Ian Buruma is a professor at Bard. His new book, Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War, was published in January. (April 2016)

In the Capital of Europe

Belgian soldiers posing for a photograph while patrolling the Grand Place, Brussels, December 24, 2015
Brussels is rather chaotic, a political mess of nineteen different municipal districts, each with its own public authorities competing for funds, with an uncoordinated police force prone to conspicuous failures, and different political parties, linked to different language groups, operating their own more or less corrupt systems of patronage.

Lost in China’s Exploding Future

Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart tells the story of Tao, a bouncy young woman caught in a love triangle between two suitors who represent different faces of modern China. It is superb at catching the changing moods of his country in poetic, frequently wordless, and often absurd images.

French Love for Sale

Jean Béraud: The Proposition or The Assignation in the Rue Chateaubriand, circa 1885
Great cities have often been compared to whores. The Whore of Babylon, mentioned in the Book of Revelation, may have been a metaphor for imperial Rome, or possibly Jerusalem. Juvenal’s satirical poem about Rome, written at the end of the first century AD, conjures up the lascivious image of Messalina, …

The Violent Mysteries of Indonesia

Rohani, an Indonesian woman whose oldest son, Ramli, was killed as a suspected Communist in the mass murders of 1965–1966, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film The Look of Silence
Two extraordinary documentary films by Joshua Oppenheimer, shot in Indonesia over a period of ten years, begin with the same terse statement: In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, …

A Downpour of Fish: Murakami on Stage

Nino Furuhata as Kafka and Naohito Fujiki as Oshima in Yukio Ninagawa's production of Kafka on the Shore at Lincoln Center, 2015

Yukio Ninagawa’s production of Kafka on the Shore at Lincoln Center in July—a surreal play that mixes slices of contemporary Japanese life with a ghostly spirit world, based on the 2002 novel by Haruki Murakami—was a brilliant example of Japan’s modern theater tradition. The words “modern” and “tradition” may appear contradictory, but in this case they are not.

Thailand’s Banned ‘King’

Kelli O’Hara as Anna Leonowens and Ken Watanabe as the king in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, 2015

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is more than a brilliant piece of froth. It dramatizes something historically profound about nineteenth-century Siam, which escaped from being colonized by a Western nation through what has been called “protection by mimicry.” The only way to keep Western powers at bay was to modernize as quickly as possible along Western lines.

In North Korea: Wonder & Terror

Suki Kim teaching a class at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, North Korea, 2011
The northeast of China used to be called Manchuria. Another name was “the cockpit of Asia.” Many wars were fought there. A French priest who traveled through the region in the 1920s wrote: “Although it is uncertain where God created paradise, we can be sure He chose some other place …

The Mistress and the Marionette

Egon Schiele: Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in a Striped Dress), 1915

“The conventional opinion about Egon Schiele’s 1915 portrait of his wife Edith,” writes Ian Buruma in the Review‘s April 2 issue, “is that it betrays his romantic disappointment. His wife may have represented domestic calm, a point of stability in respectable Viennese society, and so forth, but she wasn’t sexy like his mistress Wally. So how does the apparently wholesome innocence of Edith’s portrait fit into Schiele’s oeuvre? Is it just an expression of conjugal assurance and erotic disappointment? Or is there more to it? I think there is. Looked at more closely, the picture still reveals Schiele’s fascination with the very Viennese entanglement of sex and death.” Here we present a series of Schiele’s paintings of Edith, Wally, and himself, with commentary drawn from Buruma’s piece.

The Artist of Sex and Death

Egon Schiele: Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing (Edith Schiele in a Striped Dress), 1915
Standing in front of Egon Schiele’s full-length portrait of Edith—one of the most striking pictures at the Neue Galerie’s exhibition of Schiele portraits—I thought what a peculiar tribute this was to the young woman he had just married (see illustration below). He had begun a courtship of Edith (as well …

The Bridge to a Dangerous Future

Emil Nolde: North Frisian Landscape with Farmhouse, no date
When Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and other artists of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke visited an exhibition in Dresden of Emil Nolde’s paintings in 1906, they were wildly excited. Here, they thought, was a kindred spirit, a mentor even; here was a man whom they should immediately invite …

