Gordon Weaver: The Eight Corners of the World
Parts of this novel were originally published as a series of a short stories in various magazines and it still has something of the feel of being a collection of stories put together, but it does have a unifying theme and definitely works as a novel. It tells of Yoshinori Yamaguchi, also known as Lieutenant Benshi and Foto Joe. At the beginning of the novel he is both old and rich. He is also dying of cancer (which he got when in Hiroshima making a propaganda film) and has no heirs. He has hired a famous tattoo artist to make a monumental tattoo on his back and buttocks, depicting his life. When he dies, he wants his skin to be given to the Watanabe Nautical Museum, where his life can be on display to all and sundry. The book is the story of his life but also of that tattoo.
As a young boy in 1935, his facility with English means he is hired as the interpreter for a visiting US all-star baseball team. He becomes friends with the third-string catcher, Moe Berg, unaware that Berg is a spy and Yoshinori is unwittingly made a spy for the Americans. However, Berg leaves him the 16 mm camera that they had used for spying and this starts his career. He returns the favour by going to the US. He had hoped to go to a prestigious Ivy League college but ends up in Oklahoma. He assumes the name of Gooch and is well liked and a spy. Back in Japan he is drafted and becomes Lieutenant Benshi, working as a film-maker to General Tojo, making films about Japan’s conquests, including Pearl Harbor (where he is filming from inside a dive bomber) and the Bataan Death March. He also films at Hiroshima soon after the atom bomb is dropped. After the war he becomes Foto Joe and takes photos of the GIs with their Japanese girlfriends. With hard work and astute investment he creates a film company and soon is earning millions making martial arts films.
Yamaguchi is an observer. From the boy who helps the Americans spy on Japan to his films of the various war scenes, he never participates but only observes. But despite all of this, he has little to show for his life but his gigantic tattoo. Most of his war work is destroyed at Hiroshima and elsewhere. Because he is such a witty and easy-going character, always at the edge, never in the middle, we can readily identify with him. And Weaver’s incredible conceit of the tattoo to illustrate his life only helps to make this novel so thoroughly enjoyable.
First published 1988 by Chelsea Green