Donald Richie, who spent more than 60 of his 88 years in Japan and introduced the English-speaking world to post-World War II Japanese cinema, died February 19 in Tokyo. He is best known for his writings on the great Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.
In 1959, Richie and Joseph Anderson wrote “The Japanese Film: Art and Industry” which is considered the first English language book on the Japanese cinema. In addition to writing nearly 40 books, including several on Kurosawa, he recorded commentary for the Criterion Collection’s DVDs of many films, including Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and Kon Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain” and wrote the English subtitles for several of Kurosawa’s films. He was also active in the experimental film world in the 1950s and 1960s, making lyrical 8 and 16 mm movies.
Born in Lima, Ohio in 1924, Richie first set foot in Japan in 1947 as part of the allied occupation of that defeated country. In an interview for Midnight Eye in 2003 to celebrate the centenary of Ozu’s birth, Richie said he had spent the war in the Merchant Marine “which meant I didn’t have to carry a gun around and kill people. I simply had to move necessities like chocolate bars and toilet paper around.” Since he had escaped from Ohio and didn’t want to return, partly because of America’s attitude toward homosexuals, he got himself assigned to Japan as a “champion typist” and never left except for a few years to attend Columbia University. According to Richie, the Japanese reaction to the occupation was waving American flags as the trucks rolled by. “The Japanese reaction was what I think Bush hoped that the Iraqi reaction would be, and was disappointed when he didn’t get it.”
In a series of memoirs and travel books, Richie documented his own life as an expatriate in a country that did not welcome strangers. Openly bisexual, he said that he might have rejected America but he never pretended that he could become Japanese.
“Japanese readers are very much in two minds about me,” he told Midnight Eye. “I’ve only had two or three books translated. My aims are much more international…I write to make a pattern in the carpet. I write to make sense of things.” One of the things he tried to make western readers understand was the universality of Ozu’s films, including his masterpiece, “Tokyo Story.” “Ozu is not exotic. If people look at an Andy Hardy film, they should be able to understand Ozu. Ozu is home drama, but home drama pushed to the heights of art.”