Remembering Donald Richie: A Living Tribute

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Remembering Donald Richie: A Living Tribute Photograph courtesy of Benjamin Parks

Donald Richie, a world authority on Japanese film, culture and the post-World War II lives of the Japanese, passed away in Tokyo on February 19, 2013. He was 88. Born in Lima, Ohio on April 17, 1924, Donald grew up with a love for cinema. He moved to Japan on December 31, 1946 as part of the U.S. Occupation. During the early part of his stay in Japan, he worked as a typist and civilian staff writer for the U.S. Military newspaper, the Pacific Stars and Stripes. He returned to the U.S. and received a B.S. in English from Columbia University before going back to Japan. He went on to write several books on Japan and its cinema and filmmakers as well as other topics. He wrote for English-language publications in Japan including The Japan Times, in which he had a regular column as a film critic, and the Tokyo Journal, for which he interviewed and contributed several pieces over the years.

Fellow author, renowned Japan authority and former Tokyo Journal Associate Publisher, Boyé Lafayette De Mente, had the following to say about the writings of Donald, “I first met Donald Richie in 1954 when I was editor of an English-language monthly magazine in Tokyo called PREVIEW — at that time the second largest English language publication in Japan, behind Reader’s Digest. Donald gave me permission to publish a lengthy essay he had just written entitled “Japan’s Coffee Shop Culture.” It was the finest piece of writing that had so far appeared in PREVIEW. I continued to have great regard for his writing talent over the decades, and to occasionally enjoy his company and comments at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, a favorite hangout for expatriate writers in Japan.”

Although a serious authority on Japan, there was a lighter side of Donald that some may not know about, as fellow Japanese film expert and the Dean of the Anaheim University Akira Kurosawa School of Film Dr. David Desser noted, “Donald Richie remains legendary for his extraordinary generosity in helping, guiding and inspiring younger scholars of the Japanese cinema. Perhaps less well known is his playful sense of humor, a mischievousness that belied his stature. An example my sometimes collaborator, Art Nolletti, and I were dining with Donald at his favorite Indian restaurant in Tokyo. After we ordered, Donald whispered something to the waiter. As it turned out, he ordered my meal “hot and spicy”—exactly the way I do not eat Indian food. I sweated it out, but developed an appreciation for a different side of Donald.

When I originally put in a call to Donald Richie to see if he would be willing to create a series of video interviews, I figured due to his busy schedule, I would not hear from him for a while. But he called me the very next day and agreed to everything I had proposed. On my next visit to Tokyo, we would sit down with a film crew and do a series of interviews focusing mostly on Donald’s relationship with and understanding of Akira Kurosawa as well as other Japanese filmmakers including Yasujiro Ozu, Shohei Imamura, Kenji Mizoguchi, Nagisa Oshima, Yukio Mishima, and Kon Ichikawa. However, the main point would be to add one more link in my incomplete chain of video-recorded interviews with everyone who knew and worked with Akira Kurosawa. I was getting close to having everyone who had worked with him and was still alive on video for content that would be used in the Anaheim University Akira Kurosawa School of Film, a project I had been working on for well over a decade. The video content would be used in undergraduate and graduate online film programs, and the transcripts of the interview series were to be printed in the Tokyo Journal. As an educator, I was excited by the learning benefits that would come to students who would have the opportunity to view this video series. In my role as Executive Editor of the Tokyo Journal, I was thrilled that our readers would once again have the opportunity to gain insight through Mr. Richie’s writings – not only insight into Japanese culture and film but more importantly into themselves as human beings.

This was to be the most in-depth video- recorded interview series that Donald Richie had ever taken part in and I was ecstatic by the fact that Donald had agreed to do the entire series of interviews – and all for the price of a cup of coffee. His agreement to take part in this project reinforced what I had already learned about him through his writings. Donald Richie was more than a film critic, philosopher and writer. He applied his knowledge through his personal interactions and his teachings. More than a writer, Donald was a teacher. He was my teacher and the teacher of many thousands of others who have read his books and articles, and who have adored the way in which Donald Richie articulated the experiences of what we call life.

Prior to my trip to Japan, I contacted Donald Richie’s assistant to schedule the interview series only to learn that Mr. Richie had fallen ill and was hospitalized. I continued to keep in touch over the next couple of years hoping that he would one day be well enough to carry out the interview series, and while I waited I continued to indulge in his writings, learning more and more along the way. I eventually came to learn that the great majority of my interview questions that I had spent weeks preparing were already answered in the dozens of books and articles that Donald published over the years. Although I never did get the opportunity to personally sit down and interview Mr. Richie on video, I have had the joy and fulfillment of coming to know him through his children. His “children,” as he called them, are his six decades of writings that have survived him.

Shiro Mifune, son of Actor Toshiro Mifune and President of Mifune Productions said, “Mr. Donald Richie made a great contribution to introduce Japanese culture and art overseas through the movies of great filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu. I sincerely pray for him to rest in peace.”

Hisao Kurosawa, son of the late film Director Akira Kurosawa and President of Kurosawa Production, said this of Donald, “I was very sorry to hear that Mr. Donald Richie, one of the greatest authorities on Japanese film, has passed away. Although he will be missed, his writings live on.”

In remembrance of Donald Richie, the Tokyo Journal will be publishing a “Living Tribute” through a regular column and ongoing series in the Tokyo Journal, in which Mr. Richie’s writings and interviews from the Tokyo Journal and other publications will be republished. In cases where rights can be obtained, certain articles will be translated by experts into Japanese so that we can share with our hosts in Japan at least some of what Donald Richie has shared with the English-speaking world for so many years.

The first part of this series can be found on the following pages and includes an interview with Donald Richie that originally appeared in the April 1992 issue of the Tokyo Journal, plus an article written and contributed to the Tokyo Journal by Donald Richie entitled Winter Solstice: 1947, Donald Richie’s depiction of Tokyo during the winter of 1947 shortly after he arrived in Japan. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #271. Click here to order from Amazon

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.


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