Donald Richie was my friend and mentor for more than 20 years and my inspiration before that. When I was preparing to come to Japan for the first time in 1975, I read many books about the place, but Donald’s masterpiece “The Inland Sea” was the one that entranced me. My first long trip after my arrival was to — where else? — the Inland Sea, with the woman who would become my wife.
I didn’t meet Donald until 1991, however. I had been writing film reviews for The Japan Times for about two years, with him very much in mind, when he sent me a complimentary note about one — my first-ever fan letter. I was over the moon: My hero had validated me, though he was similarly generous with many other younger film writers and scholars, I was later to realize. Donald was hardly a saint, but territoriality and the competitiveness that goes with it were foreign to his makeup. (What did the writer of “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” and “Ozu: His Life and Films,” as well as other seminal texts on Japanese cinema, have to fear from the latest successor to his old reviewing gig?)
Not long after, we shared a bullet train from Tokyo to Odawara: The then editor of The Japan Times Weekly had invited us to his apartment there for a contributors’ party. The thought of boring the author of “The Inland Sea” on a long train ride terrified me, but Donald immediately put me at ease and I found, to my relief and delight, that we shared more than a thing for Kurosawa and Ozu (he rated the latter higher than the former; I at the time, the opposite). We were both from small-town Ohio (he Lima, me Zaneville), were both left-handed (though he had been “corrected” out of it as a child, to his regret) and, more importantly, could make each other laugh with wisecracks, though his came out sounding like epigrams.
He had little regard for many of the New Wave directors of the 1990s — he cordially despised the oeuvre of Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano — but went with me to many screenings of new Japanese films, and not only out of a desire to keep up: For several years he wrote reviews for the International Herald Tribune and would show me clippings when we met. We were seldom completely out of synch on any given film, including the rare ones he felt came up to his standards.
We also suffered together through the bad ones, with Donald popping breath mints at a faster rate than usual to fend off sleep, not always successfully. Once at a screening of a ponderous indie film, our heads were both drooping as the lights went up and I recognized the young director, sitting in the same aisle. At the door he anxiously solicited Donald’s opinion. “The black-and-white photography was superb,” he told Sion Sono in familiar Japanese. “Who was your cameraman?”
“He knows I hated it,” Donald said with a chuckle as we walked out. “That’s the worst thing you can tell a director, isn’t it? ‘I liked the cinematography.’ ”
On the other hand, when we saw Hirokazu Koreeda’s 1998 life-after-death fantasy “Wandafuru Raifu” at the Imagica screening room in Gotanda, the mints stayed in his pocket. At the end we looked at each other and smiled — words were unnecessary. Again we met the director at the door, but this time Donald introduced himself and exchanged name cards. Koreeda knew who Donald was — this was not a given with directors of his generation — and was suitably impressed when he praised the film warmly. “One thing, though,” Donald added. “You shouldn’t use ‘Wonderful Life’ as the English title. People will confuse it with the Frank Capra film.” At Koreeda’s request, Donald later came up with “After Life” and thus began a friendship that became Donald’s closest with any young Japanese director.
I also often attended private film screenings at his small apartment on the eighth floor of a building overlooking Shinobazu Pond in Ueno. (“It’s as close as Tokyo comes to Central Park,” he told me.) Sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes a small group of friends. (Four, including Donald, was usually the limit given the size of his dining room/living room/bedroom.)
He typically began the festivities with a simple, but delicious, meal he had prepared himself, Japanese-style curry and a green salad being two favorites. The film, selected in advance by Donald, was usually by the European and Asian auteurs he considered the crème de la créme, such as Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, though he would occasionally show something more cultish and obscure. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” which he thought the best of the horror genre, was about as close as he came to revisiting the films of his youth; nostalgic for old Hollywood he was not.
His screen was only an old television that fit into his closet, unconnected to a TV antenna, but while the film was playing, he gave it his absolute attention (with never a breath mint in sight). Given my own dissolute home movie-watching habits, sitting upright for two hours on one of his straight-backed chairs was not easy, but I came to appreciate his style of devotion to and respect for the cinema he loved. The film over and the lights on, we could truly discuss because we had truly seen. He was my only film school — and the best I could ever have.
Mark Schilling is The Japan Times’ Japanese-film critic.