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The China Loverby Ian Buruma
"[The China Lover's] pleasures derive from its cascading variations on the theme of reinvention, its multiple voices spiraling around the one real "essence" that human animals can claim — the capacity for self-transformation, the quest for new selves, the urge to live what can be imagined." Christian Caryl, the New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
A transfixing portrait of a woman and a nation eagerly burying the past to transform the future.
In his enthralling new novel, Ian Buruma uses the life of the starlet Yamaguchi Yoshiko as a lens through which to understand the lure of erotic fantasies in the conquest of nations. The China Lover reveals the catastrophic results when theater and politics blend in a lethal manner.
In her earliest days Ri KoranÂ—a Japanese girl, born in Manchuria, who sang and acted in Japanese and ChineseÂ—was forced to keep her Japanese identity a secret, to become a Manchurian singer and movie star playing Chinese beauties who fell in love with brave Japanese empire builders. In U.S.-occupied Tokyo, she returned to the screen as Yamaguchi Yoshiko, starring in films approved by American censors and designed to promote American-style democracy.
Before long, she decided to reinvent herself yet again by moving to the United States. Three months after Japan and the United States signed a peace treaty in San Francisco, Yamaguchi rededicated herself to pursuing a career in American movies, this time as Shirley Yamaguchi, playing exotic Japanese beauties falling in love with American soldiers. But she was not just the subject of male fantasies on the cinema screen. She married the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who wanted her to be the perfect traditional Japanese woman. When her many roles, in life and in film, proved impossible to reconcile, Shirley left Noguchi, retired as an actress, and married a promising young Japanese diplomat.
At the outset of the 197‛s, the life of Yamaguchi Yoshiko took another dramatic turn. As host of a Japanese television show for housewives, Yoshiko accepted an assignment in the Middle East, where she met Yassir Arafat and a prominent Palestinian terrorist. A member of her crew, affiliated with the Japanese Red Army, would return to commit a terrible crime while Yoshiko became a founding member of the Japanese- Palestinian Friendship Association, and ended her career as a politician in the right-wing ruling party of Japan.
In Burum‛s reimagining of the life of Yamaguchi Yoshiko, a Japanese torn among patriotism for her parent‛ homeland, wordly ambition, and sympathy for the Chinese, she would reflect almost exactly the twists and turns in the history of modern Japan.
"The second novel (following 1991's Playing the Game) from nonfiction specialist Buruma (Behind the Mask, etc.) is based with biographical diligence on the life of the Japanese actress known variously as Ri Koran, Yoshiko Yamaguchi and (in American films) Shirley Yamaguchi. Narrated by gay cinephile Sidney Vanoven, part one is driven by his cultural and sexual fascination with Japan, fired from the moment he arrives during America's postwar occupation. Buruma's colorful evocation of young Sidney's obsessions, which include Ri Koran, is further enlivened by Sidney's fanciful encounters with clueless visiting Americans (including a libidinous Truman Capote). Part two, set before WWII, is narrated by Sato Daisuke, whose shadowy connection to the film industry intersects over the years with Ri Koran's rise to stardom, but their story gets overwhelmed by Buruma's meticulous attention to Japan's invasion of China. Part three, set in more contemporary times, is narrated by a Japanese scriptwriter caught up in the Palestinian struggle — a story reported by an elderly Yoshiko, now host of a Japanese TV talk show. Less would have been more in this competent but overstuffed story. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
During the Japanese occupation of Manchuria from 1932 to 1945, the studios of the Manchurian Film Association produced a series of propaganda movies intended for Chinese audiences. These musicals and melodramas — invariably featuring romance between a beautiful Chinese woman and a handsome Japanese man — were huge hits in the occupied territories, and their principal box-office star was the doe-eyed... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) singer and actress best known to the Western world as Shirley Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi Yoshiko (as she was known in her early days) was born in Manchuria to Japanese parents and grew up speaking both Mandarin and Japanese. With the advantage of fluent Mandarin, in addition to good looks and a fashionable coloratura, Yamaguchi was perfectly suited to play the leading lady in a succession of movies that catapulted her to fame. She played the part so convincingly — suppressing her Japanese identity under the Chinese stage name of Li Xianglan (or Ri Koran, in the Japanese version) — that adoring audiences were totally taken in. After the Japanese surrender, she was arrested by the Chinese government and charged with collaborating with the enemy, a capital crime. Only by producing proof of her pedigree as a bona fide Japanese was she exonerated and allowed to leave for Japan. Though apparently plagued ever after by guilt for contributing