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Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere

Japanologist, translator, documentary filmmaker John Nathan gives us a memoir packed with delightful stories from his years in Japan and, yes, elsewhere. There's an ebb and flow in these pages as Nathan reflects on his life's paths while either (humbly) patting himself on the back or kicking himself for perceived wrong turns.

He's a bold writer, and Living Carelessly is compelling for its acute honesty and Nathan's sharp insights and wryness. He's lived life on a large scale. But carelessly, he has us believe. In the 1960s, he translated Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea and Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter and regularly hung out with these authors. He also made three documentary films in Japan in the 70s (Full Moon Lunch is currently on YouTube. I couldn't track down The Blind Swordsman or Farm Song). In the book, he recounts his failures in Hollywood later and, yes again, elsewhere.

There's a wry sense of humor that surfaces throughout his writing, whether he's lamenting about salaries and royalties for certain projects or describing the quirks and whims of renowned artists or sharing stories about his two families.

I liked his anecdotes and fun facts about Mishima and Oe.

"Mishima had no sense of rhythm; his dancing looked like death throes."

And his recollections of his youthful years out on the town.

"...[they] kept your highball glass full without waiting to be asked, a Japanese custom that made moderation impossible, like drinking from a magically replenishing glass."

There are also regrets and self-flagellation.

"Striving, and failing, to feel superior, I tumble into despair about myself, which blinds me to what I have achieved and prevents me from finding any pleasure in it."

But the mixture of humor and despairing with a balance between inward- and outward-looking reportage works well. A few parts bored me. For example, the thirty or so pages he goes on about his days making TV commercials for AT&T and other companies. Overall, though, it's an interesting read with lots of "appearances" by famous (mostly male) faces in Japan, and elsewhere, including Donald Richie, Donald Keene, Peter Coyote, Akira Kurosawa, John Updike, Shintaro the "crude, misogynist scoundrel" Katsu, Saul Bellow, Robert Duvall, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Michelangelo Antonioni, Shintaro Ishihara and New Kids on the Block!

Shelved between Ian Buruma's A Tokyo Romance (2018) and Robert Whiting's Tokyo Junkie (2021).

Cheers to Pat McCoy for recommending this.


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