Ian Buruma’s life would itself make a nice subject for a novel. His father was Dutch; his mother was British, from a family that emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century; as an undergraduate in the Netherlands he focused on Chinese literature, then moved to Tokyo, where he turned himself into an expert on Japanese cinema. He went on to work in Hong Kong, London, Budapest, and Berlin. He has written about everything from yakuza tattoos to V.S. Naipaul to the ideological pedigree of Islamism.
So it does not come entirely as a surprise that his second foray into fiction1 should draw its energy from a protagonist whose life also embraces migration and masquerade, the command of several languages, and, not least, an enduring fascination with the seductions of the movie screen. Just to make things even more interesting, the fictional character at the center of The China Lover draws her energy from the life of a real person, a Japanese actress, singer, journalist, and politician who today, at the age of eighty-eight, goes by the name of Yoshiko Otaka (née Yoshiko Yamaguchi, the name most often used for her in the novel).2 As Buruma’s wonderfully evocative imagining of her life explains, Yamaguchi/Otaka has borne a bewildering array of other aliases over the years. What she’s called depends entirely on whom you ask and when.
And that precisely is the conceit that motivates this brisk, shimmering tale of a life lived in the elusive overlap of feckless charm and ravenous opportunism. The heroine of The China Lover rarely gets the chance to tell her own story in the book—for reasons that are entirely appropriate to her biography. She spends much of her career in the power of others, a foil for the desires and delusions of government officials and movie moguls.
The book has three narrators, all of them men. The second section belongs to Sid Vanoven, a gay American and aesthete who comes to Japan in the years after World War II. The third, set in the 1960s and 1970s, is presented by Sato Kenkichi, a porn-movie auteur and TV journalist turned terrorist. The first, the literal and figurative centerpiece of the book, is recounted by Sato Daisuke, a propagandist and spy for Manchukuo, the Imperial Japanese puppet state in Manchuria before and during the war.
The first section seems to me the novel’s real center of gravity not only because it’s the richest and in some ways most evocative of the three, but also because it’s here that we learn about Yamaguchi’s origins. Her family, Daisuke explains, moved to Manchuria as Japanese colonists; her father is a compulsive gambler and general ne’er-do-well. As she grows up, her talent as a singer and actress soon becomes apparent. But there is something else that makes her almost irresistible to the scheming apparatchiks of the Japanese occupation regime—something captured by Sato Daisuke in his characteristic gushing idiom:
It was her eyes that left the deepest impression. They were…
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