The China Lover by Ian Buruma
The past can easily become a gimmick. When a writer makes an effort to re-create a particular moment -- especially a familiar one, like the Second World War or the 1960s -- the temptation is to wallow in period detail, as if doing the homework is all that matters. But for historical fiction to succeed, those details must illuminate the characters that inhabit them. Otherwise, we’re just getting scenery.
Ian Buruma’s novel The China Lover is certainly well researched, weaving through nearly half a century of life in Japan -- from the invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s through the nation’s postwar reconstruction to the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. But the book is primarily a meditation on propaganda, identity, and empire. And it is on these grounds that the work really shines.
The China Lover centers on the life of a woman named Yoshiko Yamaguchi, a Manchurian-born actress of Japanese decent. During World War II, she is launched into stardom as Ri Koran, a “Chinese” singer and star of Japanese propaganda films. After the war, she drops the name Ri Koran, restarts her film career in Tokyo, and then heads to Hollywood as Shirley Yamaguchi. When that peters out, she returns to Japan, takes back her birth name, and eventually becomes a successful journalist and political figure.
In her movement from willing pawn of Japan’s military leaders to America-besotted celebrity to serious anti-war journalist and activist, Yoshiko’s life mirrors the wider cultural mood of the nation. However, Buruma is not interested in giving us her biography. Instead, she becomes the thread that ties together three separate first-person stories. The narrators of these accounts, named Sato, Sidney, and Sato, respectively, are the book’s true protagonists. Though they believe in vastly different things, they share a tendency toward idealism, to the point of blinding themselves to their own excesses. This is historical fiction at its most impressive -- giving a sense of the intimate human drama that is often swallowed up by larger events.
The fact that they have similar names -- two of them even share one -- is no accident. Each man’s story echoes the other two. All three are more comfortable living abroad than in their homelands: the first Sato leaves Japan to work as an imperial officer in China, falling in love with the country; Sidney, an American soldier, feels more comfortable in Japan than the United States; and the second Sato, a filmmaker and activist, heads to the Middle East to become a “revolutionary.” All of them are motivated in part by sex: the first Sato is more attracted to Chinese women than Japanese ones, the gay American Sidney finds his sexuality more tolerated in Japan than in his homeland, and the second Sato falls in love with a fellow Japanese radical who recruits him to Palestinian cause.
But the most important thing they share is that are all film lovers -- and committed propagandists. The first Sato gives Yoshiko her first taste of success as Ri Koran by recommending her for a pro-Japanese broadcast role on the radio, and later guides her into propaganda films. He inadvertently sums up the novel’s concerns by declaring: “People need spectacles to nurture their dreams, give them something to believe in, foster a sense of belonging.” His “spectacles” are meant to give the newly conquered Chinese “a great and noble goal to live and die for,” the newly created puppet state of Manchukuo.
A great fan of -- and later expert in -- Japanese film, Sidney becomes a friend and confidant of Yoshiko’s as she tries -- and fails -- to break into the US entertainment industry in the 1940s and 1950s. He embraces the occupation of Japan, saying: “To lift this defeated nation from its feudal past seemed to us the noblest undertaking in the history of man.” Though ambivalent about censorship, he admits, “My life as a censor had small compensations…I could only marvel at the magic of film, the way a religious person marvels at stained-glass windows and candlelit saints in a place of worship.”
The second Sato, however, is the most blunt about his career: “Art is never neutral,” he explains. “Everything is a reflection of power relations. My films, shot on sixteen-millimeter stock, were made to empower the powerless.” After a start working on pornographic films, Sato becomes a writer for Yoshiko’s television news program. Eventually, he leaves for a life as an anti-Israeli radical in Lebanon. Sato’s eventual disillusionment with the power of film leads him to terrorism and violence, as he tries to make his propaganda into reality. This harrowing sequence brings the book’s interplay of art and violence into stark relief and is the highlight of the novel.
Though The China Lover tackles heavy issues like occupation and war, at no point does the history overwhelm the characters. In fact, it only serves to inform our view of them. For example, when the first Sato observes the Chinese living under Japanese occupation and reflects, “I knew that one day they would understand that this was their moment of liberation,” it is the historical fact of Japanese misconduct in Manchuria that allows us to see the depth of Sato’s self-deception.
By using history in such a subtle way, Buruma has given us an insightful and compelling novel. While it will be of special interest to those already interested in Japanese culture, it is a very human story that will also resonate with a wider readership.
The China Lover by Ian Buruma