Remembering Donald Richie (1924 – 2013)
- 6 March 2013
In Paul Schrader’s words, "Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie". If Richie spearheaded – or, more accurately, constituted – the first generation of Western writers on Japanese cinema, then the makers of this website could be said to represent a third. A generation that, unlike the second wave of Tony Rayns, Mark Schilling, Ian Buruma, Max Tessier et al, received their Richie influence in arguably more indirect ways. His passing is not only an occasion for Midnight Eye to pay tribute to Donald Richie, but also to investigate that influence and how it has resonated through the decades – and will doubtlessly continue to resonate for many decades to come.
Donald Richie remembered by:
- Jasper Sharp
- Tom Mes
- Nicholas Rucka
- Alexander Jacoby
- Marc Saint-Cyr
- Julian Ross
- Jason Gray
- Chris Magee
- Bryan Hartzheim
(With special thanks to Karen Severns and Emiko Namikawa.)
Suddenly it hits. After the all-pervading presence, next the sudden rush of in memoriam reminiscences and personal tributes, detailed accounts of a life lived (and how so!), assessments of legacy, and the meaning of it all - accelerated that much more in the digital age, as we struggle to assess what Donald and his prolific output meant to us all, individually and institutionally, and to phrase it in as eloquent a manner as would befit our subject, striving to capture him in all his complexity. Then we’re left facing the absence, the gaping void left by the departure of the man for whom generations of us writers who have made Japan our "subject" owe so much.
But exactly how should we remember Donald Richie? Midnight Eye has always been a website about Japanese cinema, after all, and as the first major Western writer to even come close to tackling the subject with any degree of passion, affinity and sincerity, Donald Richie's passing presents us with a defining moment. His and Joseph Anderson’s pivotal The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (1959) might not have been the first book on Japanese cinema I ever read, but it was the most important for me in outlaying exactly what was out there and how all the pieces fell into place. It's a work I still consult regularly, and so its author’s voice seems hardly likely to fade any time soon.
It has to be said, he was not always a fan of the type of films we covered, nor much of the recent wave of Western appreciation for Japan’s cinema, something he was quick to point out in his review of The Midnight Eye Guide to Japanese Film. However, looking back at this piece now, I realise a lot of his comments were very measured and fair, and I have come to agree with a lot of them myself.
It has been written elsewhere recently (by Mark Schilling I believe) that Donald never was an unconditional cinephile. He was a man who knew his own tastes and chose his viewing wisely, despite film criticism being the most conspicuous of the many strings to his bow. Not so long after I interviewed him for this website, over ten years ago now, I realised that he was far more than just a film critic, which is akin to someone who would go into a restaurant and point out what the best thing on the menu was. He was someone who would throw away the menu entirely and rewrite it to fit his own tastes. More than that, his writing on Japanese cinema was part of a larger project of coming to understand the land he adopted as his home.
As such, Donald’s work certainly shaped many of our opinions on Japan, in a post-war era when the whole country was being scrutinised for what it did or didn't mean on a purely political level, with little regard as to what it actually was. But those who read him closely, and not only through his books on cinema, soon realise that the people and their culture that he is ostensibly writing about were merely his foil. He was, as he himself often said, mainly writing about himself, the character of a stranger in a stranger land.
I think it is in this respect that Donald, with whom I maintained a genial relationship since that inspirational interview, has had the most profound influence on me. As a critic specialising in a national cinema, one has to tread very carefully in attempting to describe a country by your own interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of a surface reality. During the years I lived in Japan, the more I tried to understand the country, the more elusive it appeared. One scratched the surface, and then another surface appeared beneath. The process however saw me returning to Britain with fresh eyes, as I realised the futility of the whole project of trying to describe or prescribe notions of a national culture. Life is too weird and wonderful for that; much better to be aware of one’s own perspective among the chaos of ideas and artefacts.
Discursive, opinionated and witty, Donald always presented his readers with an entertaining read, albeit an occasionally contentious one. "I write to make a pattern in the carpet. I write to make sense of things" was the most revealing comment quote from him that I remember from our interview in the bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan all those years ago. Some might have criticised him for what appeared to be conservative tastes, others for his lack of academic rigour or for the personality shining through the opinions. But what I suspect is that without his six decades of highly engaging writing on Japanese cinema, the subject might well have been confined to the stark white corridors of academia, resounding as they do with the echoes of voices talking entirely among themselves. And certainly no patterned carpets.
