A delicious if squirm-inducing memoir of a young Western artist in 1970s Japan.
Now a veteran author and editor of the New York Review of Books, Buruma (Year Zero: A History of 1945, 2013) was a restless youth, anxious to escape his middle-class life, and a devotee of the local art theater, especially of a bizarre performance by a Japanese theater group. Following college, where he majored in Chinese, he obtained a scholarship to a Japanese film school and set off, arriving in 1975. Film school proved a disappointment, but Buruma had come to experience Japan and perhaps explore his own budding sexuality. Readers familiar with the tea ceremony, martial arts, and ancient temples will receive a jolt as the author immerses himself into the art scene of a nation with a tolerance for grotesquery, including depictions of violence and sex that put America to shame. “The pornographic imagination was not furtive and marginal, as in many countries, but entirely upfront.” Perhaps more sophisticated but no less explicit than U.S. productions, one hard-core film made it to the Cannes Film Festival. Although an autobiography should pay attention to facts, this is a memoir, so readers must accept that what Buruma chooses to remember takes priority over what actually happened. He describes a naïve youth plunging into a fantastical foreign culture, so readers must pass over the casual admission that he arrived with a Japanese girlfriend and left with her six years later.
The reward is a wild ride through the late-20th-century Japanese avant-garde scene through the eyes of an innocent from across the sea.