Donald Richie Interview by Pat Carome

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  • Thursday, 16 May 2013 05:46
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DONALD Richie seems at home in the quiet confines of Roppongi’s International House, a scholarly association where he recently accompanied a silent film showing on the piano.

Our small table in the coffee shop straddles two dimensions: the din and clatter of the lunchtime crowd on one side, the carefully pruned garden outside the window on the other.

Richie is credited with bringing Japanese film to the eyes and ears of the outside world. Hanging on the walls of his home next to his shelves of books are among other honors, the U.S. Citation of the National Film Critic’s Society and the San Francisco Film Society Award.

Of his 3o books, 11 are about film. Four are novels and one is a collection of profiles of Japanese. “I don’t know exactly what to call it.” He says. “I find it in the strangest places in bookstores.” He’s also presented career retrospectives of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals.

In his beige tweed jacked worn over a navy blue shirt and a narrow brown tie, he looks every bit the part of someone’s kind uncle. But he has definite concerns about the accuracy of how he’s presented. “Make sure you get the chronology straight,” he insists.

Okay. Born in 1924. The Merchant Marines during World War II. Part of the Occupation of Japan from war’s end to 1949. Columbia University until 1953, when he returned to Tokyo. The books, film festivals and travels followed. In 1968 he began a five-year appointment as the film curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and returned here in 1973 where he has lived in Tokyo’s shitamachi ever since.

The Coffee is served. In his pronounced, storyteller’s voice, Richie shares his life and his thoughts with a very real, very startling frankness.

Q: We might as well start at the beginning when you first came here over forty years ago.
A: It was the very last day of 1946.

Q: Was it chance that led you to Tokyo?
A: Pure chance. I was in the Merchant marines during the war and after it was over I didn’t want to go back to the farm in Lima, Ohio where I was born. So I looked around and discovered that the government was looking for people to occupy Germany and Japan. I filled in Germany since I wanted to go back to Europe, and the Army, in its great wisdom, sent me here, to Japan.

Q: What kind of job did you have?
A: Originally I was sent over because my great talent in life is that I’m an extremely fast typist, a talent that I’m not particularly fond of. The Occupation was very flexible, so I went to Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. I was writing and learning – educating myself.

Q:So how did you get to meet people like Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima?
A: Through working on the newspaper I was able to meet a lot of people that I wouldn’t have ordinarily. As early as ’47 I discovered that Asakusa was more authentic to me than the new sort of little America that the Japanese were already constructing in Ginza, Shibuya and Shinjuku. Then I discovered that a man had actually written books about this place and his name was Kawabata. I looked him up in 1947. At that time, nobody was looking him up; they hadn’t heard of him – except the Japanese of course. He’d had nothing translated.

Q: And Mishima?
A: Actually I met him when I was going to school in Columbia and he was on his first world tour, which was about ’51. He was almost unknown then, and we kept up our friendship until he died.

Q: What was he like?
A: Mishima was particularly fond of dilating on the Japaneseness of being Japanese. The source was not above suspicion to be sure. So much of him was drama. He was his own best creation and what he’ll be remembered as is not as a novelist, I think, but as a literary figure. As this theatrical persona which he unrelentingly created before your very eyes.

Q:A big jump here, but how did you get interested in Japanese films?
A: I’m part of that generation, very common, of people who spent their youth in the dark. I would go to the movies when I was five or six ad just stay all day long. They became a more welcome alternative to life, a new reality that I could control a little bit more than I could control my own.

Q: Did you have heroes? Heroines?
A:Norma Shearer and Johnny Weissmuller became a little more real to me than my parents. Anyway, movies were something I loved, needed, was addicted to. And then one day, I was about sixteen or seventeen, I walked into the Sigma Theater in Lima and discovered to my impatience that the projectionist had gotten the reels mixed up, because a man was dying on the screen, whispering something. I thought, “He’s got the last reel first.” I was wrong, of course. The film was Citizen Kane.

Q: Where is this story leading?
A: I was suddenly shown that there’s a way to structure life, a way to form reality that makes it give up all of its meaning. It’d never occurred to me that films were art, that films were about something emotional I knew something about. So I sat through the movie again. Missed supper, was scolded, but held within me this burning, burning feeling about film. And with that I became a confirmed addict.

Q: And you brought this addiction to Japan?
A: One of the earliest things I did at Stars and Stripes was talk my way into being film critic. So, even if I had to review Betty Grable for the troops, at least it was about film. In the meantime I was trying to get into the Japanese theaters to see what the Japanese films were like. Eventually I did, and eventually I was taken to the studios where I met Kurosawa and Mifune and everybody.

Q: Maybe I’m prying a bit, but it seems like there was a real need for you to find an alternative reality?
A: Are you kidding? Isn’t there always? Look, when you’re growing up, one of the facts of adolescence is the need for an alternative reality. In my case I had parents who didn’t get along and had a lot of trauma in the house that I didn’t want to be part of. I was a very shy boy. I stuttered because they tried to change me from left-handed to right. I stuttered very badly until I was about 19, when I left Lima. I didn’t make friends very easily. So what could possibly be better than shutting up and looking at films

Q: Did you study film formally?
A: When I went to school at Columbia. I completed my education in the auditorium at the Museum of Modern Art, which I was later in charge of when I became curator.