I am deeply grateful to Donald Richie for leaving wide enough gaps in his chronicling of Japanese cinema to allow me a career as a writer on the same subject.
Well, it is a broad subject. To broad for any one man to cover, even a man of Richie’s indisputably immense stature.
I only started reading Donald Richie’s writings after several decades of watching Japanese films. In that sense, I cannot describe him as an influence, not even a guiding one. By the time I first opened one of his books, my tastes and inclinations had been well and truly formed.
Richie’s "impatience with much of modern Japanese cinema" (as Alexander Jacoby phrases it below) found an echo in my impatience with much of his writing on the subject (see my review of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film elsewhere on this website). But when my first book on Takashi Miike came out in 2003, Richie, despite "cordially despising" the filmmaker, pleaded with the editors of the Japan Times to publish Mark Schilling’s review of the book. (To no avail – Mark’s review was eventually published in Cinemaya.) The following year, he also leant Jasper Sharp and myself a promotional blurb for the jacket of our Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, in spite of reservations about some of our editorial choices.
There is no pigeonholing Donald Richie. The very breadth of his writing and his subjects should make this quite clear, while the beauty and the insight that characterise this writing mock any such attempt. And it is unique writing: if Richie’s opinions on recent Japanese film can sometimes seem entrenched (an adjective he and followers like Max Tessier habitually used to describe the Japanese film industry from the 1980s onward), those opinions originated from a standpoint, a worldview. How many people who write about film can claim to possess a worldview, let alone the skill to express it in their work?
I never had the fortune of being introduced to Donald Richie, though we were in the same spaces and at the same events a good number of times. On the postcard I sent to wish him well on his recovery from a stroke a few years ago, I jokingly described myself as "the villain of the piece", referring to my role in Karen Severns and Koichi Mori’s in-progress Donald Richie documentary – knowing that if I made it into the final edit, I would be surrounded by people who would be much more reverent of Richie than I was. From what I heard, he appreciated the jest.
Surely there are few greater joys for any kind of opinionated writer than to read dissenting voices – articulate ones, at least. It’s like the almighty Saviour Machine from David Bowie’s song of the same name, who wishes for nothing more than argument: "Please don’t believe in me / Please disagree with me!"
The opening sentence of this piece of writing is not nearly as glib as it may seem. The ultimate goal of any theory should be redundancy: it means you inspired a great many others to follow the path you began building. And to deviate from it. But divergence is by nature a relative thing: without an origin, there can be none.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to have lunch in Tokyo with Donald Richie. I was nervous. I’d been writing about Japanese cinema for several years by that point, but I was petrified of sticking my foot in my mouth while talking to the man who introduced Ozu and Kurosawa to the West. That combined with the fact that he also trail-blazed with Joseph L. Anderson the pioneering critical study of Japanese cinema, as far as I was concerned, he was THE authority on Japanese film.
However, in addition to this, I’d been making my way through his non-film essays about Japanese culture and society (The Image Factory is a favorite). In short, this was a multifaceted man, who was so deep with knowledge, that it was intimidating. Except it wasn’t. He was warm, inviting and charming. He gave his opinions freely on all topics, from contemporary Japanese cinema, to the 50-plus years he had spent as an expat in Japan.
Since Donald’s passing, I’ve been reflecting on how often in life we get to meet the people who truly change the world. My interest in Japan started when I was very, very young, long before I’d ever heard of Donald Richie; but my relationship with Japan and the years spent authoring critical works on its art and culture were inextricably linked to Donald Richie and the work he’d done.
On the occasion of his passing, it’s worth revisiting the vast library of his output. His Japanese film criticism is apocryphal; his cultural commentary is insightful; but perhaps as I’ve gotten older and after having lived with Japan and her culture for so long, his diaries offer the most profound insights. As Leza Lowitz quotes in her introduction to Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals, he viewed himself as a descriptive journalist but because he could never be fully integrated into Japanese culture, he was forced into a state of permanent objectivity. As he says, "In Japan, from where I am sitting, the light falls just right – I can see the peaks and valleys, the crags and crevasses." Beautifully written, this illustrates how for him this permanent gaijin status was not a negative but a positive position to be in, which allowed him to explore Japan in ways no Japanese could do. No different than any explorer throughout history, Donald Richie crossed the Rubicon, discovered and reported back from an undiscovered land - and did so, with great vitality and insight up until the end.
