Donald Richie is regarded as the leading Western authority on Japanese film. He first came to Japan in 1947 as a civilian typist for the U.S. Occupational forces — an intelligent, restless 22-year-old in search of purpose.
Richie, 78, began his career writing features and film reviews for the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the U.S. military, after serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. “Going to the movies — off-limits to most other Occupation personnel — was sort of a skeleton key to the country,” says Richie. “Into understanding where I was and who these people were.”
After a stint back in the United States, where he earned a degree in English from Columbia University in 1953, Richie returned to Japan the following year.
“The Japanese Film: Art and Industry,” a 1959 book he co-authored with Joseph L. Anderson, helped make him one of the most recognized commentators on modern Japan. Seemingly every English-language publication of note — including Newsweek, The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly — has carried Richie’s byline. And his regular film and book reviews over almost five decades here at The Japan Times make him this paper’s longest-standing contributor.
Since his 1965 divorce from writer Mary Evans, Richie has chosen to live alone in Tokyo, devoting his energies to his prolific creative output. Over the years, he has tried his hand at a variety of media, including painting, musical composition and film direction, but largely put them aside after gaining some degree of proficiency. As he approaches his 50th year as an official resident of Japan, however, he says he will never “graduate from writing.”
Richie recently took a break from a new work on human sexual expression — a favorite topic — to talk to The Japan Times about his life here.
What kind of person were you before you came to Japan?
I had ambitions that were not going to be satisfied in the little town where I lived [Lima, Ohio]. But I was a big mess. I was a very shy boy. You could never tell by looking at me the depths of my various depravities.
The depth of my dissidence was extraordinary, but you’d never have guessed it. If anything I was criticized for being too polite, too well behaved. I never gave my parents any concern. Those are the little boys to watch out for!
I ran away from home when I was 17. Then the war came along and rescued me, like so many others, by giving me something to do.
What was your reaction to Japan upon first arriving?
There was nothing there in Yokohama; it was just a burnt plain. The war was over, but the destruction had been so tremendous. A little bit of rebuilding had started. Coming into Ginza, the Hattori Building was there, but Mitsukoshi had all its windows blown out. There was nothing until you got to the Sanshin Building — which had the MPs [military police] in it — then nothing until Mount Fuji. You’d sit up in the Ginza 4-chome crossing and look at Mount Fuji.
During my travels in the war I’d seen ruined cities before, but never anything as total as this. The devastation was a little like me: I was total in ignorance, and this was total in structure. Japan had to do everything all over again, and in effect, so did I.
What are the impressions — in terms of smell, color, sound — that you miss from the Japan of 1947?
What I miss from the Japan of 1947 is the clutter. Tokyo now has the cleanest streets of any city in the world. The general, glorious, natural waste of clutter — visually, I miss it very much because it was so human. Humans are really messy animals.
I remember the great smells of 1947. There was a peculiar smell that came with poverty, that came with destruction. Crumpled concrete has a smell, newly cut wood has a smell. And of course there were lots of other smells. This was a country that still didn’t have a sewage system and so the excrement was carried down by oxcart down the Ginza.
What I miss is a kind of vitality. I remember a woman here in 1947 who would take Japanese helmets that soldiers wore and make a living by battering the dints out of them with a hammer. “In three minutes, for 10 yen, I will turn your helmet into a serviceable cooking pot!”
What has kept you here so long?
I just stayed on. One always likes to think one has options. I always had open options until fairly recently, when I realized, “I’m not going to go anyplace!” This is home. I travel a great deal to Europe and other places, but after about a week or 10 days I get homesick for Japan. That indicates that this is where home is now. That’s only happened in the past five years or so. Until then I was thinking, “Where will I go when I grow up?”
There are a lot of places I like better than Japan. I like Greece better; I like Morocco better. But I know I would never operate very well in some place as fulfilling as a Greek island or Marrakech. I need something that goes against the grain all the time, that keeps stimulating me by maybe irritating me slightly. Not irritating me like Ohio irritates me, but just enough to keep me awake. This is a good place to keep working.
What drew you to film, and to Japanese film in particular?
As a child I was already searching for some way out. You search for alternate realities when you can’t physically get out on the highway. People during the depression went to the movies a great deal, and I was taken to the movies when I was 2 or 3. The movies very early on became my preferred reality.
I was hooked on movies, and remain hooked. So it’s only natural that no matter what country I’m in, I go to the movies rather than the countryside. I was doing this in Italy during the war, I was doing this in France during the war. In North Africa, you would find me not in the Casbah, but in the theater looking at the Casbah. So when I came to Japan, it was the most natural thing in the world to go to the movies.
Was there anything interesting about how Japanese directors used light or angles?
Instantly, as soon as I saw my first films, I noticed all the weight was at the bottom of the frame, rather than the top. There was no classical composition, so far as I knew classical composition from looking at John Ford and people like that.
Also, I noticed that, temporally, stories went on forever. Long, long, long shots, going beyond what would be their “optimum anecdote value” in Hollywood. Eventually I figured all this out and started writing books about it.
What kind of influence have Japanese filmmakers had overseas?
I’m doing a retrospective for a film festival next year called “Ozu’s Grandchildren,” which is about people all over the world who have seen in [director Yasujiro] Ozu an alternate way of viewing reality. It includes Jim Jarmusch, whose work would have been impossible without Ozu. It includes the Coen brothers, who are great Ozu lovers. Also, a lot of Indian directors, two or three Italians. I have too much material for my grandchildren of Ozu show!
