IN 1940, at the height of Japan's military aggression during World War II, a movie called "China Nights" won the hearts of countless Japanese soldiers and patriots who were riveted by the stirring singing voice of the young girl who plays a Chinese orphan rescued by a Japanese officer who both loves and beats her. The singer became enormously popular, a symbol of subservience to Japan's self-image of benevolent but iron rule over Asia.
After Japan lost the war, the singer was accused of treason for helping her wartime captors. To escape execution, she revealed a secret -- that she was actually Japanese and had followed orders to pretend to be Chinese. She escaped to Japan and reinvented herself as a successful film actress, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, though she used the first name Shirley when she made it to Hollywood and Broadway.
Ian Buruma, a film buff and an accomplished writer of nonfiction about Asia, takes on this story in "The China Lover," a lushly rendered piece of historical fiction. Buruma conveys the exhilaration and devastation of Japan's military folly and its resulting moral hangover through the lens of the film world at the time. With a sharp yet generous eye, Buruma explores the moods and sensibilities of the movie business in wartime Shanghai and postwar Tokyo.
His novel seems to revel in and see through the filmmaking and its role in shaping memory and history. It's a cinematic story, in topic and form, made richer by the fertile emotional terrain of its fallible protagonists.
The story begins in Manchuria, narrated by a cultural official named Sato, whose day job is to promote cultural events that win over Chinese hearts and minds and whose nighttime pursuits satisfy a prodigious appetite for bedding Chinese actresses. As a Japanese patriot, Sato sneers at the haughty European colonials and is thrilled by news of Pearl Harbor.
Yet Sato is fascinated by the mysteries and challenges of life in a foreign culture, which fuel and soothe his restless nature. He also observes the realities of war with stark clarity, seeing Japan's military police as sadistic thugs whose real goal is to profit from illicit schemes and lawlessly exercise power over the helpless.
"The China Lover" overflows with intriguing characters, particularly Amakasu, a shadowy official who supervises Japan's propaganda efforts in China. I kept visualizing the oily haired fixer supreme who called the shots in the film "The Last Emperor" and put a pistol to his temple at the end.
Eventually, I put this novel down to look him up and discovered that Amakasu was indeed a true historical figure.
The second part of the book shifts to postwar Tokyo and is narrated by a young American soldier, Sidney, who works in the film censor's office, a perfect vantage point for watching a golden era of filmmaking begin to germinate. Buruma seems to know every nook and cranny of this landscape. Akira Kurosawa, Frank Capra, Truman Capote and others make charming, understated cameo appearances that give the story power.
In Tokyo, Yamaguchi refuses to acknowledge her wartime past and personifies Japan's painful mixture of denial, humility and determination to work her way out of previous moral failings of the war, all under the eye of a MacArthur-led occupation by the Americans. Those swirling pressures seem to get funneled into the creativity of film studios, with palpable results. "It was the natural flow of images, the beautifully timed cuts, and the camera work, which was intimate without being intrusive," Buruma writes. "There were few close-ups, and no false glamour. Here was life itself being discreetly but closely observed."
After a tempestuous marriage to a headstrong architect, Yamaguchi remarries and moves abroad, effectively disappearing from the public eye. Yet she reappears in the 1960s and reinvents herself again, this time as a TV journalist for a daytime program aimed at Japanese housewives, "What a Weird World: Yoshiko Yamaguchi Reports From the Front Line."
She ventures to Vietnam and Beirut to report on war and terrorism and focuses on the moral crimes she sees. The third section of this novel is improbably yet persuasively narrated by a Japanese terrorist who is jailed in Beirut in the 1970s when a band of Japanese radicals gets caught. (Yamaguchi later became a member of parliament for the conservative ruling party. She still lives in Tokyo.)
This novel, while finely drawn and true to the spirit of the history it covers, falls short in a couple of places. The character of Yamaguchi comes across as earnest and sincere, but she is just not as compelling as the narrators, who each see the moral compromises in others and in themselves. She feels flat in comparison. And though the characterization of each narrator is distinct, their voices all sound suspiciously like . . . Buruma's. It's a trade-off: Buruma's sharp insights and historical perspective tumble off the tongues of each narrator, and I was grateful for them, but sometimes they feel too smart for the mouth from which they spring.
Like many historic events, Japan's aggression in Asia during World War II is often remembered by the way we saw it depicted on film, whether in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Letters From Iwo Jima" or even in the black-and-white clips of old newsreels. Buruma knows the persuasive pull -- and the misleading simplicity -- that film can have on memory and history. His novel takes us deep into events of the 20th century and shows us with vivid strokes what it felt like.
Seth Faison is the author of "South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times