What I found the day that I met him, though, wasn’t a man who was high on the history he’d documented and disseminated, but someone who truly lived in a state of permanent objectivity, continually exploring and sharing what he’d discovered along the way; whether through his writings or at a lunch with a young, star-struck American who was nervous meeting him. Donald Richie’s passing, while inevitable, is still a loss. He will be missed.
By the time I first met Donald, I had already lived in Japan for more than a year. It was January, 2004; we had been put in touch by the film scholar Joanne Bernardi, whom I had encountered by chance a couple of months earlier while queuing for a screening at the National Film Center in Tokyo. In the new year, I arranged to meet Donald for lunch in a Korean restaurant in Ueno. I ordered a glass of water: "Ohiya o kudasai". I don’t remember where I had learned the words, but Donald turned to me and said, "You know, you’re using a phrase that has almost gone out of use." And then, reflectively, he added, "I’ve been here long enough to see the language change." Even then, it was 57 years since his first arrival in Japan.
He was 22 when he arrived by ship in Yokohama; I was a year older when I first landed at Narita Airport. The short time he spent in Tokyo then, before returning to the United States for university in 1949, now seems a mere prelude to the subsequent decades. It would be another ten years before he published, as co-writer with Joseph Anderson, the history of Japanese cinema on the cover of which I first encountered his name.
Opinions differ about how much of the book is Donald’s and how much is Joseph Anderson’s. It is, I would like to think, a remarkable joint achievement. Of how many other national cinemas can it be said that the standard history is more than fifty years old? It remains an invaluable guide to the first half of Japanese film history – the half that Donald found the most congenial. A better book, perhaps, than A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, in which Donald’s impatience with much of modern cinema is a little too clear. There were modern Japanese films that he liked, too, but most of them were ones that harked back to older models. I thought it fitting, when I learned of his death, that I had been to see Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish the night before; Koreeda was perhaps the modern filmmaker he esteemed most highly. There were not so many others. But he was willing to rethink the opinions he had formed; reading my own book on Japanese film directors in draft, he told me that I had made him see Shinji Aoyama in a new light. I was pleased by that, as I was proud when he agreed to write the foreword. I wonder if the book would have seen the light of day without him.
His histories are still vital texts on Japanese film. I do not return as often to the books on Kurosawa and Ozu, though they are full of perceptive observation and thoughtful argument. But I am not sure that Donald was at his best writing in depth on a single subject. His best work spans topics and genres, leaping from subject to subject and from thought to thought. Perhaps he was more a journalist than a scholar by temperament; certainly, what I remember most from his work are not sustained arguments, but brief, piercing moments of insight. The best of his shorter writings will continue to bear re-reading – and not only those on Japan, since he was a keen traveller into old age. There are clichés, as there usually are in work written to a deadline; in Mongolia, we read, "the traveller feels not only in another country but in another century." But there are also moments of terse, sober description, like this, of an Ulan Bator more Russian than Asian:
"Its colors are tan, brown, gray, winter colors in this late summer, broken by the St. Petersburg blue of a lintel, a door, or the whole front of a house."
It is unremarkable, perhaps, at first reading, but could it be briefer or better? Donald’s own favourite among his books, The Inland Sea, has the same taut grace, the same gift for observation, combined with the poignancy of elegy for the Japan that was slipping away. He regretted its passing, though he remained fascinated by the new. One of his final trips before his health broke was to Shanghai; he had last been there, he told me, in 1945, with the Merchant Marine. I wondered, though I did not ask, why he wanted to go again, when he must have known that he would be saddened by the changes he saw. But he was intrigued by the same changes that he deplored, and by the way in which the personal changes of a lifetime can be measured against the broader transformations of the world.
He was charming, approachable, sometimes candid, and yet one felt there was much that he did not want to show. His voice, with the flat tones of the Midwest, conveyed moderation. He could be enthusiastic, but rarely passionate. Perhaps those who knew him better than I did saw a side to him that I did not. But perhaps that moderation was part of his character – something one can relate to his admiration for Ozu, a director who understood the melancholy nature of life, but who focused his attention on the placid surface of things. Passages in Donald’s Journals suggest, along with the enthusiasm and vitality that I knew, a sadness that was rarely apparent in person. I remember an anecdote, dating from the end of the last century when he was in his mid-70s, and describing his encounter with a homeless man in his 50s. Reflecting on that moment, he recalled his first years as a twenty-something in Japan, and the sight of a five-year-old child begging. Now the circumstances were repeated, except for the gap of fifty years. "Nothing has changed, except everything." There is a pity here for those to whom life has been unkind, but beyond that, in that sense of the individual life against the broad sweep of time, there is a larger, existential sadness. It is what another writer on Japan, Laurence Binyon, called "the old sorrow, no flight can outstrip."
