Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma on Tosh Talks

Over the years, and especially going back and forth from Japan, I have read many books by fellow Americans and some British citizens on their time spent in Japan. A lot of them are crap. The ones that stand out are the ones that wrote about Japanese cinema and literature. The girls or guys who went there to get a job as an English teacher are usually not that interesting, but alas, those who are devoted to a specific Japanese artist or thinker, then yes I very much enjoy that type of book. There are two writers that I love when they write about Japan - Donald Richie and the other fellow is Ian Buruma.

Buruma wrote a fascinating book called "Behind the Mask," which is an excellent book on some of the darker elements of Japanese literature and the arts. His new book "A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir" accounts for his time spent in Japan to study cinema, but mostly the theater arts of Kara Juro, an avant-garde playwright, with his theater group in Tokyo. Similar to temperament but not precisely in style as Terayama Suiji. Buruma knew both men, and it's his unique point-of-view, due that he was a foreigner, being involved with Kara's theater group. A lot of foreign writers have written about the oddness of one being part of Japanese society, or living in Japan, and finding it alienating. But then again I think that's the nature of the Western fellow or girl. We're raised to be apart than together, and therefore lies the situation of such countries in Asia and elsewhere.

What makes this book unique for me is that I share Buruma's interest in the Japanese arts, and spending time there as well, I can identify in what he writes about, in regards of living there and appreciating the same sort of artists/writers. Also, the book is full of fascinating figures, some know and some entirely new to me. Donald Richie is a writer I know quite well through his writings in various articles (mostly in the Japan Times) as well as reading his books on Japanese cinema. His Journals are without a doubt, the classic work by him. He is a guy who knew everyone from Ozu to Mishima, and also a gay man living in Tokyo. His insights into the Japanese culture, but also his somewhat detached views are excellent observations of life around him. In that sense, he reminds me of Paul Bowles' travel writing. Buruma shares the same interest as Richie, and is also, a fantastic prose writer. His commentary on Richie, who sort of led him through Tokyo when he first arrived, is a fascinating tour of the metropolis. The second personality of interest is the Actress Yamaguchi Yoshiko. She started her career during the war years making a propaganda film in China, where she was identified as a Chinese actress. But alas, no, she's Japanese and eventually went on to star in the American Film "House Of Bamboo" directed by Sam Fuller. The book doesn't mention it, but she was also married to the artist Isamu Noguchi. Yamaguchi eventually became a member of the Japanese parliament for 18 years and had a TV show where she focused on and interviewed such characters as Mao, Idi Amin, and Kim Il-sung.

"A Tokyo Romance" is a book full of fascinating people, and Buruma himself is interesting because he is also an individual who is half-Dutch and half-English, so he's very much a bi-cultural, or maybe at this point, since he lives in New York City now, a tri-cultural figure. With his background, he has an understanding of what it's like to be in a culture that is very singular in focus and design. A classic book on Japan, but also a rare text in English on the world of Terayama and Kara Juro.

-Tosh Berman

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