How Lon Chaney led to lifetime of Japanese film

by Angela Jeffs

I’m rarely nervous these days. But the prospect of sitting down with author, academic, film scholar and art critic Donald Richie has me ever so slightly on edge. Movies like Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” seen as a student in England, were profound in effect. Forty years on and here I am with the man reputed to know more about Japanese film than any other Westerner in the world.

This weekend he is in London, lecturing at a monthlong retrospective of Japanese film. The British Film Institute asked him to design it, and with today Kurosawa Day, he will be giving the keynote speech. “I’m taking along his favorite leading lady, Yukiko Nogami, who will talk about assisting in the making of ‘Rashomon.’ “

Feb. 26, back in Tokyo, he will introduce “Japanese Film in Focus,” the title of the three-day annual lecture series sponsored by the College Women’s Association of Japan. With CWAJ featuring so many aspects of Japanese history, art and culture over the last 36 years, the subject is well overdue. “Movies are objects with a lot of facets. They teach you things.” It also coincides with his book “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film,” published by Kodansha International in October.

Donald was 4 or 5 when he was taken by his mother to see “The Phantom of the Opera,” starring Lon Cheney. “I remember running screaming from the theater at the scene where a pair of hands emerge to catch an ankle.” For years he was extremely chary of standing beside his bed in case the same thing happened to him.

Because the effect was so traumatic, he paid it a lot of attention. “Growing up in a small town in Ohio during the Depression, I was looking for a way out as far back as I can remember. Here was this glittering other world that provided escape. By the time I was 7, I was going to every movie possible. Film was my preferred reality.”

Only recently, he says, has he found a better balance. The level of “reality” of film has changed with the onset of TV and “anime.” “Since we spend most of our lives trying to avoid reality, we have a new tool.” (The first time he has put this thought into words, he’s rather pleased.)

Also the film experience is no longer privileged. When he was a child, going to the movies was a very special thing, sitting in the dark, being quiet, enchanted. “When you said something was just like a movie, the difference was clear. Nowadays we live in an image culture. Any study of film consists of re-evaluating images and what they mean.”

Not caring what films he saw, his “road to Damascus” at age 17 was the day he thought the projectionist had mixed up the reels. It was only toward the end he realized he was watching “Citizen Kane,” so he watched it through a second time with a new rapt attention to its structure and ideas. “I was never the same again. I asked my father for an 8 mm camera the very next day.”

Graduating from high school in 1942, the war put everything on hold. “I had three ships go down under me. I’ve no idea how or why I survived.” Afterward he got himself transferred over here, and since the one practical thing he could do was type, began work as a feature writer for The Pacific Stars and Stripes. “It was my first chance to study and assess Japanese film, which is how I became a critic.”

So here he was, happy as a sandboy, writing about film and making films. (A retrospective of his work was screened last year.) But in 1949, with the Occupation winding down, he decided to go home and “get myself educated.” He was in the first film course when it opened at Columbia University.

“When I came back here in 1953, it was Japanese film I was most interested in.” Propagandized before and during the war, the industry took off after the Occupation. Because there was so little entertainment in postwar Japan, every film shown made money. This enabled directors like Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu to make the kind of films they wanted — “the degree of freedom they enjoyed was unparalleled” — that the period is now referred to as Japan’s cinematic “Golden Age.”

Asked what produces a Golden Age, he replied, “struggle and/or guidelines — that’s why Iranian films are so good at the moment.” Also “the press.” And freedom from money pressures. “The reason French films were of such good quality was they never had to work within a corporate structure.” The “indie” movement (coined “nouvelle vague Japonais” by the media) began in the ’60s to escape the strictures of producers panicking about falling ticket sales after the onset of TV. “It was never rebellious.”

Returning from London next week, he will continue his classes at Temple University (where he is on the board of governors). And continue the strict morning regime (after toast, coffee and this paper) of writing that has resulted in over 40 books (including translations) in his 77 years. “It helps that I’m single.” He has also completed his 600-page “Japan Diaries.” “No one is compromised except the author!”

At the end of the CWAJ series, he wants people to “understand why cinema is languishing here today, and learn how it might re-assert itself. I want them to emerge with surprise and gratification, realizing the emotions they feel are familiar and universal.”

The day after the last lecture, he will nip off to Thailand. “With a new book to finish (which looks behind the scenes at the subject of image, and what the proliferation of images in daily life means to people) I’ll be locked up in my hotel room. What a way to spend a week in Bangkok!”