A Mercurial Star
Ian Buruma recreates the many lives of Shirley Yamaguchi.

Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone
Sunday, November 2, 2008


By Ian Buruma

Penguin Press. 392 pp. $ 26.95

During the Japanese occupation of Manchuria from 1932 to 1945, the studios of the Manchurian Film Association produced a series of propaganda movies intended for Chinese audiences. These musicals and melodramas -- invariably featuring romance between a beautiful Chinese woman and a handsome Japanese man -- were huge hits in the occupied territories, and their principal box-office star was the doe-eyed singer and actress best known to the Western world as Shirley Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi Yoshiko (as she was known in her early days) was born in Manchuria to Japanese parents and grew up speaking both Mandarin and Japanese. With the advantage of fluent Mandarin, in addition to good looks and a fashionable coloratura, Yamaguchi was perfectly suited to play the leading lady in a succession of movies that catapulted her to fame. She played the part so convincingly -- suppressing her Japanese identity under the Chinese stage name of Li Xianglan (or Ri Koran, in the Japanese version) -- that adoring audiences were totally taken in. After the Japanese surrender, she was arrested by the Chinese government and charged with collaborating with the enemy, a capital crime. Only by producing proof of her pedigree as a bona fide Japanese was she exonerated and allowed to leave for Japan.

Though apparently plagued ever after by guilt for contributing to wartime deception, Yamaguchi continued on a steady path to stardom. She went on to make a few B-movies in Hollywood in the 1950s, appeared on Japanese television as a talk-show host venturing as far afield as Vietnam and Palestine, and settled into politics as a member of the Japanese diet for almost 20 years.

Ian Buruma's The China Lover is a recreation of Yamaguchi's controversial, eventful and remarkably resilient career through the narratives of three men -- one American, two Japanese -- all of them confidants at different stages of her life. Sato Daisuke is a shadowy special agent for the Military Police in Mukden who has known Yamaguchi since she was a child, and is instrumental in launching her film career in the sinister police state of wartime Manchuria. Sidney Vanoven, a gay film buff from the American Midwest, gets to know Yamaguchi during the U.S. occupation of Japan, when he is part of the censorship team charged with overseeing the production of Japanese movies "to reflect the new spirit of 'individualism' and 'democracy' and 'respect for the rights of men and women.' " Sato Kenkichi is a disaffected student, drifter and soft porn filmmaker -- until he is hired as a script-writer for Yamaguchi's television talk show. As a result of one of their working trips to Palestine, Kenkichi ends up a terrorist in the Japanese Red Army.

All three voices belong to convincing fictional narrators, due perhaps to the fact that at least two of them appear to be based on historical figures. Sato Kenkichi is clearly Kozo Okamoto, the JRA agent who participated in the massacre at Tel Aviv's Lod airport in 1972. Sydney Vanoven bears a striking resemblance, in character and career, to Donald Richie, the renowned American Japanophile and film critic, who is credited in the author's acknowledgments. As for the cast of characters representing the Japanese film industry, they present a playful challenge to the reader trying to figure out who is really who.

Indeed, half the charm of this retelling of the Shirley Yamaguchi story lies in the sly twists of fact into what may or may not be fiction. What exactly happened and when? Did the notorious Manchu princess and cross-dressing spy known as Eastern Jewel really have a relationship with the young Yamaguchi? Did the American censors' attempt to encourage kissing on the screen really lead to the first kiss in the history of Japanese cinema? And in her mature years, did Yamaguchi really sound like an "airhead out of her depth," as described by her young terrorist friend?

In her Hollywood days, Yamaguchi reportedly often asked, at the mention of a celebrity, "Is he knowable?" By the end of the three different memoirs that make up The China Lover, Shirley Yamaguchi, aka Li Xianglan, aka Ri Koran, appears to be unknowable after all -- and that is just right. Our heroine is far less interesting as a person than as a personification. She is, as one of her admirers describes her, "a typical portable shrine"; and revealing how it is made has never been the point of a portable shrine.

In a rare departure from his books and critical essays on film, politics, culture and current events, Buruma, a distinguished journalist-scholar and Japanophile, has crafted in The China Lover a fascinating fictional biography -- not only of an iconic film star, but of film as an expression of a nation's culture and psyche. How fitting that he has put into practice at least two of the techniques of Japanese movie-making he mentions: "keeping a distance even in scenes of great emotion" and leaving things "open-ended, like life." ยท

Wendy Law-Yone is a Burmese-American novelist living in England.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company