Ian Buruma performed in slapstick theatre and filmed a whisky advert with Akira Kurosawaby Emily Finch / May 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
As a young man in his twenties, Ian Buruma chose to make 1970s Tokyo his home. In his new memoir, Buruma, a well-known author and now editor of the New York Review of Books, chronicles in lurid detail his times as a lowly photographer capturing the avant-garde theatre scene, and describes the artists who tolerated his presence. The author is the first to admit that he was always an outsider, and Tokyo Romance offers a charming perspective on what it is like to feel you are always on the periphery.
During his six years in Japan, Buruma repeatedly faced the gaijin barrier. The term literally means “outside person” and is applied to all foreigners in Japan. It is neither a compliment nor an insult—but it is a curse for those wishing to assimilate into the local culture. Buruma’s take on what it means to be a gaijin runs through this work. He joins the playwright Kara Juro’s Situation Theatre troupe as an actor, and performs in a giant red tent in the seedier parts of Japan. The troupe were famous for their grotesque performances and would bounce from slapstick scenes to Japanese fairy tale stories, giving the lie to the outsider’s fantasy of the country having a rigid social structure. Buruma tells us he was “overjoyed” to move from being a voyeur to a participant, but soon found himself an outsider once more when he committed faux pas after faux pas.
Buruma, born in Holland, is the nephew of the British director John Schlesinger. Through his film connections he found himself in situations that most could never imagine. His account of appearing in a Suntory whisky commercial with the legendary film director, Akira Kurosawa, is one of many highly-entertaining anecdotes. Buruma says Japan was the making of him: he would subsequently write acclaimed books about the country. He concludes by saying that his time there left him unsatisfied; but it was clearly a key part of his intellectual formation.
A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma (Atlantic, £16.99)