Friday, November 8, 2013

Flirting With Japan, Donald Richie's Mistress Muse

Richie smitten in Tokyo in the 50s. Via.

Donald Richie, the noted critic of Japanese culture and film, compares the experience of the expatriate to a man in an affair. First, infatuation: everything is wonderful and new. Later, disgust: everything is terrible, no different from the place he left. At last, a middle ground: everything is no more wonderful or terrible than anywhere else.

But in Japan, Richie found his most enticing and enduring mistress. He made it his life’s work to chronicle her moods and caprices, but also her refinements—how good she looks on screen! he might have said—and her hidden charms.

On the occasion of Japan Society's ongoing film series tribute to Donald Richie, who passed away earlier this year, we take a look at three of his most well-known works on his chosen muse: The Inland Sea, a not-quite-travel-book; The Japan Journals, a frank record of friendships, lovers, and insights spanning over half a century; and A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Richie’s definitive take on the cinema and its masters that he so loved.

The Inland Sea

Donald Richie takes up the mantle of noted 19th century Japan enthusiast Lafcadio Hearn as he goes in search of a fading Japan in The Inland Sea. Like Hearn, who wrote his Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan while in the "provincial backwater" of Shimane Prefecture, Richie takes his search not to Tokyo, already a glittering hubbub in the late 60s when Richie was composing the book, nor to Osaka, its eccentric Southern cousin. Rather, he turns to the Seto Naikai, the island-dotted "inland sea" that lies between the three main islands of Shikoku, Kyūshū, and Honshū.

If there is one word to describe Richie’s writing in this work, it is unapologetic. He doesn’t hesitate to pass judgment as an interested observer, with lines like: "High places excite the Japanese. Jumping from a height remains a favorite form of suicide," or "I know of no more people lacking the religious sense than [the Japanese].They love the rituals of religion in the same way they love the ritual of the tea ceremony…"

Yet, his is not the voice of a foreigner bemused by quirks. If Richie is sometimes seized by the incongruity between the natural and modern Japan, the former now almost a thing of myth, it is because he recognizes the same within himself.

The Inland Sea of ancient fishermen is fading. The islands pierced through by new bridges, Richie writes in the epilogue, one can no longer cross the sea by boat. Only by the no-stops, look-out-the-window bus, tour bus. But this is only "the prelude, the overture." This leg done, he turns south.
My search is for the real Japanese, the originals. The ur-Nihonjin. In this I am no to be put off by doubts, by fears, nor by such reasoned observations as that private remark by one of the most popular writers on Japan: The soul of the Japanese is like the heart of the onion; you peel off layer after layer, then expectantly, hopefully, you peel more, finally you reach the center, the heart, the core: the onion has none.

Somewhere—somewhere near the sea, I believe—I will find them: the people the Japanese ought to be, the people they once were.
The Japan Journals

In 1970, a year before the publication of The Inland Sea, Richie was asked by the Japan Times to write a piece on the death of Yukio Mishima, a man with whom he had enjoyed a long friendship. In an essay on the subject that would draw on previous entries from his own journal, Richie writes of a conversation with the author:
'Japan,' I remember his [Mishima] saying, last summer, ‘Japan is gone, vanished disappeared.’

‘Is there no way to save it?’ I wondered. ‘No,’ he said, ‘there is nothing left to save.’
Richie never stops saving. In over half a century of not-quite-daily or even yearly entries, faithfully edited by Leza Lowitz from Richie’s journals, we see a man eager to make sense not so much of that place called Japan that he made his home but of himself. Richie writes with wit—de-worming, and its ensuing digestive calamities, becomes a metaphor for the American Occupation—heart, and the occasional doubt.

An outsider to both Japan and America, Richie becomes an in for the giants of both. He goes to the gym with Mishima and takes him to visit "every Saint Sebastian hanging in New York" (read Confessions of a Mask for the reference). Gone to greet Truman Capote at the Tokyo airport, Richie is met with a dour, "All I can say is that you certainly wouldn’t know they’d lost the war."

Most often the observer, Richie grants us a look behind the curtain: liaisons with men, a troubled marriage, a romantic sensibility (crowds in Shinjuku like "Edo street scenes of Hokusai").

In The Japan Journals, Richie stands shoulder to shoulder with giants, and sees keenly.
One of those days. I run off the track. I can see, when I look back, the plodding footprints in the desert behind me. Just where do I think I am going? Here I am a novelist who writes few novels, a critic who usually can’t even criticize himself, a husband who prefers sleeping with men. Yet, somehow all those unwritten novels were supposed to appear; my criticism was to strike every target; and marriage was to save me. But no, not at all—and marriage is killing me.

The reluctance to find oneself—the evasions. And the burden of it. No wonder I wanted someone to share it. But one does not drop one’s history any more than does the plodding turtle drop its shell."
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

Neophytes to the world of Japanese cinema, even those familiar with contemporary masters like Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano, can do no better than Richie’s Hundred Years of Japanese Film. In his sprawling, if selective, analysis, Richie takes us from the era of benshi, or silent film narrators, to the modern days of manga and anime (he even brings up Osamu Tezuka near the end). In the process, he not only introduces a variety of works and cinematic techniques but also provides some historical context behind the masterpieces.

In one section Richie discusses the differing ways in which filmmakers responded to calls for jingoistic propaganda during the war years. On one hand, Yamamoto Kajiro, mentor to Akira Kurosawa, went along wholesale with government policy in films like The War at Sea, which recreated the bombing of Pearl Harbor with such accuracy that Occupation authorities later mistook it for footage from the actual event. On the other, Yasujiro Ozu of Tokyo Story fame managed to please the censors while doing nothing to advance their agenda.

Ozu, as well as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, feature prominently in Richie’s book. As a result, some have noted that "his history is largely the history of the studio A-list, and of the A-list studios," with Richie making no secret of his personal favorites. Then again, those who know him from The Inland Sea and other works will be unsurprised by his straightforward style, which, as always, makes no apologies for taste.
Kurosawa’s lack of accommodation to received ideas has allowed some Japanese critics to call him their ‘least Japanese’ director. The description is understandable in that he is ‘Western’ enough to be openly individual. Completely uninterested in the standard program film, and failing whenever he was forced to make one, he has gone beyond the accepted confines of cinematic language as the Japanese understood them and, in doing so, has broadened them. Consequently, perhaps, his films have been widely accepted in the West itself.
--Andres Oliver

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