takobobo, todatebobo and kinchakubobo


After spending much time in such rugged places as Afghanistan and the murderous US–Mexican borderlands, Vollmann has picked his destination well. For Japan is the right place to observe artificial beauty, from the plastic cherry blossoms that adorn city streets in spring to the mincing steps of the (male) actor of female roles (onnagata) in the Kabuki theater. Few cultures have developed the refinements of erotic performance more than the Japanese. Japan has the reputation of a country soaked in exquisite beauty (once you know how to pick your way around the neon and concrete jungles) and kinky sexual adventure. These things are there, to be sure, but beauty and grace are rarely approached directly; they are represented rather than revealed, and thus elusive. And that is what interests Vollmann: the dream, the way our desires act on the imagination, whether they be that of an old drunk trying to find Gloria in the eyes of every whore he meets or the Californian author stalking Noh stages and the straw-matted rooms of geisha establishments. Some believe, in defense of the great art of men playing women in Noh, Kabuki, or in pre-Communist days the Chinese opera, that men can represent the allure of female beauty better than women can. For the idea is not to mimic reality but, as in a Chinese painting, to express an idea of reality, an abstraction almost. Men can represent the idea of women better, because they can take a distance from the real thing and reinvent it as art.

more from Ian Buruma at the NYRB here.