Q: How did that come about?
A: This was Tokyo in the late fifties and sixties, so when one of the studios would get strapped when a star came over, they’d say, “Richie, you speak the language, you take them around.” (Remember, people who spoke Japanese were very rare then.) So I took a lot of people around: Ava Gardner, William Holden, Mickey Rooney. I’d also get tapped for people who no one knew what to do with: authors, painters, even Stravinsky. I don’t think you get to know them, but you sure get to meet them.

Q: And the curator job?
A: When Willard Van Dyke, who was then the head of film at the Museum of Modern Art came over, I didn’t realize that he was really looking for a curator. So I took him around like everybody else and he asked me to be curator. It was the biggest toy train any boy could ever have, to quote Citizen Kane, but I did cannily arrange my contract to come back here half of every year.

Q: What brought you back here for good?
A: A combination of things. Terrible homesickness. New York was plainly hell. I came back to life when I came back to Tokyo. Whatever roots Americans are able to put down I had put down in Tokyo. Plus the fact that even in the late sixties and seventies, New York was not at all the city that I’d remembered during the war and from my Columbia days. During those days, we used to prance down the steps of Morningside Heights on a Saturday afternoon and go play in Harlem. The horrible polarities were either hidden or hadn’t started yet. But the New York I experienced later was not conducive to my liking it.

Q: Were you ever married?
A: For about five years from 1960 or ’61. I don’t know why and I don’t know why I got divorced either. I think a lot had to do with that feeling that you want a home. She didn’t want any kids, which was just as well seeing as how we were going to get divorced. I wanted kids at first and then I didn’t anymore. Then I realized why. I was just starting to write and discovered that books make a kind of home; they are your children. So all of my kids are pattering around the bookstores. All of my masculine claims for immortality, my encoded genes, are living it up in libraries. My books: they’re my family, they’re my everything. It couldn’t be better, though that’s not a good argument for the necessity of marriage. Besides, we weren’t getting along that well.

Q: I read The Inland Sea
A::Yes, she appears there.

Q: She does, indeed. Or she seems to anyway. I was surprised that you put so much of yourself into that book; to write about the divorce. Didn’t you feel naked?
A: Isn’t feeling naked what it’s all about? Isn’t that how we would all like to feel?

Q: I don’t know. I don’t think too many people have the guts to do it?
A: No, people always think they have a lot to lose. Actually you have nothing to lose. Society’s not dumb. Society knows the worst. They always think the worst, anyway. But that’s not important. What is important is that you get through a kind of pattern to show something about life. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s yourself or not. You know something about what it means to be alive. What living means.

Q: Is that what The Inland Sea is about?
A: That’s it. That’s why I think even now that it’s my best book. It’s been made into a movie that’s very good, too; it’s won prizes. But I’m more pleased with the book. The other book I like – Did you read Different People?

Q: Is that the one released now as Geisha,Gangster ?
A: I’m afraid so.

Q: You don’t like that title?
A: Well, anyway, that’s my second favorite book.

Q: In both of those books there’s a bit on the subject of homosexuality?
A: A bit? Ah, the vexed question of homosexuality. Let’s put it this way: It’s my belief that if people look deeply into themselves they’ll find all sorts of longings, interests, a great amount of conflicts with what society says is okay or is not okay. If you go along and say that homosexuality is bad, then you’re not telling the truth. You’re not speaking for even a minority of the people because the majority have these feelings. That’s one thing I want to show. I have those feelings, I’m like everybody else.

Q: Like everybody else?
A: Yes. But then people want to make further assumptions and say, “Therefore I do this and I do that.” and they’re wrong. I want to show the difference between the stereotypes that are made of feelings and the real feelings themselves.

Q: I guess that’s why I said, “a bit,” because it’s there, but
A: but it’s not insisted upon and it’s not all that important in itself. What is important, though, is that it is an indication of how I feel about everything. I feel that the ways people describe their lives are so often based on self-serving generalizations. The way they describe Japan is all generalizations. I dislike that so much.

Q: So what do you propose to do about it?
A: I want to be more precise. I want to describe things as they really are. If that means subscribing to unpopular social assumptions, like “faggotry,” well so what? It doesn’t make any difference. I don’t care.

Q: Did your feelings have anything to do with the end of the marriage?
A: No, nothing at all. I mean, there is a world where these things are not considered all that important. And that world, I’m happy to say is getting new members all the time.

Q: What ended the relationship?
A: Work. Work and a funny kind of status. We could be siblings. That was okay – man and wife, we got rid of that in a hurry – but siblings, okay. If I could have been elder brother and she younger sister who I condescended to, then it would have been okay. But she was very smart and a very good writer and she had definite tendencies to be older sister, leaving me the younger brother role to play. I decided I couldn’t live like that. You’ll notice the irony here, because I obviously expected her to live like that, right?