The Worst Railroad Job

Sessue Hayakawa as a Japanese colonel and Alec Guinness as a British POW forced to work on the Burma railroad in Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957
Christopher Isherwood called it the Test. He was obsessed by the idea that men of his generation, born too late to have fought in the Great War, were never put to the test of manhood imposed on their fathers. Isherwood was ten in 1915 when his father, Frank Isherwood, a …

The Coca-Colonization of Japan

Shomei Tomatsu was fifteen when Japan was defeated and the US troops arrived, casually tossing sticks of gum and chocolates at the children running after their jeeps. The rampant conquerors, who could often buy the favors of local women with a pair of silk stockings or a Hershey bar, were for young Japanese men a source of deep humiliation. But they also came with jazz music, easy manners, cool clothes, a promise of democracy, and what seemed then like vast wealth.

Can He Take Back Japan?

“China! China! China!” That is how a former Japanese diplomat summed up his country’s foreign policy preoccupations this summer in Tokyo. A quick glance at what’s on sale at Japanese bookstores proves him right: pile upon pile of books about the “threat” of China, the “power” of China, China’s “hatred” …

The Argument That Saved Paris

Neils Astrup (left) and André Dussollier in Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy (2014)

In his new film Diplomacy, Volker Schlöndorff has expertly created the creepy, almost surreal atmosphere of two men discussing the ruination of Paris. The only risk of historical fiction, especially in the movies, is that it ends up replacing in the public memory the facts of what actually happened. But Schlöndorff is not a historian. The best way to look at his film is as a love story about Paris.

A Very Superior German Liberal

Joachim Fest, Kronberg im Taunus, Germany, 2005
Since the German word Bildungsbürger, let alone Bildungsbürgertum, is probably untranslatable, Martin Chalmers wisely leaves it in the original and explains the meaning in a footnote. Briefly, a Bildungsbürger was a member of the pre-war bourgeois German elite whose status was marked less by birth than by a solid classical …

The Beauty in Her Sacrifice

  Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu, 1952

If there was one subject that obsessed the Japanese master film director Kenji Mizoguchi it was that of women sacrificing themselves for their men. He was himself a great patron of brothels and geisha houses, but he felt so strongly about the awful fate of women that he once stood up in a room full of prostitutes and begged their forgiveness.

Normal Nazis

Volker Bruch as Wilhelm Winter in Phillip Kadelbach’s Generation War

Millions of German and Austrian viewers thought Generation War, first broadcast in three episodes on German TV, and now released as a two-part movie in the US, was wonderful. So why has there been so much fuss about it, especially in Poland, where the filmmakers were accused of “falsifying history”?

China: Reeducation Through Horror

A Chinese man accused of being a ‘landlord’ facing a People’s Tribunal just before being executed, Guangdong, China, July 1952
Here are two snippets from a Chinese Communist journal called People’s China, published in August 1956: In 1956, despite the worst natural calamities in scores of years, China’s peasants, newly organized in co-operatives on a nation-wide scale, produced 2,740 million Yuan’s worth more farm products than in 1955, an increase …

‘Drifting Off in a World of Their Own’

Balthus: Thérèse Dreaming, 1938
The subtitle of the splendid exhibition of works by Balthus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is really a misnomer. For there is no evidence that Balthus painted adolescent girls, let alone cats, as provocations. Which is not to say that he never set out to shock. His painting The …

Hell in Paradise

A celebration of National Day, Pyongyang, North Korea, 1995
A “Reader’s Guide” accompanying the paperback edition of Adam Johnson’s much-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel might suggest that the book is about North Korea. In an interview with his editor, David Ebershoff, Johnson mentions the vast amount of research he has done on that country, the books read, the people interviewed, …

The Man Who Got It Right

Pierre Ryckmans, who writes under the name of Simon Leys, Canberra, Australia, June 2009
Unlike in the 1970s, few people now dispute that Simon Leys was right about the horrors of Mao’s regime. Even the Chinese government admits that more than fifteen million people died of starvation as the direct result of Mao’s deranged experiments in the late 1950s. The Cultural Revolution, although Mao’s own leading role in it can still not be discussed openly, is commonly referred to as the “great disaster.” One of the questions raised by Leys is why most people got it so wrong when Maoism was at its most murderous. Was it a matter of excusable ignorance about what was then a very closed society?