In 2005, I interviewed Donald in Pordenone, Italy, where he was attending the Festival of Silent Film, the Giornate del Cinema Muto, dedicated that year to Japanese cinema. Did he regret, I asked, that he had so few Japanese readers? Would he want to be better known in Japan? He told me that he was more ambitious; he wanted to be "a world figure", to be “emblematic of someone who lived successfully somewhere else.” Pico Iyer called him "the most gracious of guests"; to be a guest, for him, was a vocation.
When I learned of his death, I remembered George Steiner's observation that we are all "guests of life". Although many Westerners live in Japan for a time, few settle permanently there. Perhaps it was easier for Donald to do so, because he understood that even the permanent is ultimately temporary.
At first, I took the loss of Donald Richie as, I’m sure, many other scholars and admirers of Japanese cinema did: as the loss of nothing less than the central pillar of our community. He was there before anyone else, mapping out and guiding us through the rich and generous landscape of Japanese film history that we know so well today because of him. We are very, very lucky to have been able to learn from a teacher as passionate and perceptive as he was. Regarding the latter trait, I think of pieces like “Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography,” not only an essential assessment of the filmmaker’s masterful and frequently misunderstood In the Realm of the Senses, but a piece as intelligent and logical in its arguments as you could hope for. It is that intelligence and logic that made Richie such a valuable mentor for students of Japanese cinema.
But once one adopts a wider view of Richie’s considerable achievements, as I’m sure many will be doing in the days and months ahead, the importance of his role as a cultural reporter becomes particularly pronounced. Through most of his life, he immersed himself in Japanese culture and dutifully shared with the rest of the world his observations and thoughts on his experiences. Those who want to gain a clearer idea of what true ground-level travel writing looks like, of how to properly study a different culture, would do well to draw upon Richie as an exemplary figure. Whether he was looking at Japan through its cinema, through other art forms, or by examining its people, places, and history head-on, Richie devoted to it a heroic measure of respect and commitment. His life’s work will continue to be appreciated by many; so, too, will his philosophy of how we should learn about the world around us.
Donald Richie: Life, Life, Life
Having only read The Japanese Film: Art and Industry and a few articles in The Donald Richie Reader, I’ve probably spent more time with Richie the filmmaker than Richie the writer. Having never met him in person, I’ve also only spent time with Richie the myth and never with Richie the man. Whilst questioning my own qualifications for contributing to this group obituary, I still, nonetheless, feel the urge to put together a few humble words on Donald Richie. Whilst he’ll surely be remembered for "Ozu", "Mizoguchi" and "Kurosawa", I fear his passion and dedication to experimental film may be set aside and forgotten in years to come. So I’d like to share some recent "encounters" I’ve had with Richie during my research on 1960s Japanese experimental film in hope to prevent this.
Last month I met up with Emiko Namikawa, the manager of Runami Gallery in Ginza, and the critic Koichiro Ishizaki, who were together the co-organisers of the event ‘Intermedia’ in May 1967. Richie, whose film War Games (1962) screened as part of the programme, featured prominently in the series of photographs the two shared with me. Surrounded by young Japanese artists and critics, he is shown sharing his thoughts with commanding presence in the crowded gallery space. Richie’s writing in the Japan Times remains one of only few pieces written about the event that marked the beginnings of expanded cinema in Japan. Richie, the writer.
Back in October last year, whilst researching the reception of 1960s experimental Japanese films overseas, I came across a flyer for a screening at The Movie on Kearny Street in San Francisco that was billed as the "first showing anywhere in the U.S" for ‘Japan Underground: A Program of Independent, Experimental Japanese Cinema.’ With notes written by Donald Richie, the programme included works by Masao Adachi, Yoichi Takabayashi, Nobuhiko Obayashi and Takahiko Iimura. Thanks to Richie’s enthusiasm, these slices of Japanese experimental cinema reached an audience overseas. Richie, the curator.