to wartime deception, Yamaguchi continued on a steady path to stardom. She went on to make a few B-movies in Hollywood in the 1950s, appeared on Japanese television as a talk-show host venturing as far afield as Vietnam and Palestine, and settled into politics as a member of the Japanese diet for almost 20 years. Ian Buruma's "The China Lover" is a recreation of Yamaguchi's controversial, eventful and remarkably resilient career through the narratives of three men — one American, two Japanese — all of them confidants at different stages of her life. Sato Daisuke is a shadowy special agent for the Military Police in Mukden who has known Yamaguchi since she was a child, and is instrumental in launching her film career in the sinister police state of wartime Manchuria. Sidney Vanoven, a gay film buff from the American Midwest, gets to know Yamaguchi during the U.S. occupation of Japan, when he is part of the censorship team charged with overseeing the production of Japanese movies "to reflect the new spirit of 'individualism' and 'democracy' and 'respect for the rights of men and women.'" Sato Kenkichi is a disaffected student, drifter and soft porn filmmaker — until he is hired as a script-writer for Yamaguchi's television talk show. As a result of one of their working trips to Palestine, Kenkichi ends up a terrorist in the Japanese Red Army. All three voices belong to convincing fictional narrators, due perhaps to the fact that at least two of them appear to be based on historical figures. Sato Kenkichi is clearly Kozo Okamoto, the JRA agent who participated in the massacre at Tel Aviv's Lod airport in 1972. Sydney Vanoven bears a striking resemblance, in character and career, to Donald Richie, the renowned American Japanophile and film critic, who is credited in the author's acknowledgments. As for the cast of characters representing the Japanese film industry, they present a playful challenge to the reader trying to figure out who is really who. Indeed, half the charm of this retelling of the Shirley Yamaguchi story lies in the sly twists of fact into what may or may not be fiction. What exactly happened and when? Did the notorious Manchu princess and cross-dressing spy known as Eastern Jewel really have a relationship with the young Yamaguchi? Did the American censors' attempt to encourage kissing on the screen really lead to the first kiss in the history of Japanese cinema? And in her mature years, did Yamaguchi really sound like an "airhead out of her depth," as described by her young terrorist friend? In her Hollywood days, Yamaguchi reportedly often asked, at the mention of a celebrity, "Is he knowable?" By the end of the three different memoirs that make up "The China Lover," Shirley Yamaguchi, aka Li Xianglan, aka Ri Koran, appears to be unknowable after all — and that is just right. Our heroine is far less interesting as a person than as a personification. She is, as one of her admirers describes her, "a typical portable shrine"; and revealing how it is made has never been the point of a portable shrine. In a rare departure from his books and critical essays on film, politics, culture and current events, Buruma, a distinguished journalist-scholar and Japanophile, has crafted in "The China Lover" a fascinating fictional biography — not only of an iconic film star, but of film as an expression of a nation's culture and psyche. How fitting that he has put into practice at least two of the techniques of Japanese movie-making he mentions: "keeping a distance even in scenes of great emotion" and leaving things "open-ended, like life." Wendy Law-Yone is a Burmese-American novelist living in England. Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
In his enthralling novel, Buruma uses the life of the starlet Yamaguchi Yoshiko as a lens through which to understand the lure of erotic fantasies in the conquest of nations. "The China Lover" reveals the catastrophic results when theater and politics blend in a lethal manner.
From Shanghai before and during the Second World War to U.S.?occupied Tokyo, and, finally, to the Middle East in the early 1970s, Ian Buruma?s masterful new novel about the intoxicating power of collective fantasy follows three star-struck men driven to extraordinary acts by their devotion to the same legendary woman. A beautiful Japanese girl born in Manchuria, Yamaguchi Yoshiko is known as Ri Koran in Japan, Li Xianglan in China, and Shirley Yamaguchi in the U.S.?and her past is a closely guarded secret. In Buruma?s reimagining of the life of Yamaguchi Yoshiko, a Japanese girl torn between patriotism for her parents? homeland, worldly ambition, and sympathy for the Chinese, she will reflect almost exactly the twists and turns in the history of modern Japan. The China Lover is both luminously written and imbued with the insights and erudition that have made Ian Buruma one of the most respected writers on modern Asia.
About the Author
Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College. His previous books include Go‛s Dust, Behind the Mask, The Missionary and the Libertine, Playing the Game, The Wages of Guilt, Anglomania, Bad Elements and Murder in Amsterdam, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the Best Current Interest Book. He was awarded the 2008 Shorenstein Journalism Award, which honored him for his distinguished body of work and the 2008 Erasmus Prize.
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