Imelda’s Sweet Sauce

Ruthie Ann Miles, center, as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love at the Public Theater
Turning the life and times of Imelda Marcos into a piece of musical theater set in a disco is almost too obvious. She was, after all, a disco queen herself, dancing the nights away under mirror balls installed in her various palaces and town houses, with her entourage of louche …

Imelda’s Sweet Sauce

Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love

Turning the life and times of Imelda Marcos into a piece of musical theater set in a disco is almost too obvious. And yet Here Lies Love, the musician David Byrne’s imagining of Imelda’s inner landscape, mostly works very well. The pop opera, brilliantly staged by Alex Timbers and choreographed by Annie-B Parson, is performed in a made up disco with constantly shifting stages sliding across the floor. As video clips are flashed onto the walls, in a kind of light show of Imelda’s public life, the mostly middle-aged audience is coaxed by a raucous DJ and pink-suited ushers into bopping along with the actors.

The Invention of David Bowie

David Bowie in the ‘Tokyo Pop’ vinyl bodysuit that Yamamoto Kansai designed for his Aladdin Sane tour, 1973
Androgyny was central to Bowie’s rising appeal—neither quite straight nor really gay, but something in between that cannot even be adequately described as bisexual. Yamamoto, the Japanese designer, said he liked to make clothes for Bowie because he was “neither man nor woman.” The image cultivated by Bowie, as he became more famous, was as a complete oddity, an isolated alien, a pop deity, utterly enigmatic, freakish, alienated, but dangerously alluring.

The Japan Beneath the Snow

Hiroshi Hamaya: New Year's Visit with Jizo, Niigata Prefecture, 1940

Swept away in the 1940s by a Japanese version of chauvinistic ethnography, the photographer Hiroshi Hamaya embarked on his extraordinary documentation of rural life in the so-called Snow Country of northeastern Japan. The results, however dubious in origin, were astonishing. A world that is now lost forever still lives in his photographs. And it has a stark beauty that is utterly distinctive. In the ice and snow of Niigata prefecture, Hamaya found the style that would make him famous. One of the main themes, apart from rice farming and Shinto rituals, is the snow itself.

A Rivalry With God

  Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills

The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s latest movie is about a young woman who is tortured to death with the highest intentions. That, at any rate, is one way to describe the story of Beyond the Hills, which is loosely based on an event that took place at an Orthodox monastery in Moldavia in 2005. The woman’s death was the result of a ritual exorcism, not uncommon in Romania, meant to save her soul from the devil. What makes the story tragic, instead of merely sad and sordid, is the way it shows two realities, the secular and the Orthodox, colliding.

Obsessions in Tokyo

Yamashita Kikuji: The Tale of Akebono Village, 1953
Mishima Yukio’s suicide in 1970 was a messy affair. First he plunged a short sword into his stomach, then a handsome young man from his private militia tried to cut off his head with a samurai blade and botched it three times before another follower completed the job. One way …

Kiarostami’s Tokyo

Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love (2012)

Several Western directors have tried to make movies in Japan. Most are terrible. Now we have Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love. The actors are all Japanese, and the story takes place entirely in and around Tokyo. The ultimate modern metropolis, with its neon-lit commercial graffiti and buildings that look like a pastiche of everywhere and nowhere, it is perfect for Kiarostami’s story of closeness between strangers. To most foreign visitors, Tokyo looks uncannily familiar and yet deeply strange. Kiarostami is a stranger in Tokyo, but his depiction of the city is extraordinarily intimate and delicate.

Expect to Be Lied to in Japan

Mourners in protective clothing at a cemetery inside the nuclear exclusion zone, Fukushima, Japan, 2012
Since the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, thousands of protesters gather in front of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s Tokyo residence every Friday demanding an end to nuclear power plants. Even larger gatherings of up to 200,000 people have been demonstrating in Tokyo’s central Yoyogi Park. Their rage is fueled by a long history of government deceit, of being consistently lied to, specifically about nuclear power; it has to do with being made to conform to official views of reality that have turned out to be patently false.

Tony Judt: The Right Questions

Pierre Fix-Masseau: Exactitude, 1932. Illustration © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
Tony Judt had a thing about railway trains. We even know from his last book, a brilliant compilation of his ideas on history and politics, distilled from a series of conversations with Timothy Snyder just before his untimely death, that he had wanted to write a history of trains, entitled …