As true-life stories go, they don’t get much more intriguing than the tale of Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Born in Manchuria in 1920, she was raised by her Sinophile father to be fluent in Mandarin as well as Japanese. With her striking looks and strong singing voice, Yamaguchi proved an attractive asset to the Manchuria Motion Picture Association, who cast her in propaganda films as the ostensibly Chinese actress Li Xianglan (Ri Koran in Japanese). These would make her a star in both Japan and China, where she went on trial for treason at the end of WWII, only to be granted a reprieve when the truth about her nationality came to light.
That would have been enough of a story in itself, but Yamaguchi was only just getting started. She returned to Japan and appeared under her own name in films by Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa, before attempting to break Hollywood and Broadway as Shirley Yamaguchi. Along the way, she would marry — and swiftly divorce — the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, then abruptly retire from acting altogether to settle down with a diplomat. Unable to sit still for long, she later reinvented herself as an international reporter for a women’s afternoon TV show, covering conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East, then went on to serve 18 years in the Diet as a member of the LDP.
This fascinating tale provides the basis for Ian Buruma’s “The China Lover,” a fictionalized version of a life story that out-weirded most fiction. Buruma is best known as a scholar and historian, and he brings an impressive eye for historical details to the table: wartime Shanghai and postwar Tokyo are both superbly evoked.
Rather than settle on a conventional narrative, he recounts Yamaguchi’s tale through the eyes of three male acquaintances from various points in her life. Daisuke Sato first encounters her when she is 13 years old, and acts as a minder of sorts during her film career in Manchuria. A staunch idealist, he genuinely believes in Japan’s great civilizing mission to create “a truly Asian empire… where all races mixed and were treated equally.” As he watches that dream die, he also finds Yamaguchi slipping out of his fingers, moving toward her next reinvention.
Cut to postwar Tokyo, where the young, enthusiastic and very gay Sidney Vanoven befriends her while working as a movie censor for SCAP, and later as a film critic for the Japan Evening Post. Clearly modeled on the estimable Donald Richie, Vanoven proves the book’s most acerbic and entertaining narrator. (“Who needs a mincing little hairdresser pawing the hair on your arms like some cheap harlot?” he says in one throwaway aside. “I like men, not fake girls, or ‘sister boys,’ as the Japanese called them.”)
His own attempts to fathom and ingratiate himself into Japanese society are mirrored by Yamaguchi’s efforts to make it overseas. She is politely mocked on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and enjoys the dubious pleasures of appearing in such cinematic turkeys as Sam Fuller’s “House of Bamboo” and Edward Bernds’ “Navy Wife.”
The final section of the book is perhaps its most unexpected. From a prison cell in Beirut, Kenkichi Sato (loosely based on real-life terrorist Kozo Okamoto) recalls his experiences in late-’60s Tokyo, where he went from hanging out with avant-garde artists and producing soft porn flicks to working as the screenwriter for Yamaguchi’s TV show. Stammering and awkward, he longs for some cause to rally behind — and, when his work takes him to Lebanon, he finally finds one. But even after joining the Japanese Red Army and perpetrating the Lod Airport Massacre, he isn’t forgotten by his former colleague. Yamaguchi continues to write to him, breathlessly recounting her meetings with Kim Il-Sung and Idi Amin (“My goodness, he is a big man!”) and expressing her desire for world peace.
What emerges from this portrait is a very modern kind of celebrity: a star who was everything to everyone yet always fundamentally unknowable, a Madonna before her time. Though Buruma was able to interview the real-life Yamaguchi while writing the book, she always feels just out of reach. Still, what a life — and what a woman.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).