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  • A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir by Ian Buruma
  • David Jortner
A TOKYO ROMANCE: A MEMOIR. By Ian Buruma. New York: Penguin Press, 2018. Hardcover, $26.00; paperback, $17.00.

A Tokyo Romance is not the traditional style of books reviewed here. While Buruma has written several excellent cultural histories of Japan, this book delves into his own experiences as "A sensitive misfit in the world of his upper-middle-class youth" in Tokyo in 1975. Normally, this style of book would not warrant a review in Asian Theatre Journal, but Buruma had the unusual experience of being heavily involved with Tenjō Sajiki and Terayama Shūji. While not a scholarly work per se, A Tokyo Romance is an easy and worthwhile read for those interested in Japan and Japanese cultural figures during the explosive postwar period.

A Tokyo Romance in many ways is an example of a traditional literary genre that has been a part of Western discourse about Japan: the autobiography of a Westerner within the country. In similar works by foreigners, from Joao Rodrigues Historia da Igreja do Japao (ca. 1749), through Lafcadio Hearn's and others, the trope of Westerner engagement with Japan has proven to be fertile literary ground. After the Second World War, the influx of Western interest/investment in Japan saw a corresponding growth in these types of works. Memoirs such as Donald Richie's Different People (1987, reissued as Japanese Portraits 2005) and John Nathan's Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere (2008) illuminated those authors' interactions with playwrights such as Mishima Yukio and Kobo Abe. Buruma's new memoir explores this territory to an even greater detail. Unlike Nathan's and Richie's works, which were primarily concerned with their authors' interactions with the literary worlds of Mishima and Abe, Buruma's experience was more involved with the performance practices of the angura movement, specifically Tenjō Sajiki and Kara Jūrō's Situation Theatre.

Buruma's descriptions of his time with Terayama and Kara, particularly in the mid-to-late 1970s when both had become noted artistic figures, are one of the highlights of the books. While not classical scholarship such as that done by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei and others, Buruma's book illustrates a sense of the time period and the interaction/feud between Kara and Terayama. As Buruma writes: "They (Japanese theater groups) operated a bit like gangs, or clans, which sometimes [End Page 260] clashed but usually stuck to their own turf, feigning supreme indifference to what anyone else was up to" (p. 143). Buruma's engagement with the angura theatre continued for sometimes as he worked with Kara Jūrō and the Situation Theatre, translating plays such as Mask of a Virgin and Tale of a Unicorn for the company and even appearing as an actor in one production. In these sections, he also discusses aesthetic ideas of Kara's "privilege of the flesh" and his embrace of shitamachi or "low-city" culture. His recounting of these experiences and of his interactions with Terayama and Kara are the highlights of this work.

Another performance figure discussed in the book was Buruma's meeting with Hijikata Tatsumi, the founder of butoh dance. Buruma discusses how he met with the dancer/choreographer and watched him rehearse. He also watched Maro Akaji and Amagatsu Ushio. Buruma also details his one attempt at dancing for Maro's company. Again, readers will find the personal recollections of Buruma enjoyable if not terribly scholarly.

Buruma studied film in Tokyo at Nichidai (Nihon University College of Art) and a significant part of the book details Buruma's time spent working with and observing filmmakers such as Ushihara Kiyohiko, Kumashiro Tatsumi, Oshima Nagisa, and Kurosawa Akira. Buruma was drawn to the ero-gruo world of Japanese film; scholars who want a broad picture of the world of alternative Japanese cinema will find his descriptions fascinating and evocative of the era. The book also details Buruma's multiple interactions with Donald Richie, the noted Western critic of Japanese film and culture. Amusingly, the first sentence of the book recounts how Buruma was warned to "stay away from Donald Richie's crowd" (p. 1). He deftly...


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pp. 260-262
Launched on MUSE
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