The champion of Ozu’s masterwork “Tokyo Story”

by Tadao Sato

Special To The Japan Times

Nowadays, the name of the Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) is known throughout the world. But it wasn’t always like this — and it might never have been, without the efforts of Donald Richie.

After Ozu’s masterpiece “Tokyo Story” was released in 1953, Japanese production companies didn’t even think to enter it in international film festivals. They just didn’t believe that such a “Japanese” film would ever be appreciated by foreign audiences. Only one person tried to convince them they were making a big mistake: Richie.

The production companies didn’t listen, but Richie didn’t give up. He took it upon himself to introduce Ozu’s films to international audiences at every available opportunity. He was often invited to curate screenings at foreign festivals, and he would include Ozu’s films. The result of those efforts was that very gradually the quality of Ozu’s work became known to the world. Ozu’s reputation grew and grew until “Tokyo Story” began turning up on “Best Film of All Time” rankings.

It is an extraordinary tale. I don’t know of any other film about which acclaim has steadily grown like this for so long — over half a century. That it happened is of course due to the efforts of Richie. He was an exemplary critic — one who demonstrated to us all what was possible.

Six years Donald Richie’s junior, Tadao Sato began writing film reviews in 1952. He thus witnessed first-hand the rise during the 1950s and ’60s of Richie to his position as pre-eminent Western critic on Japanese film. Sato’s respect for his American counterpart was reciprocated. In a preface to the English translation of Sato’s collected essays, “Currents in Japanese Cinema” (1982), Richie described Sato as “Japan’s single finest critic.” The latter is now the dean of the Japan Institute of Moving Images.