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A Tokyo Romance

A Tokyo Romance (2018) is Ian Buruma's memoir of his six years in Japan. He moved to Tokyo in 1975 when he was 23 and studied cinema at Nichidai in Ekoda, then met author and film historian Donald Ritchie, director Akira Kurosawa, Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi, and a hodgepodge of other artists and avant-garde theater performers as he refined his spoken Japanese. Buruma covers an array of topics, including the "role" of the gaijin in Japan and also immersion of the outsider into Japanese culture (or inevitable failure to achieve this and resultant disillusionment) versus remaining on the periphery as a sort of voyeur, which he describes as a radical type of freedom.

The first chapters are imbued with nostalgia as Buruma recalls a more raucous theater scene and much edgier city. I came to Japan about twenty years after Buruma and also lived and worked around the Ikebukuro area, and while Buruma's experience was much different from mine, parts of his memoir brought me back to the wilder Tokyo of the 90s.

Buruma shares anecdotes about outrageous times with eccentrics and outsiders, and dabbles once or twice in their performances. He writes about bizarre carnival acts, romance porn films (roma porn), fashion photographers, tattoo artists, and his short documentary on the training and work of a department store elevator girl. I read a review that referred to the book as a journey into Tokyo's underworld, but outside of the arts it's not. While Buruma encountered underworld figures, he didn't enter their realm; he rather brushed by it occasionally—his preference it seems. He didn't move to the "plebeian shitamachi" (lower city) despite part of him wanting to, he left the cabarets to acquaintances, and he met a few who were perhaps connected to yakuza crime families or the Japanese Red Army but didn't hang out with the underworld figures himself. Nevertheless, his relationships with those in experimental theater troupes and traveling players, belonging to a weird world of their own, would have been quite a feat for a foreigner.

Buruma paints a vivid picture of a Tokyo that has changed over the past forty to fifty years, particularly its avant-garde theater scene, and seems to lament the city's east-to-west shift of its nightlife and fashion hubs. He mentions a number of important Japanese and French films, but each time Donald Ritchie's name popped up, I got the impression Buruma was reluctant to delve into Japanese cinema in this book, perhaps because that was Ritchie's area of expertise.

Something that surprised me was Buruma lived in Japan for only six years. I read his The Missionary and the Libertine in 1996, the year it was released and the same year I moved to Japan. This collection of essays shaped many of my initial views of the Japanese and relationships between East and West. At the time and since then, I've thought Buruma lived in Japan for decades because of his wide understanding of its history and culture. At the end of A Tokyo Romance he explains why he had to leave after those six years and how the experience shaped him and made him who he is today.


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