Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 116 in 2008.
Review: John Nathan, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere: A Memoir
(Free Press, 2008)
The rewards of reading John Nathan’s memoir Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, in both pleasure and understanding (as I will detail below), are so great that it seems churlish to begin with a carping remark. It strikes me only because I have just finished reading and reviewing (for this site) the new autobiography of David Amram that I note (for reasons I will also spell out below), the one thing Nathan lacks is the unquenchable spirit and fire that fill Amram’s writing.
Yet, Feast, (I ask myself) isn’t every author’s gifts different and to be rated on individual merit? Aren’t Nathan’s gifts as a raconteur magnificent in their own right? Shouldn’t you underline that both Nathan and Amram have cut a swath through the last 60 years in astoundingly original ways?
Yes, yes, and yes.
The story of Nathanís life is paradoxical. In it, he undertakes a restless voyage, moving from career to career, but, at the same time, he can slow and center with incredible self discipline so that, for instance, he sits night after night studying with his Japanese father-in-law, preparing for the rigorous oral and written exams, he must get through to enter the University of Tokyo. In the early 1960s, when he passed the exams, he was the first foreigner who had been admitted since 1905
Changing hats – in his life Nathan had more hats than a haberdashery – he directed a documentary film for public television based on the business manual, In Pursuit of Excellence, utilizing skills at staging scenes that he had learned, in part, directing Shakespeare plays in an all-girls school, Tsuda College, near Tokyo, and he did so with such determination (to give another example of this trait) and pluck that, once aired, it “attracted the largest audience for a business program in PBS history (a record it still holds)” as well as making millions by selling tapes of the show.
The juxtaposition of these episodes should reveal that Nathan had, in the best sense of this phrase, a checkered career, beginning as a consummate translator of such premier Japanese novelists as Mishima and Õe (who introduced him to the writer’s life in 1960s Tokyo, including hard-drinking, no-nonsense authors’ bars). His trajectory also took in running a documentary film-making firm in association with the Harvard Business school, directing award-winning commercials, chronicling the life of Shintarõ Katsu (star of the Blind Swordsman film series), and writing an autobiography of Mishima.
In narrating the events of his life, in its ups, downs and (predominantly) swerves, Nathan brings a talent for characterization, a splendid ability in scene setting, and an acute power of dramatizing incidents. Let me explore each briefly.
His portrait of his stormy relationships with strong personalities, such as Mishima, Shintarõ Katsu, and Sony chairman Norio Ohga (who retired from his post at age 60 so he could conduct symphonies) are pointed and insightful, often yielding memorable moments.
Take this confrontation with Shintarõ Katsu, who, after working with him for weeks, had stood Nathan up for an interview, and then wanted to do it when the Japanese actor was many more than three (let’s say six) sheets to the wind. Nathan said he wouldn’t do it, it was impossible to interview him in his current state. The temperamental Katsu retaliated that then he would stop working on the documentary Nathan was making about him. Nathan wouldn’t back down and the pair of them and hangers-on got in an elevator. As the author says:
We parked in front of what looked like an abandoned
shack, entered through a tiny doorway, and walked down
a flight of stairs into a grotto full of smoke and the
intoxicating smell of meat being barbecued,
accompanied by the crackling sounds of succulent
sauces simmering over coals in metal pots.
Pen portraits of this actor and many other notable characters fill many of the pages of Living Carelessly with touching revelations.
As to his scene setting, one brilliant example occurs in his description of the Nobel Prize dinner, which he was attending when Õe, of whom he was the first English translator, took the award for literature. Not only does he catch some of the oddities of the state function, such as the adhered-to command of founder Alfred Nobel that students always be included at the tables of this august ritual as well as Õe’s quirky after-dinner remarks, but gives such a vivid rendition of the event, one feels as if one were sitting beside him, enjoying with him the food that “was nothing special.”
As to Nathan’s dramatic flair, which makes the book a page-turner, take his description of making a documentary for public television about a Japanese farm family. The trick here was to get the close-mouthed family group, who were doubly shy in front of foreigners, both to act naturally – at first, whenever the crew appeared, they donned their best clothes, even when working in the fields – and get them to divulge some of their inner feelings on camera. The way he accomplishes this feat, using both low cunning and a real ability to empathize, is forcefully, excitingly captured. The same mastery appears in his more painful description of the breakdown of his marriage to the artist Mayumi, in which, because he is unsparing in self criticism, he tells an honest and heartfelt story of a connection gone sour.
Hard to ask for anything more from this well-rounded portrait and only my recent reading of Amram leads me to say this book, for all its depth, misses one dimension.
Here’s the contrast I want to make. Amram, we know, is a great political activist, as well as being a celebrated musician and composer, so in his autobiography (called Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat) when, for example, he turns to a discussion of his involvement with Native Americans, he not only unrolls his own role but gives a precise account of AIM (the American Indian Movement) and its conflicts with the government. Again, when Amram goes to Kenya for a performance, he discusses not only his music but also African independence and some of the problems besetting countries in the throes of decolonization. I believe it is this perspective that gives Amram’s writing such incredible passion.
Nathan, by contrast, unfortunately leaves unstudied something that, with his literary gifts, he would have been superb at portraying, namely, the social backgrounds of the events he has been depicting, such as, for instance, more of a political explanation of the reason for Mishima’s drift to fascism, as well as Õe’s move in the other direction. Certainly, the lack of this dimension doesn’t hinder Living Carelessly from being an enthralling read, but it does make one think Nathan has not called on his full powers in presenting this indelible picture of a multi-complexioned life.