Magazine article The Spectator

'A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir', by Ian Buruma - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir', by Ian Buruma - Review

Article excerpt

In 1975, the 24-year-old Ian Buruma (now an award-winning essayist and historian, and the editor of the New York Review of Books) left his native Holland to study film at the Nihon University College of Art in Tokyo. It was a bold move. The 1970s was a wild, tumultuous decade in Japan, often known as the Showa Genroku, after the hedonistic period at the end of the 17th century, and Tokyo came as a shock to the few Westerners who went there: a teeming, neon-strafed megalopolis, where the trappings of hypermodernity jostled with elements of a sublime tradition, and the whole culture was drenched in eroticism. Buruma soon stopped going to class and spent his time watching movies by Ozu and Kurosawa at the National Film Centre, seeking out prominent actors, directors and critics, filming his own documentaries, or simply snapping pictures of the hallucinatory street life ('Japan, especially then, was a photographer's dream').

This memoir, written four decades later without the aid of contemporary diaries or letters, is a triumph of artistic reconstruction. Buruma does an amazing job of conjuring the sensual presence of Tokyo -- the smell in one theatre of 'fried squid and stale sweat', or the 'cacophony of mechanical noise' in the entertainment districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya -- and provides expressive pen-portraits of such characters as his favourite professor, a tiny octogenarian with a 'wet toothy grin' who 'slushed his words with a great deal of froth' and referredconstantly to Charlie Chaplin as 'Chapurin-sensei'. Buruma's prevailing tone is witty and urbane, and he is an authoritative guide to the culture and (especially) the subculture of 1970s Japan.

The things he notices -- the low-level surrealism produced by the Japanese emphasis on surfaces over depths; the bittersweet sense of ephemerality that shapes the culture -- aren't dissimilar to those noticed by other Western visitors of the time, such as Donald Richie, Angela Carter and Roland Barthes (though Buruma has the advantage over his predecessors of being able to read, as well as speak, Japanese). He shares with Carter an interest in yakuza movies and the intricate art of Japanese tattooing. …

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