Q: Is Tokyo an easy place to live as you want to live?
A: Oh, yes; everybody’s discovered that. Tokyo is much easier for a disaffiliate foreigner to live in. For one thing you’ve left the country where society had any hold over you. So the norms you chafed under back in Ohio don’t work anymore, they have no claim on you. Here you’re considered such an anomaly that none of these awful things that the Japanese have to live under apply to you.

Q: You’ve found that?
A: Oh, yes. Here you get a tremendous amount of freedom. You look back at your country and see it as it truly is, and you can look down in the valley and see wonderful Japan, simply because you’re never allowed to go there. It’s like being on a mountain range, having a splendid view of both sides. You can compare and comparison is freedom.

Q: But a lot of Westerners here feel so claustrophobic?
A: They’re looking for the wrong thing, obviously.

Q: To belong?
A: So often you see some very well-intentioned Westerner, for example who finally finds a Japanese girl who really seems to embody everything he wants from Japan: o-koto, ikebana, all that stuff. Of course, it turns out she sees in him everything she wants: freedom, trips to Las Vegas, Disneyland. And it won’t work. These are mutually contradictory wishes.

Q: Would you extend that to Western- Japanese relations in general?
A: In general. The expectations that one has of the other are almost invariably unrealistic. What each expects of the other: this salutary “ought.” “You ought to do this.” “They ought to have done that.” It’s the same talk you hear in marriages that aren’t getting along. It’s due to failed ambitions for the other, failed expectations. Both simply expect too much.

Q: The assumption now is that Japan has become more international, more Western?
A: It could scarcely become less.

Q: So you think?
A: I think this still is the Tokugawa Period. We didn’t open any doors, we barely cracked the doors. But I don’t want to imply that the Japanese are different, that they are mysterious or impenetrable. That’s simply not the case. It’s just that the way the successive governments have interpreted all this has created a highly xenophobic state.

Q: So you’re saying the governmental relationships are causing the friction?
A: Yeah, absolutely. But, you know, people are like drip coffee makers. These awful attitudes are going to drip right down to the general populace. My taxi driver last night coming home said, “Well, it takes a very long time. Years and years. But when we get angry, we’re terrible.” It’s already dripping down.

Q: Was it Kawabata who said after the war he could only write epitaphs?
A: “Eulogies” is what he said, I think. And it’s true, all his later books are eulogies.

Q: What do you suppose he would think if he could see Japan now?
A: I think he’d be like the majority of people who would be his age who would be appalled at what has happened. Appalled at the triumph of Osaka – the money capital – appalled at the nouveau riche-ism, appalled at the paralysis of any authority, appalled at the rise of the racketeer.

Q: There would be no pride in the resurgence?
A: The pride now is mainly economic pride, and that’s okay as far as it goes. That’s one of America’s great lessons, that the economy is everything. But what about what goes along with it, the good life, for example? People’s lives are much less fulfilling now.

Q: Do you really think that’s true?
A: Yes. I think there’s more to life than money. There’s more to life than affluence. One of the great things was that Japan had learned to make poverty an aesthetic. At the bottom of all aesthetics here you’ll find a want of things. “There’s only mud so we make the world’s best pottery.” “There’s not enough furniture so we make space as an art.” As so a country that has used this as a basis for aesthetics has all of a sudden found itself rich. Not as individuals, but as a unit, and in a commodity they never had before: time. And they don’t know what to do. They only answer so far to the timeproblem is pachinko-playing.

Q: I imagine you’re working on something now. What is it?
A: I’ve been commissioned to do my memoirs. I’m on page 100 after a year, with many false starts. I kept knocking on that door for a year and finally – just a couple weeks ago – the portal opened and there stood this persona.

Q: You’re going to do your memoirs as a persona?
A: Who I want to be. As you know, there’s no such thing as self. I mean in life. We’re like those sea crabs that go around picking out fancy shells to climb into and say, “That’s me,” you know. There’s nothing innate, we’ve all acquired a persona. Being so unsure as a child, I was aware of this early and could study it at length. So all my books can be seen as sorts of essays. Take The Inland Sea, for example. That’s a travel guide, but it’s also a novel. It’s made up.

Q: It’s fiction, then?
A: That person, that obtuse person on the boat is not truly me and yet it is. It’s a persona. It is a combination that I’m trying on. It has a lot of me as a person, something you sense more than see in people. It’s also a construction and yet lifelike. As my memoirs editor says, quite truly: “It is going to be fiction no matter how honest you think you’re going to be.” And she’s quite right. Whenever you take yourself and put it down on paper you must fictionalize. It’s impossible to capture the richness of even a single second. It would take 500 pages to do it.

Q: So how do you go about this?
A: First, I decide who I want to be. This is nothing radical, this is something I’ve been doing all my life. The thing is, to tell the truth is the most difficult thing in the world, but I’ve got to do it somehow. So, finally, I have a small still voice which sounds authentic. What I’m writing is, very, very bleached blonde. It’s very peroxide. But it’s real. tj

Donald Richie and students. Kitakamakura, July 1988. Photo courtesy of David Bordwell   Donald Richie at the grave of Yasujiro Ozu. Kitakamakura, July 1988. Photo courtesy of David Bordwell


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Written By:

Pat Carome


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