The first I knew of the actress Ri Koran, otherwise known as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, was in 1985, while staying in a grubby hotel in Beirut. An old face-cream advertisement for the cosmetic company Shiseido had been tacked onto the bedroom wall. The image showed a woman with jade earrings dressed in a silk qi pao, holding an armful of chrysanthemums. The very fragrance of an idealized Orient, I took her for a Chinese.
So, it transpired, did the wartime Chinese and Japanese who flocked to her films or played her songs on their gramophones. As Japan’s vampire armies advanced across northern China, the voice of Ri Koran rang out over the bloodstained land like a lark.
Decades of violence in the cause of flawed ideologies, from the Kanto Army in Manchuria to the Japanese United Red Army attack on Lydda Airport, form the backdrop to Ian Buruma’s story of Yamaguchi’s extraordinary career. His sinuous narrative, unerring in its detailing of the interlocking momentum of history, brings together public and private events, forming out of them a troubled unity.
Yamaguchi is portrayed through the eyes of different characters, each account requiring a shift in style. The calm and collected voice of Daisuke Sato, a well-meaning Japanese with a predisposition toward China, recalls the impeccable English of Christopher Banks, the main character of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “When We Were Orphans,” a story partly set in the Shanghai of 1937.
Buruma’s novel is written in a style so civilized and agreeable that it is only later — when the depth charges go off — that we realize how subversive it all is.
Manchuria under the Japanese was supposed to be the industrial foundry and farmland of the empire, and for a time it was. If the agony of one people can provision the banquet table of another, Buruma also reminds us that there were many influential Chinese, Jews and other races disposed, at least in the beginning, to the Japanese cause.
Hard as it is to believe now, there were a handful of Japanese who genuinely believed in a liberation doctrine, the creation of a new Asia. In his recreation of Shanghai life, Buruma reminds us that the air of entitlement the Japanese cultivated came from the British, Americans, French and other Westerners whom they merely imitated and then supplanted. Taking advantage of Japan’s improved fortunes, powerful men, generals and industrialists, turned into saturnine monsters and overwhelmed the good intentions of people like Sato.
Although much expatriate fiction set in Japan is about not belonging, postwar Tokyo suits American Sidney Vanoven, the second of Buruma’s narrators, just fine. “As long as I can remember,” he muses about his birthplace of Bowling Green, Ohio, “I realized that some awful mistake had been made and that I didn’t belong there.” Privy to the confidences of Yamaguchi, Sidney seeks his own path to postwar renewal in the restorative power of art, and in physical pleasure. His appetite for everything Japanese leads to a kind of engorging of the culture; even his homoerotic experiences are defined as “the act of love as a route to transfiguration.”
Along with David Peace’s “Tokyo Year Zero,” Buruma gives us one of the finest accounts in fiction of the occupation years. Sid’s perambulations through the ruined city evoke the grainy world of photographer Tadahiko Hayashi, whose 1946 “A smoking street waif” shows two half-naked children, unscrubbed but unbowed, sharing a smoke in Ueno. In the Ginza, Sid encounters a “man dressed as Charlie Chaplin to promote a picture featuring Deanna Durbin.” This recalls another Hayashi image of the same period, where a Chaplin look-alike stands before the ruins of the Hattori Building, today’s Wako department store.
A woman of great sincerity but immensely naive, Yamaguchi, in a later role as a TV reporter tasked with interviewing Kim II Sung in Pyongyang, could write without a trace of irony, “It was an unforgettable experience to meet this great man, who had fought so bravely against us as a guerrilla fighter, suffering so many hardships for the sake of his people.” She would have equally kind words for a corruption-soaked Japanese prime minister whose government she joined, and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian National Authority.
The dominant theme of this intelligent and capacious novel is not so much Yamaguchi’s eventful life as the search for home, a subject echoed in the words of a Red Army combatant, spoken in a guerrilla training camp: “At night, sharing the flatbread and hummus with our Palestinian instructors, we felt like an international family, a family of revolutionaries.”
Home, we come to understand, is always in the heart, whether it be in an idealized and lost Manchuria, the refugee camps of Lebanon or a small Tokyo apartment overlooking the sacred lotus plants of Shinobazu Pond.