In the canon of cinema verite, Japanese geniuses like Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, and Yasujiro Ozu are celebrated not just as giants of Japanese cinema but masters of the art of moviemaking in general. Their legacies ubiquitously influence the entire world of filmakers, actors, and cinematographers. It is possible however, that most of this magic never would have made as large an impact to western eyes and ears without the tireless efforts of Donald Richie, whose championing of Japanese movies and the culture that nurtured them opened the entire world to these great artists. His most famous contribution to the art world was his groundbreaking book Japanese Film: Art And Industry, published in 1959, and is still universally regarded as the bible of the genre as well as over 40 other books about specific directors of note, original fiction, and his experiences as a traveling american expatriate.
Donald Richie was 22 when he arrived in Tokyo as a typist in part of the American occupation force of 1947 and instantly fell in love with what he described as a "haiku" style of living, so much so that he stayed there for the next 66 years. He observed that same meditational spirit within the local literary and movie scene, wherein he met and befriended film curator Kashiko Kawakita, who then introduced Donald to Kurosawa, thus sparking a neverending passion and involvement in Japanese cinema that sent ripple effects across the entire globe. Even though he had fully immersed himself in the culture of Japan, he never actually became a full citizen and never learned to read or write the language, despite his ability speak it fluently. With this self appointed task as an American ambassador to the east, he quickly became a socialite and go-between for many traveling celebrities like Truman Capote and local cognoscenti like Yukio Mashima. He was also somewhat of an activist, speaking strongly for gender rights in his newly adopted country (he was an out bisexual) and strongly against Japan's eventual westernization of values, famously saying "It was the most beautiful country I've ever seen in my life, now it's the ugliest". He had rejected America only to see it infect his new paradise.
Sprinkled underneath this prolific career as a critic and gadabout was a steadily growing catalog of delightfully experimental films of his own making. Although most of these films were not initially created for public consumption, these shorts are still expertly acted, directed, and shot with an amazing level of cinematic knowledge and care for the genre. While stylistically his influences glow brightly on his sleeve, Richie is still able to express a product that is all his own and filled with symbolism that is both unique and accessible. Even though this facet of his life was secondary in his own mind and only recently lauded by critics, the quality of these works deserve to be discussed in the same breath as his peers.
In a vacuum, Donald Richies films were all tributes to his love for film history and his strong ties to the avante-garde. His gifted actors expertly conveyed their surrealist pantomimes with wordless expertise. His settings were always, stark, in B&W, and usually outside. Narrative emotions were nimbly expressed through strong minimalist piano pieces, natural lighting, and well timed industrial noises. Though innately progressive, Richie was still able to bridge this deliriousness with common observations on mundane societal conventions like marriage, death, relationships, conflict, sex, and isolation. Wargames (1962) his first completed film focuses in on a Lord of the Flies style battle of wills amongst a group of young children set on a background of wide and open ocean beachfront. Atami Blues (1962) is a tragic young lust story that uses techniques lifted from the best of the French New Wave. It's advanced composition, streetwise cinematography, and stoic execution is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's introspective film Vivre Sa Vie and equals it's artistic ambition. This film is further highlighted by an amazing Toru Takemitsu score. Later on, harshly made films like Boy With Cat (1966) and Dead Youth (1967) found Richie in a more experimental mode and both of these movies delve into the more ribald and twisted area of his mind. He reached his crowning film achievement with the ambitious Five Philosophical Fables (1967), a beautiful tribute to Charlie Chaplin. Each of the vignettes serve as a vehicle for his biting commentary on societal conventions. One fable involves a man who appears to be building the perfect wife from scratch while being surrounded by rubble and detritus, while another features a Bunuel style picnic replete with nightmarish ending. In the final and most realized chapter, Donald's Japanese protagonist is uncomfortably stranded by himself at a high society party populated by only rich white patrons. One by one, each of these wealthy strangers confront the subject and ask him to remove an article of clothing. After he has systematically removed everything and bared himself completely, he ironically sheds his apprehension and shyness and proudly leaves the confines of the party, first strutting through the streets of Japanese society and then finally into the glorious distance, naked and unashamed. With one brushstroke, he is able to symbolically marry his anxiety as an outsider in a strange and homogenous society with his desire for sexual freedom. Everything you need to know about this underrated icon lies in those 10 brilliant minutes of film.
Writing, Film, & Japan:An expatriates view
Conversation with Donald Richie by Harry Kreisler