What is the current status of the Japanese arts?
Art nowadays is frankly hermetic. You go to the gallery and you see minimalist things that require an enormous amount of pre-knowledge and sophistication to understand, that nobody off the street could appreciate.
It’s sort of a natural reaction to when things become too popularized, too gross, too populist. It’s a symptom of the reaction against the complete merchandizing of Japan. But I don’t see it as being particularly efficient. It has no social uses.
Are Japanese filmmakers caught in this hermetic trap?
I think the commercialization we’re seeing in all aspects of Japan has not left film alone. The majority of Japanese films are intended as merchandise.
That includes films which are being hyped as art, for example the films of (Takeshi) Kitano. These are commercial objects to be sold at your supermarket, yet we find him winning prizes at Venice.
On the other hand, you do find a handful of young directors who actually have their own angle on life. We have a filmmaker like Hirokazu Kore’eda, who made “Maboroshi,” “Distance” and “After Life.” Another thoughtful young director is Makoto Shinozaki, who did a film called “Okaeri.” Both are very much influenced by Ozu and by such foreign directors as Robert Bresson and Michaelangelo Antonioni.
But only one Japanese person in 10 goes and sees a Japanese film. All the rest go see “Pearl Harbor.” The Japanese don’t support their own serious films.
Outside the arts, where are the vestiges of true Japanese spirituality?
True spirituality is still shown in Japanese attitudes, particularly in attitudes that are unquestioned, which are really unconscious. When crowds go out and see the cherry blossoms when they are dead and falling, even though such people are doing it because their fathers’ fathers did it, that doesn’t mean the spirit is not alive.
The spirit is a benign observation of transience. You still see this all the time in Japan, even now, that the transient is not opposed, that the transient is still allowed.
There are people who detect another gray hair, another wrinkle, and don’t rush to the beauty shop, but look at the remains and say things are coming along as they’re supposed to. It’s this sort of thing that shows that Japanese spirituality survives.
You spent time with renowned Zen philosopher Daisetsu Suzuki. Do you think Zen is still a vital force?
I think if you take it inside of yourself, yes. Zen is very existential; Zen holds you responsible for what you make of yourself or don’t make of yourself. My very healthy sense of skepticism I owe largely to my Zen training. I’m sure Dr. Suzuki would be the first to repudiate me [laughs], but that’d be his job.
What first inspired you to become a writer?
First I learned to read, and when I learned to read I realized I had some control over my environment, over who I was and could be, simply through the word. This discovery was parallel to my discovery of the movies. But in reading, I could exercise a degree of control.
I discovered that by writing I could have even more control. By choosing words and putting them in patterns, I could make people feel exactly the same way I was feeling. I discovered this when I was about 8 years old. From then on writing became what I did, what I was about. I was about the written word and I remain so. It is the means through which I can interpret what I experience.
What is your daily routine?
I have four or five works on the go at all times. I have a big book, whatever that is; I have smaller pieces; and then a couple of things I’m thinking about doing. Right now I am polishing a translation of a [Yasunari] Kawabata novel. That’s my big book. Then I have an introduction to write for a new book about tattoos. Then I’m experimenting with porn. I am writing a series of erotica. I’m trying to use pornographic materials in a non-pornographic form. This morning I worked on porn. But tomorrow I have to work on Kawabata.
How has your knowledge of various artistic forms informed your writing?
Critics have said film has influenced my writing profoundly, as indeed it has. Our way of regarding reality has been commandeered by the film. When I’m writing, I think “Ah, this is a [Michaelangelo] Antonioni shot!” One of my novels, “Companions of the Holiday,” now out of print, is pure Ozu — it’s very much like an Ozu film in the way it’s structured.
Film is the most direct medium there is. It’s a direct shot into the system; everything else has to undergo some translation. When you write you have to translate from the word into the image and then that goes into the brain.
What do you feel about recent writing by Westerners on Japan?
It gets much more sophisticated as time goes on. There’s no more “gee, raw fish” or “boy, did I have trouble with that toilet” — no books about that anymore. What you do have is a sort of responsibility that is new. You have books about the Emperor which attempt to be responsible, and books like (Karel) van Wolferen’s “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” which are responsible about describing the structure of Japan. You don’t find any kind of real Orientalism now. You don’t have any innocents abroad, funny experiences among the slant-eyed people sort of junk — that’s out. That’s all an improvement. There’s a kind of movement toward maturity in writings about Japan by foreigners.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media about Japan being rendered irrelevant on the global stage by its prolonged economic demise. What’s your view?
Japan is irrelevant if relevance consists of making wads of money and calling that life. The future relevance of Japan is to pick up where it left off before it became a bubble empire. The 10-year period of enormous wealth brought out the worst in the country. Everybody became nouveau riche, sprinkling gold leaf on their sushi.
Now, thankfully, that is over. Now they can go back to being Japanese. And to be Japanese is to be frugal, to be decently poor. Japanese traditionally didn’t have anything besides mud, so they made the best pottery going. They didn’t have any furniture because they were too poor, so they developed the whole science of space, called ma, to account for emptiness.
This is what the world needs from Japan. The country has shown how much can be made of little. The glutted, materialistic, philistine world can learn something from Japan. This has been Japan’s traditional role, and so now it can go back to it. And indeed it will go back to it because it has nothing else to go back to.