Film critics often have a not-so-secret desire to get behind the camera themselves. Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Bogdanovich are among those who made the leap successfully, though Bogdanovich returned to writing after his directing career faltered in the mid-’70s. Even thumbs-up critic Roger Ebert once ventured a screenplay, for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Wrote friend Mike Royko after a screening: “Every young man is entitled to one big mistake.”
Donald Richie has worn the label of “foremost foreign authority on Japanese cinema” for decades. Arriving in Japan in 1947 as a 23-year-old soldier with the Occupation forces, Richie has lived here, with breaks for work and study, ever since.
A film buff since childhood, he witnessed Japanese cinema’s Golden Age — and its subsequent decline — first-hand, while getting to know many of its leading figures. He wrote pioneering studies on Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, as well as a history of Japanese cinema with Joseph Anderson that, since its publication in 1959, has come to be regarded as a standard text. Today he teaches a course on Ozu at the Tokyo campus of Temple University and reviews Japanese films for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been, at various stages of his career, a poet, short-story writer, novelist, composer and — no surprise — filmmaker.
According to his filmography, he has made 39 short films, from a 1941 boyhood effort called “Small Town Sunday,” shot with an 8-mm camera given to him by his parents, to a 1975 documentary on Kurosawa, with all but three dating from the ’50s and ’60s. Before first seeing them, at Haiyu-za in Roppongi several years ago, I imagined something Ozu-esque. I imagined wrong — the Ozu influence is there, but Richie’s work is too individual and diverse to mark him as a disciple of anyone, let alone Ofuna’s master of domestic drama.
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First, there are few, if any, concessions to commercial filmmaking conventions or mass-audience tastes. Though all his films are without dialogue or even intertitles, thus making them easily screenable from Ueno to Ulan Bator, they are also free of censorship, internal or otherwise. They are, in a word, dangerous to impressionable minds, offering not only frontal male nudity (“Atami Blues”), a masturbating youth (“Boy With Cat”), grappling gay lovers (“Dead Youth”) and gourmet cannibalism (“Five Filosophical Fables”) — now relatively acceptable stuff in mainstream films — but still-shocking glimpses of animal sacrifice (“Wargames”) and ritual castration (“Cybele”).
Describing his first experience of seeing Richie’s films at a Tokyo theater in 1960, artist Tadanori Yokoo later wrote, “I thought then that the man who made them must have been a devil.” Yokoo became a fervent fan, a personal friend and a contributor to the program for the retrospective of Richie’s films that Image Forum is screening March 17-April 6 at its Shibuya theater.
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Richie’s films, however, are more than the sum of their shock value — a faded currency indeed. Instead, they are free-ranging investigations into the aesthetics of cinema, black comic looks at human nature, unblinking gazes into the abyss. In form they range from the Imagist poetry of “Dead Youth,” with its provocative vision of beauty in death, to the idyllic, erotic haiku of “Boy With Cat.” Some, such as “Life” and “Five Filosophical Fables,” are laugh-out-loud funny in the best slapstick tradition, while others — such as the 1962 “Wargames,” in which a beachside scrap between young boys ends in the death of a goat — are thought-provoking and soul-chilling. Their images seem to come from not only the director’s dreams, but the deep memory of humanity, in all its archaic wonder and terror.
These films are very much of their time, especially the ’60s, when artists such as Yokoo, Nagisa Oshima, Yukio Mishima, Shuji Terayama and Yoko Ono were challenging orthodoxies, pushing boundaries and moving beyond Japan to the world. Richie’s work was, for many of these artists, a window to the outside, a path forward. Through his films, with their borderless aesthetic and sensibility, their insistence on personal honesty and artistic freedom to the limits of society’s tolerance and beyond, one can glimpse the later erotic transgressions of “The Empire of the Senses (Ai no Corrida)” (1976) or the dark satire of “The Funeral (Ososhiki)” (1984). Though it’s an exaggeration to say that where Richie led, others followed, he laid a groundwork and created an atmosphere or, as Yokoo might put it, injected his audiences with the poison of an art that undermined and inspired, upset and liberated.
The ferment of that time has long since subsided. The avant-garde affronts of yesterday can be seen in the mall multiplex today, while the cutting-edge young filmmakers are more influenced by anime and arcade games than the films of Robert Bresson and Maya Deren. Nonetheless, Richie’s films stubbornly retain their power, passing their special poison to a new generation. Instead of a youthful “big mistake,” they remain central to an understanding of not only Richie’s protean artistry, but a generation of Japanese cinema.