Donald Richie, the world-famous film scholar,specialist of Japanese cinema and culture, passed away of heart failure in Tokyo on February 19 at the age of 88.
His voluminous body of work (books, articles,films…) is a living tribute and a very long love letter to Japan. He arrived in1947 with the US occupation force, and wrote mainly on films for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. His love story with Japan never ended, until his last days in Tokyo, where he lived in a small apartment in Ueno.
All film scholars and historians specializing in Japanese film, like me and so many others (I am thinking of Ian Buruma, or Mark Schilling), are forever indebted to him.
Born on April 17, 1924, in Lima, Ohio, Donald could never have guessed he would spend most of his life in Japan, and become the world's foremost specialist on Japanese film and culture. But World War II and the Army decided for him. In spite of (or thanks to?) the war and Japanese defeat, he was lucky to arrive in Japan just before the revival of Japanese cinema, and the second Golden Age of the 1950s and 60s. Shortly after landing in Japan in 1947, Donald wrote in his diary, "I remain in a state of surprise, and this leads to heightened interest and hence perception (…). Like a child with a puzzle, I am forever putting pieces together and saying, ‘Of course!’". He returned to the States from 1949 to 1953, but was back in Japan in 1954, and started to write for the Japan Times.
Of the 40 books he authored, the most enduring one was The Japanese Film, Art and Industry, co-written with American film critic Joseph L. Anderson. First published in 1959 and updated several times (notably in 1983), it is widely regarded as the "bible" for those interested in Japanese cinema. In the heydays of filmmaking in the 1950s, Donald was able to witness the location shoots of classic films by Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood, 1957) and Ozu Yasujiro, who was then little known outside of Japan. Hehas since written definitive books on both director: The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1965, first edition), and Ozu, His Life and Films (1971,also translated into French) and Focus on Rashomon (1987). He also met actor Toshiro Mifune, when he was starting to collaborate with Kurosawa and, great writer Yukio Mishima before his suicide in 1970. He began to write regular reviews for the Japan Times in 1954(up to 2009), covering films, theater and literature. But mainly, he contributed to the discovery of Japanese cinema in the USA and in the West, at a time when it was still very little known, if not for a few classics like Rashomon, Ugetsu or Tokyo Story. He later published A Hundred Years of Japanese Films (2001), including a selective guide to DVDs and videos. Inthe wake of the Japanese "Nouvelle Vague”, Donald also directed a few experimental shorts films like Wargames (1962), Atami Blues (1962), Boy with Cat (1967), Dead Youth (1967), Five Philosophical Fables (1967), or Cybele (1968), some of them dealing with homosexuality.
Donald also contributed greatly to NETPAC’s previous quarterly magazine Cinemaya. He was on its advisory board and wrote regularly for the magazine since the very beginning in 1988. In 2005, the organisation honoured his contribution with the Best Writing on Cinema award at Osians-Cinefan Film Festival.
I met Donald for the first time in 1973, when I was offered a grant from the Japan Foundation to study Japanese cinema for one year in Tokyo. I was able to see dozens of films at the Film Center, before the era of video, DVDs or Internet. He was always so nice and helpful, and I could consider myself as his first French "deshi" (pupil or disciple).
Between 1969 and 1972, Donald was appointed as a curator for film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but returned to Japan afterwards. He never tried to become a Japanese citizen (which is not allowed by the Japanese law), but just a resident of the country he has fallen in love with.
He also wrote several books about his own travels in Japan, the most famous of all being The Inland Sea (1971),which was later made into a film version in 1991, winning many awards in festivals, notably in Hawaii and at the Sundance film festival. It is significant that his ashes were to be spread by his friends into the same inland sea. In 1992, he expressed his disappointment that he could no longer recognise the aggressively urbanized Japan. On the other hand, he admitted he was able to declare his homosexuality and be accepted easier in Japan than in his native Ohio. He wrote a number of books on the hidden side of Japanese life,like Tokyo Nights (2005) andPublic People, Private People. Extended excerpts of his diaries have been published under the title The Donald Richie Reader, The Japan Journals: 1947-2004.
Despite suffering from a number of heart attacks, he was, until recently, still writing and occasionally traveling.
As Paul Schrader puts it: "Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie".
Dear Donald, please wait for us in the paradise of Japanese cinema, with Akira, Ozu, Kenji, Mikio and so many other great directors you have discovered and made us fall in love with.
by Max Tessier