Normally, when the media cite such numbers they focus on unmarried women, who are thought to be the holdouts. The most interesting aspect of “Kekkon” is that it presents a compelling example of a male holdout. Kuwano is a mature man dedicated to his single life not because he hates women or wants to play the field indefinitely, but because he prefers his own company to that of anyone else. He’s the 21st century cognate of Henry Higgins, the snooty linguistics professor who tutored the Cockney flower girl in “My Fair Lady.”
The least credible aspect of the series is that sex isn’t even alluded to. That’s why Abe is so vital to its success. Originally a fashion model, the actor is tall and classically handsome. And while he occasionally takes conventional leading-man roles, he’s made more of an impression working against type. In the tradition of the Grants, Cary and Hugh, Abe has developed a personal comic style that denatures his intimidating good looks and, in the process, makes him more likable. When Kuwano tears into a steak with clumsy gusto or turns up the speed on the treadmill at the gym to an unhealthy sprint, you laugh because of the gulf that opens up between his haughty self-image and the ridiculous sight on your TV screen. It’s Abe’s peculiar gift to embody this timeless contrast with such effortless slapstick grace.
In the process, it becomes easy to appreciate Kuwano’s self-regard, even when it’s delusional. However, we’ll have to wait until the final episode on Sept. 19 to find out if “Kekkon Dekinai Otoko” will buck convention. Tradition says that, like Prof. Higgins in “My Fair Lady” (though not in “Pygmalion,” the play on which it’s based), Kuwano will forfeit his bachelorhood. At this point in the series, he has already found that he can cohabitate with a dog. Can a woman be far behind?