Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The China Lover

One of my blog readers who wishes to remain Anonymous (to go along with all the other Anonymice who inhabit my blog comments, no doubt) has sent me this review of Ian Buruma's The China Lover (one of those nice books Pansing passed to me!) :
Ian Buruma has been watching and writing about Asia for decades, and his non-fiction works are some of the best in the market, if you’re interested in Japan and China. The China Lover is Buruma’s second novel, written in his spare, reportage style, and is based on the true story of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, a movie star in the Manchurian film industry during the 1930s and ‘40s.

To soften the impact of the Japanese Imperial Army’s vicious acts in Manchuria as the officers and soldiers go about looting the country and killing and raping its people, the propaganda office of the army decides to produce films to portray the unity of Japanese, Chinese and Manchurian cultures. Ri Koran, a young Japanese girl born in China, is chosen to star in these films, and in the first part of the book we see her discovery and rise through the eyes of Saito Daisuke, film buff, Sinophile and Japanese spy, who has affairs with, among others, the famous Manchurian princess and spy, Eastern Jewel.

Ri Koran stars in a series of films, and the songs she sings in them – “China Dreams”, “If Only” – become huge hits in China and Japan. But when the Communists take over China, she is captured and sentenced to death.

The second part of the book is narrated by film-mad Sydney Vanoven, a homosexual young man sent to post war Japan as a film censor (Japanese films are prohibited from showing any ‘feudal values’ : no sword fights, no relationships reminding the defeated nation of its martial past. Instead they are to have Western values – ‘democracy’, ‘respect for the rights of men and women’ and ‘baseball’). Vanoven also meets Ri Koran, who has now reverted to her Japanese name of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and we are told how she escaped her death sentence. Post war Japan is described with conviction, and as Sydney cruises for Japanese men, visits film sets and attends parties, various famous names make subdued cameos: Akira Kurosawa, Frank Capra, Truman Capote, Toshiro Mifune. Yoshiko Yamaguchi changes her name to Shirley Yamaguchi and tries to become a movie star in America, with limited success, and the friendship between her and Sydney slowly dies.

The last part of the book is related by Sato, a member of the Japanese Red Army captured in Beirut after a failed terrorist attempt to assassinate a Jewish scientist. Sato was once the cameraman for Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who retired from acting to turn her talents to television, as the interviewer in a current affairs program for Japanese housewives.

Buruma is a good writer, but The China Lover shows that he is unable to get away from his talents as a non-fiction writer. A film buff himself, Buruma has packed his novel is packed with details about the pre-and post-war Japanese film industry. The book contains interesting trivia on Japanese living, history, and eating habits, and yet lacks spark to bring it alive. We’ve also seen more than once that novels told from three viewpoints seldom work, but in this instance this over-used literary gimmick is saved by the fact that, thankfully, the three parts of the book don’t focus on the same events, but actually advance the story through the different periods of Japanese history.

For a well-known Japanophile writer like Buruma, it is interesting to note that the section which comes alive the most is when Sydney Vanoven narrates, whereas the two sections told by the Japanese narrators feel detached and are similar in tone and voice. In the end we are unaware who the ‘China Lover’ refers to: the three men, or even Ri Koran/Yoshiko Yamaguchi/Shirley Yamaguchi herself, who, with her na├»ve dreams of bringing peace to all nations, ends up a pawn used by the militarists, the post-war American army, and finally even her own corrupt democratic Japanese government.
My great thanks, Anon, for this review. Anyone else like to contribute one??


Anonymous said...

It was a fair exchange - I took the book so in return as agreed did the review :-))


- Anonymous China Lover reviewer.

Anonymous said...

My late mother was a fan of Ri Koran/Li Xiang Lan and I could still remember her songs that I heard as a child. I watched the Japanese TV drama in 2007 about her life. She is still alive, I think. I have yet to read the book by Ian Buruma.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous whose mother was a Ri Koran Fan - that's interesting! You should try Ian Buruma's book. He based it on Yamaguchi's own biography.

- China Lover reviewer