For the ‘Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema’ series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where Richie was once a curator, we screened War Games and Cybele alongside a programme of representative titles of Japan’s underground cinema. Both films reveal Richie’s social network spanned way beyond film circles as he collaborated with the performance troupe Zero Jigen to document their naked liturgy in Cybele and butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata joined the shooting of War Games pulling faces behind the camera to entertain the children. For the ‘Rituals in the Avant-Garde: Film Experiments in 1960-1970s Japan’ series at the Anthology Film Archives, we screened his collaboration with butoh dancers, Sacrifice (1959), that mark their first filmed recording. Ceremonies (gishiki) provide the only narrative in all three films, something that was of a motif in the literary and performative arts of the time and what we drew on for the title of our series. Richie, the filmmaker.
In the ‘Experimental Ground 1950s’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, I was able to catch up with some shorts by Richie made in the 1950s. In a screening organised in conjunction with the exhibition, Richie’s Shi (1958) and Shu-e (1958) were shown and their unabashed homage to melodrama revealed a clear line of inspiration to the early works of Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose own 8mm shorts are discussed to have inaugurated the boom in private and small-gauge filmmaking. At the opening of the exhibition in October last year, I walked with Takahiko Iimura who bumped into Richie for what he said was the first time in decades. The two had together launched an attack on industrial filmmaking with the Film Independents manifesto (1964) and Iimura, in an interview I did for Midnight Eye, remembered Richie had introduced him to experimental filmmaking by showing him cut-outs from Life magazine. I watched them chat from a distance, my first and only opportunity to meet Richie, which I decided to set aside to let the two catch up. Richie’s Life Life Life, displayed as part of the exhibition, was itself made up of cut-outs from Life magazine. Hung from the ceiling in the hallway marking an entrance into the early 1960s, I was reminded of Iimura’s words that discussed Richie to have guided a generation of underground filmmakers. Richie, the inspiration.
Whilst researching the Film Independents for a DVD to be released by Video Center Tokyo, I was shown Donald Richie’s film Life (1964) that was submitted for the ‘A Commercial For Myself’, a collection of 2-minute films that was presented at Kinokuniya Hall. In the playful style of his Five Filosophical Fables (1967), the film is a joyous sprint through a couple’s life from their first date, first child and their eventual death. Richie provides the a cappella soundtrack squeezing as many grunts and whistles as he can in the two minutes. Re-watching the film today, and hearing over its last frames the only words I’ve ever heard the man utter, "the end", I felt strangely close to Richie whom I never got to meet.
Seeing a mythic film when you're young and impressionable and then meeting its director years later is a strange sensation - as if it's hard to believe you're talking to the person who brought such a thing into existence. Aside from my personal pantheon of directors and screenwriters, Donald Richie was one of the few figures in film that I couldn't quite believe existed. He not only wrote about legendary cinema, indeed helping make it so, but personally knew the creators, had access to the industry, subtitled, appeared in a couple movies and even made his own (Boy with Cat is a favourite). To a young film student in North America, someone doing all of those things in Japan was beyond comprehension.
I met the man for the first time in the early 2000s, while standing outside of a pink cinema in Donald's corner of Ueno. "Go inside!" he said, smiling. Over the years there were chats at festivals and a visit to his humble apartment/library. More than a decade later as I look at my own far less impressive blend of film activity in Japan, I realize that those first two words have been like a mantra for me to never stop delving. Donald Richie was a bigger influence than I realized. RIP.
Donald Richie: Avant-Garde Filmmaker
Anyone who ever met Donald Richie or saw him speak was immediately impacted by his neatness, fatherly kindness and seeming sense of propriety. This was indeed Richie, but it wasn’t. All of us harbor dark, delicious shadow sides and Donald Richie was no different. While Richie's writings – books on such popular directors as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, as well as translated kabuki plays and a book on ikebana – may not hint at this shadow self, but another aspect of Richie's unending creativity did. That would be his filmmaking, a cinematic universe replete with sexual (largely homosexual) obsession, pitch black humor, sometimes nauseating gore and, most importantly, a genuine appreciation for the most absurd aspects of existence.
