Book Review: The China Lover: A Ruby-Lipped Asian Starlet Beguiles Terrorist, Spy in new Buruma

Book Review: The China Lover: A Ruby-Lipped Asian Starlet Beguiles Terrorist, Spy in new Buruma

A womanizing spy, a stuttering terrorist and a nobody from Bowling Green, Ohio: What can they possibly have in common?

Besides narrating portions of Ian Buruma’s audacious second novel, “The China Lover," all three are insatiable film buffs who fall under the spell of one starlet: Yamaguchi Yoshiko, the central character in this tale about the ups and downs of the movie business in times of war and peace.

Born to Japanese parents in Manchuria in 1921, Yoshiko starts out as an all-singing, all-acting schoolgirl. To get ahead, she masquerades as a Manchurian: She has “something of the Silk Road in her," and manages to portray Chinese babes who fall for strapping Japanese empire builders.

It’s a precarious role to be playing in 1941, yet watching her “was like a magic potion that made us forget" the war, says narrator Sato Daisuke, a mournful Japanese spy who works as her impresario. After the liberation of Shanghai, Yoshiko finds herself jailed by the Chinese Nationalists on charges of treason and barely escapes a death sentence.

Fleeing to U.S.-occupied Japan, Yoshiko embraces a different brand of propaganda: She stars in films scripted to promote American-style democracy, treating Japan’s moviegoing public to its first on-screen kiss.

Soon she crosses paths with Sidney Vanoven, a gay movie lover from Ohio who serves as a U.S. Army censor in Tokyo until he is dismissed for approving a film that his commander deems “commie garbage." No matter. Sidney finds himself back in the States just as Yoshiko arrives to conquer Hollywood through roles as a Japanese war bride. The liveliest of the three narrators, Sidney spins a picaresque caper out of Yoshiko’s escapades.

Daytime TV

Two marriages and a second Hollywood career later, Yoshiko resurfaces in the 1970s as the hostess of “What a Weird World," a daytime TV show for Japanese housewives that includes segments on the Viet Cong and Yasser Arafat.

Her chat-show politicking is chronicled by Sato Kenkichi, a crew member-turned-terrorist who yearns to “leave a dent in the world" and lands in a Lebanese prison cell for his troubles.

Yoshiko is a malleable character, and she flits through the narrative as little more than a flash of white skin, ruby lips and bright kimono, becoming whoever the moment requires her to be. This is Buruma’s point, of course: She’s as fickle as history itself, and the public sees what it wants to see in her. But the metaphor, however apt, doesn’t help the novel much.

Erotic Fantasies

Buruma is a gifted journalist and the author of a body of shrewd, nuanced non-fiction books that roam agilely across topics from Asian history to radical Islam in Europe. In “The China Lover," he finds plenty to say about the interplay between theater and politics, about democracy as an exportable commodity and about the lure of erotic fantasies in military conquests.

The snag is that fiction requires a different set of skills. All of Buruma’s astute observations don’t add up to a plot. And only a taut plot could hold together a novel spanning so many decades, ideologies and characters.

What keeps this overstuffed work from bursting at the seams is Buruma’s infatuation with movies. Yes, he meanders off on tangents that will make even the most ardent cinephile fidget, yet it’s hard to resist his descriptions of the bustling sets, hushed theaters and flickering “celluloid dreams."

The short chapters cram in scenes of intrigue and hilarity, as well as fascinating asides on everything from sashimi to Jewishness and some vivid walk-ons: Frank Capra chomps a cigar, Truman Capote hunts for socks and sex in Tokyo.

In the end, though, this book proves just overwhelming. Some books have little to offer; this one has too much.

“The China Lover" is published by Penguin Press in the U.S. and Atlantic in the U.K. (392 pages, $26.95, 15.99 pounds).

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)