restricted access Review of Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei by David Mura
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96 Review of Turning Japanese Memoirs of a Sansei by David Mura “I am a Sansei, a third-­ generation Japanese American. In 1984, through luck and through some skills as a poet, I traveled to Japan. My reasons for going were not very clear.” These spare sentences declare the problems and cruxes of an extraordinarily wise and moving book, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei by Minnesota poet David Mura. The work describes, in an understated but powerful lyrical prose reminiscent of novelist Richard Ford’s, Mura’s yearlong sojourn in Japan, the country of his ancestry. From the start, it takes up themes of personal and racial identities and the plot of questing for them, anxieties about descent from East Asian culture and immigration history and the author’s modest yet powerful consciousness that he is both a poet and a member of an American minority. And, through all of its roughly 350 pages, every passage is imbued with the tone and undercurrent of emotion of someone who has been a voyeuristic witness to his own transformation. It is as if the hermaphroditic and urbane offspring of the uncouth woodcutter and raped courtesan in Rashōmon has turned up to give us testimony to its origin in a dark wood. For Turning Japanese has the excitement of prurience to it, possessing a gentle eroticism, as Mura’s personal, nearly obsessively narcissistic revelations plash softly against a surreal, eclectic backdrop of the jumbled, ravished world of postmodern Japan. Mura recreates the freewheeling maelstrom of his Japanese year (Tokyo sushi bars, the bullet train to Kyoto, radical-­ student demonstrations, Noh chant and Butoh dance, coffeehouse bull sessions with other foreigners and the Japanese, brushes with illicit sex) in a narrative screen painting of interconnected yet 97 lyrically discrete scenes and characterizations. As an amateur journalist self-­ assigned to the task of reportage, Mura is perfectly accurate in his descriptions, a Sansei Daniel Defoe on a walk through the entire islands of greater Japan. He revels in the sensuous world of the Japanese, responding with awe and quiescence in the face of traditional beauty, with amusement and affection when confronted with amalgams of the contemporary. This is Mura on something recognizably classical: The play was Dojōji, a special Noh performance. On the bare floor, the masked dancer robed in green and gold glided in circles, never lifting his feet between steps, only his toes rising at the end of each stride, like a sigh. . . . His mask was gold, the twisted features of a demon. Behind him the great cedar painted on the back of the Noh stage spread its stillness. The dancer turned, pounded out calls: the taiko drummer’s short and abrupt, the otsuzumi drummer’s high and long, almost a yodel. The flute flew up and down like a leaf in a whirlwind. Seated to the side of the stage on their knees, like a row of candles, the chorus droned, chanted. And this, Mura on the nearly absurd charm of the postmodern: Along the main street near the station, the shops spilled out their goods. Racks of shoes, pottery, towels, magazines; bins of oranges, apples, bananas, signs with kanji, photographs of sushi. A plastic, life-­ size Colonel Sanders, like a bizarre, transformed Buddha. . . . An old woman in a kimono paused to look at a window. The rubbery smell of udon wafted from a doorway. Though a thoughtful, confessional mode dominates the book and allows him an honest, postmodern bewilderment, there are numerous passages fraught with romantic expectation. Poised on a mountaintop, he muses: Something settled inside me. I had come on a journey. . . . My writing, that was the center of my life. Did there need to be something more . . . ? I spent a long while at the top of that mountain, wandering through the pines and cedars, the trunks that rose forty, fifty, sixty feet over my head. In the thick 98 dark, amid the smell of the needles, I felt a sense of uncanniness , of whatever was Japanese inside me, suddenly palpable and present in the wind that flowed around my body. . . . It was so familiar, so familial, that peace. The persona he develops—­ that of the poetic hero weighing and evaluating each item of the freshly encountered culture, every evocation of the past—­ could be cloying were Mura’s writing not so brave, modest, and appealing. Worshipping at the ancient Shinto shrines of Ise, he claps twice and thanks his parents , his grandparents, and calls on the...


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