Like most cinephiles Richie couldn't resist taking a crack at filmmaking himself. He first did this as a 17-year-old teen in his hometown of Lima, Ohio. As he would later recall in an interview with the Museum of the Moving Image's Livia Bloom, "I badgered my father into getting me an 8mm camera." With camera in hand, and inspiration drawn from such pioneering films as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Richie captured the comings and goings of his neighbours in a short documentary titled Small Town Sunday. It wasn't until Richie landed in Japan in 1947 with the U.S. Occupation that his filmmaking, as well as so many other aspects of his life, would come to full flower.
Richie's writing would focus largely on the more traditional aspects of Japanese culture, but it was though his filmmaking that he would chronicle the exploits of a group of defiantly untraditional artists and performers. Not only would he harness their energy to explore untouched aspects of his own psyche, but he would also act as an avant-garde Johnny Appleseed, bringing first-hand knowledge of experimental filmmaking to Japan.
Donald Richie’s films are a roadmap of Japan’s 1960’s counter culture. Two of his earliest films, 1959’s Gisei (Sacrifice) and 1962’s War Games, were collaborations between Richie and butoh dance founder Tatsumi Hijikata. The former is a grotesque pantomime in which Hijikata and his troupe punish a young man by urinating, defecating and vomiting on him (all achieved through rudimentary special effects), while the former featured Hijikata behind the camera directing a group of young boys in a fatal battle over an innocent goat. An equally morbid production, 1968’s Cybele, saw Richie teaming with Japanese performance artist Yoshihiro Kato. Kato’s guerrilla performance troupe Zero Dimension enacted public "ceremonies" in Shibuya and Shinjuku through the mid to late 60s. In Cybele Richie acts as a witness to one of Zero Dimension’s more provocative acts: the devolution of a mummer’s dance into a writhing tableaux of naked bodies.
Not all of Richie’s cinematic output fell into the ero guro (erotic grotesque) category. 1962’s Atami Blues is a tale of young love at the popular hot springs resort town. Richie, and his cinematographer Hidetoshi Hirano, pay tribute to Yasujiro Ozu; and quiet tatami rooms are depicted again in Richie’s 1967 short Boy with Cat. The avant-garde and tongue-in-cheek sexuality are still present even in these idyllic environments. Atami Blues features a soundtrack by famed modernist composer Toru Takemitsu; and both films prominently feature phalluses, clothed and unclothed. Boy with Cat has the playful feline interrupting its owner while he tries to masturbate. As in all of Richie’s films these young men are prime examples of the beefcake aesthetic.
Richie’s experimental films are packed with horror, humor and titillation, and all of them were created by him and his friends on a micro budget. Many of these friends, filmmakers such as Takahiko Iimura, Kenji Kanesaka and Nobuhiko Obayashi, would join forces with Richie in 1964 to form the Film Independents collective. This partnership would see Richie making international avant-garde cinema available to Japanese filmmakers for the first time. This alliance would also foster guest appearances in each other’s work. Case in point: Richie providing voiceover narration for Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1966 short Emotion.
Richie’s writing, criticism and film curating are a treasure. Without them the West’s interaction with and appreciation of Japanese film would be entirely different, or possibly not exist at all. Likewise, Richie’s experimental film work helped form Japan’s avant-garde. The bright side to Richie’s recent passing may be the much needed reassessment of him as an artist and cinematic innovator, one whose work can easily stand alongside the most lauded experimental filmmakers.
My knowledge of Donald Richie is strictly through his prolific body of writings, sometimes on film, and always on Japan. I never met Richie, but I do remember the first time I read him, which was in an undergraduate seminar on Japanese film, my first exposure to film criticism and scholarship outside of a newspaper. I marvelled at his insights regarding Kurosawa and Ozu, but even more at the humor and detail in his explications and observations; his distillation of such through a clear ethical worldview; and his extraction of social and psychological meaning of small events that to others might have seemed insignificant. How much more consideration did Richie give to having his ideas understood by the reader, unlike that Noel Burch, I thought. This was a writer to emulate (the immense skill required for such writing naively did not cross my mind).
Many have recently been critical of Richie’s writings both civilly and mercilessly, though typically without any of his wit or brevity of expression, like automata that have been inconvenienced with a soul. But I think he would probably appreciate the irony in his reclaimed 'outsider' status – a sort of de Tocqueville or de Custine of the Japanese film world, who arrived first and saw more than any other. As reflected upon in his most personal and provocative essay on being a foreigner in Japan, true independence is gained when valuing "freedom as more important than belonging."