Ian Buruma has written widely about Asia and largely about Japan, where he lived, learned and worked between 1975 and 1981. In one of his early books about the place, “A Japanese Mirror” (1984), he examined aspects of Japanese culture that captivated him, in print, in film and on stage, and hoped that his fascinations might add up to “a kind of portrait of a people.”
They did, but what they were not able to do was provide us with a portrait of Buruma. Two years on from “Their Promised Land,” a remarkable historical study of his grandparents, Buruma delivers another memoir, this time — and at long last — with himself as the subject. “A Tokyo Romance” is his own story about the years he spent in Japan — a unique experience that turned out to be both eye-opening and character-defining.
At the beginning of the book, after several wrong turns and false starts, Buruma leaves his native Holland and heads east to study film in Tokyo. Such a move is exciting but also daunting. Once there, though, he quickly loses his fear. Fueled by a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for adventure, he roams the streets of “plastic-fantastic Tokyo,” soaking up its surrealness and then sampling its many artistic delights.
Buruma’s first year goes by with him in a semi-permanent state of befuddlement — struggling to find a foothold, get his bearings, and decode words and signs. When he befriends expatriate author and critic Donald Richie (“my sensei”) and a dropout student called Tsuda, they help unlock for him the mysteries of Japanese culture.
Inevitably, Buruma starts to spend more time in movie theaters than lecture theaters. However, after a while he tires of sitting among fellow film buffs — “creatures of the dark, getting off on the lives of others” — and yearns to create or participate. He branches out and mingles with a range of innovative playwrights, filmmakers, choreographers and performers. He makes an unimpressive short movie and performs disastrously (and hilariously) in cabaret; he overreaches and underachieves as a translator and a photographer’s assistant.
However, Buruma’s trial-and-error endeavors are laudable, as is his determination to fully immerse himself in Japanese society and not skulk at the sidelines like the standard gaijin, or foreigner. His enthusiasm for Japanese cinema or avant-garde theater proves to be infectious. Sometimes the entertainment on show or under discussion is seedy, sometimes it is sensational, but always it is interesting.
So, too, is the cityscape Buruma presents for us. The odd prewar remnant exists but otherwise he is forced to navigate an otherworldly metropolis in the throes of radical modernization. Hectic and hedonistic, “theatrical, even hallucinatory,” Tokyo ends up bowling us over as it did Buruma all those years ago.
This is a thoroughly engrossing memoir about a young man in a strange land. Buruma explores it, discovers its art, and along the way finds himself.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A Tokyo Romance
By: Ian Buruma.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 243 pages, $26.