Donald Richie has always struck me as the ideal role model for the aspiring writer. More the distiller than the brewer, the cordon-bleu chef than the bone-cook, there is much to be learned from Richie’s refinements.
The foremost Western writer on Japanese cinema, Richie was instrumental in bringing Japanese film to the attention of the West during the ’50s and ’60s, a period here of almost violent creativity in the arts and movie industry. His gifts as a narrator have served him well in describing film, which is, after all, an essentially narrative form.
Richie’s efforts to write in a way that replicates the texture of the cinematic medium are apparent in his most recent book, “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film.” Here, a Nobuo Yamada script is described as a work that is as “prosaic of fact as it is baroque of gesture,” while Masao Kosugi’s black-and-white photography is “purposely grainy, with strong contrasts, looking like a feudal newsreel.”
Instead of rehashing old models and theorems, resting as he could so easily do on his laurels as a film guru — an expression he would surely grimace at — Richie uses the book as an opportunity to subject his own ideas on film to a scrupulous re-examination. To help us make our own assessment of the films he discusses, useful capsule reviews of selected titles available in VHS and DVD formats are also included at the back of the book, and black-and-white stills appear on almost every page.
If you have ever wondered at terms like “Jun-Bungaku,” “keiko-eiga,” or the puzzling “ero-guro-nansensu,” “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film” offers the chance to acquire some of the lexicon of Japanese film-making. It is a tribute to the writer that, barely 60 pages into the book, a sentence such as “During the same period that the ‘gedaigeki’ was being developed from, among other things, the ‘shimpa,’ the new ‘jidaigeki’ was being fashioned from the old kabuki-based ‘kyuha’ ” makes perfect sense. We are, we realize, being educated, groomed in film literacy.
Richie writes of how early Japanese audiences marveled at the way cinema could provide a fresh charge to age-old themes such as love vs. duty, responsibility prevailing over emotion, double suicide, foment within the family, and much more. Sadly, very little of this early Japanese film survives. The 1923 earthquake, incendiary bombing during World War II, the torching of films deemed politically incorrect by Occupation forces, and the disinterest of the industry itself in its own beginnings account, in Richie’s estimation, for the destruction of roughly 90 percent of prewar film stock. As sensitive a curator as you could hope for, Richie does a sterling job in the book of reconstructing these works and restoring the original intentions of the directors to the remains of damaged stills and clips.
On the teasing question of what makes Japanese cinema quintessentially different, something we instinctively recognize but stumble for words to express, Richie assists: “While Western plot stresses occurrence, causality and responsibility,” he tells us, “Japan’s traditional narrative means, the ‘suji,’ emphasizes sequential flow, connection, association.”
Richie finds what he terms the presentational ethos more to the fore in the East, the representational ethos more dominant in the West: “The idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity, not often encountered in Western cinema, is seen again and again in Japanese movies.” What is requisitioned from outside is deliberately localized, customized for home needs, not so much adopted as absorbed and inducted, issued with a new, thoroughly Japanese identity.
In the cinema, as in everything else derived from elsewhere, however, identity, as Richie states, “is, in the process, more constructed than discovered.” We realize through Richie’s lens that Japanese cinema “is singular in its closeness to popular literature,” that, even in respect to the action film, often a pot-boiler made to keep film companies solvent, Richie observes that the violence contained in these movies, “(like so much Japanese blood-letting) is an aesthetic spectacle, the patterns of disorder are composed into compositions which filter the excitement and render beauty from chaos.”
Richie sets other records and assumptions straight in this work. The casual viewer, for example, might suppose that the prevalence of actresses playing geisha in the early silent films was a reflection of the cultural tastes of the age, whereas, as Richie points out, the Mitsukoshi department store, an early sponsor of film, was simply responding in its cinematic projects to the fact that its geisha postcards sold better than other themes. If Mitsukoshi customers had shown more interest in cards depicting the races at Le Mans, or the well-known sopranos of the day, that is probably what they would have been served in the Meiji and Taisho era picture palaces.
“A Hundred Years of Japanese Film” is also a century of Japanese history as storyboarded by cinema. Taisho Era democracy, the early struggles of the left, the militarization of Japan, defeat, the Occupation, postwar revival and slump: The collective dreams and anxieties of the Japanese century are captured on film. It is a measure of the intensity of early Showa Era cinema, for example, that the highest-grossing silent film ever made, the thoughtful, 1930 proletariat work “What Made Her Do It?” is an attack on the social and spiritual poverty of capitalism.
Richie makes no attempt to disguise his own film preferences. The emotional intensity of Kenji Mizoguchi’s single, protracted shot, the camera poised like a tightly coiled spring for an entire sequence, has great appeal. Here is a director so demanding that he once complained to a writer that the script “failed to portray people so real that the audience could smell their body odor.” The beauty of Ozu’s single-frame, low-positioned camera does not go unpraised, nor the excitement the writer feels at new work by directors like Satoshi Isaka and Hirokazu Kore’eda.
Some of the most critical analysis comes toward the end, in the sections entitled “Making Audiences” and “The New Independents,” in which Richie turns a battery of magnesium lamps on the Japanese film industry, an unflattering light that demonstrates the way films get made. Not content to review films that have settled into a historical niche with the passage of time, Richie attempts the far more difficult task of analyzing and placing highly contemporary films, like Shinji Aoyama’s 2001 release “Eureka” or the work of Jun Ichikawa, into a meaningful film context.
Richie sees much hope in a crop of young directors like Kohei Oguri and Mitsuo Yanagimachi, who have managed to retain their independence and integrity by refusing “to sell out to violence as a panacea for emptiness.” Fortunately, while cinema reflects trends, it also intimates counter-tendencies.
For over half a century, Richie has been our projectionist. One suspects, however, that “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film” may be Richie’s last word on the subject, the author’s final cut. If so, it is a fitting coda to a lifetime of work from a writer who, to no small degree, helped to save Japanese cinema from what might easily have been 100 years of obscurity.