Review of "A Tokyo Romance," by Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma’s A Tokyo Romance is a memoir of both his own callow youth and the sophisticated provincialism endemic to Japan in the 1970s. It is a triumphal narrative of how determination, charm, readiness and linguistic fluency allowed the author to penetrate one of the world’s most insular societies, beginning as an enthusiast for the country’s avant-garde culture and ultimately becoming part of that culture, performing as the Midnight Cowboy with Kara Juro’s Situation Theater (Jokyo Gekijo). The book describes the highly original theater and cinema being produced in Japan at a time when Western critics dismissed non-Western enterprises — a tendency now reversed, as demonstrated a few years ago by the immense popularity of the “Gutai: Splendid Playground” show at the Guggenheim, which celebrated Japanese art of the 1950s and ’60s. A Tokyo Romance is a bildungsroman written with a winning mix of nostalgic bravado and judicious self-deprecation. It is very much set in Tokyo, but it is about romance — about how some people locate their identity by immersing themselves unreservedly in a context that is deeply strange to them. Buruma reports on Japan’s elegiac theatricality with a certain Dutch bluntness and the result is a book that is luscious and precise.
Buruma went to Japan in 1975 to escape “garden sprinklers, club ties, bridge parties and the sound of tennis balls in summer.” Travel is itself a form of youthful romance. Armed with a few introductions and a scholarship to study Japanese cinema, he arrived in a city of such exuberant density that it fairly took his breath away. He was a foreigner — a gaijin — an identity that came with both privileges and limitations, and Buruma liked the limitations as much as the privileges. “I always felt drawn to outsiders,” he writes. “But outsiders … form their own exclusive groups. I could pass, but I would not commit. Hovering on the fringes was where I liked to be.” Having grown up half British-Jewish and half Dutch-Protestant in the Netherlands, Buruma was something of a chameleon long before he reached Japan. “From an early age,” he writes, “I was used to seeing cultural behavior as a kind of performance.” He describes the method of his performance more than its subject; he never hoped to become Japanese, but having felt like an outsider in the country where he was raised, he was more appropriately an outsider in Japan. His story is in the mode of James Merrill’s lovely A Different Person, a plaintive account of coming of age by going abroad. It explores similar issues of sexuality, art and friendship with a similar tone of gentle humor and wry retrospect.
Buruma spent large amounts of time in theaters and particularly at the National Film Center, where he met an odd cast of characters. In one of his characteristic aperçus, he observes, “There is something a little creepy about film buffs living the imaginary lives of others vicariously in the dark.” But he established a fond, nodding relationship with the others who haunted those particular halls. Buruma liked both high culture and low culture, and the two rubbed elbows in his Japan more than in a Western context. He went gamely from radical theater to so-called Roman porno, a sophisticated kind of sex film, to the Human Pump, who spit out goldfish in color sequences, to the sideshow girl who bit off the heads of live chickens.
This is a book about a preglobal world, one in which Japan was somehow undiscovered. You couldn’t go into or be received in today’s Japan with such innocence.
Buruma recounts the decadent sensuality of Japanese life at the fringe, in some places evoking Donald Richie’s underrated novel Tokyo Nights and its taxonomy of the seamier side of life in the Japanese capital. Buruma was in Richie’s circle in Tokyo and writes about him as an exemplar of a willing Orientalism in which Buruma himself came to participate. “I cannot imagine wanting to immerse oneself in another culture without feeling a sensual pull,” Buruma writes. “Japan certainly had an erotic frisson for me. … This is not easy to explain. It was not just about the way people look, although that was part of it, but about the peculiar mixture of desire and propriety, abandon and decorum, or what the writer Arthur Koestleronce described in a book about Japan as stoic hedonism.” And that is perhaps the best descriptor for Buruma’s own earnest, youthful engagement with pleasure in his chosen locale. There is a touch of the erotic throughout his exegesis, but there is also a feeling of linguistic and cultural diligence, of the author’s effort to learn this new place.
The Australian poet Harold Stewart once opined that the Japanese have a remarkable sense of the beautiful and no sense of the ugly, and anyone who has ridden from Narita Airport into Tokyo will know what he means. But it was the deliberately ugly that engaged Buruma, that felt so daring. Angry and chaotic radicalism is not generally charming, but Buruma’s rather wistful recollection of a Japanese avant-garde that believed “authenticity lay in deliberate ugliness” has an endemic quaintness, as though the revolutionary edge had been a youthful excess rather than the loud manifestation of a country’s urgent attempt to repair its bruised postwar identity. In fact, Buruma is reserved on war history, and says little of the legacy of the bomb, except to observe that Japan’s masculinity had been compromised by defeat. This is a book about a preglobal world, one in which Japan was somehow undiscovered. You couldn’t go into or be received in today’s Japan with such innocence.
Buruma has a knack for descriptive detail. In his eyes, Kara, the director of the Situation Theater, is “short and thickset, like a sturdy peasant, with the soft baby-face of a Japanese Orson Welles, a face that contained the sweetness as well as the cruelty of an overimaginative child.” Kara’s wife, Ri, is “a tough Korean-Japanese beauty with a gravelly voice and the pout of a tropical fish.” In his relationship to Kara, Buruma became literally an actor, but in some sense he already was one. Buruma returns to the theme of performance over and over again, explaining, “There are moments when the performer in a foreign language feels that he is leaving something of himself behind, or, to put it differently, that the foreign language is just a mask, concealing something more real, whatever that something may be.” Or else: “Knowingness still came more easily to me than the potential sting of experience. Life still felt more like a performance.” And: “Mimicking Japanese figures of speech … sometimes made me feel like an actor in real life.”
“Living in a society, to whose customs and norms one is not expected to conform, gives the outsider a radical kind of autonomy. But the point of this is not to rebel against the norms of the country one has chosen to live in, but of those one has left behind.”
He performed the role of the gaijin he was. The fact that his final glory days in Japan involved becoming something of a professional actor seems like justice served. It was in his collaboration with Kara that he came closest to being an insider, but he didn’t have much knack for it. He describes being on the bus with the troupe as they went from town to town to pitch their red tent. He was reading Dickens and the others were socializing. It was not until one of them came over and said, “Why are you reading a book? … You’re not really used to traveling in a group, are you?” that he had any sense of his error.
What was the point of all this performance? “Living in a society, to whose customs and norms one is not expected to conform, gives the outsider a radical kind of autonomy. But the point of this is not to rebel against the norms of the country one has chosen to live in, but of those one has left behind.” Buruma went to Tokyo to find the romance of Japanese culture, and he found it. In a time when the country’s public image abroad consisted largely of manufacturing and geisha girls, he located an avant-garde culture and entered it fully, unafraid of drunken excess then and unafraid of recalling it now. Some of the results are comical. The image of Ian Buruma clad only in a “tiny scarlet jockstrap” in a dance performance may raise an eyebrow at The New York Review of Books, where he is now the editor, but he treats his old self with a sort of avuncular geniality, as though to say, “Yes, we are foolish when we are young, but oh, how lovely it all was.”