The Legacy of Donald Richie

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The Legacy of Donald Richie

The following is part of Tokyo Journal’s Living Tribute to Donald Richie who passed away on February 19, 2013. Donald Richie’s contribution was originally printed in the January 1995 edition of the Tokyo Journal. It was excerpted from “Japan Journals 1947-2004” by Donald Richie (Stone Bridge Press. 2004). Donald Richie’s first visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the nineties, Donald replied, “Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes.”

Some Autumn Days

Encounters with a world renowned sculptor, former ambassador and aged author in this excerpt from Donald Richie’s Japan Journals

On OCTOBER 18, 1982. At the conference, Isamu Noguchi, for the first time since I have known him, talked about himself. To be sure, he usually talks about his opinions, beliefs, etc., usually at length. But here he spoke of what it felt like to be him — of Japanese ancestry, born an American, back to Japan before the war, back to America, his work, then back to Japan after the war, then back and forth, back and forth. He spoke about what he discovered in Japan and in himself, talked about stone and rock.

Noguchi himself has become rock-like. He is veined and seamed and sits very still. As his outside has grown this patina, so his inside, his opinions and views, have softened, mellowed. It used to be that Noguchi’s ideas were the most adamantine thing about him. Abrasive. You could cut yourself on them. Not now. The rock speaks softly.

Later, the long day over, we have coffee and talk of the Stravinsky/Balanchine Orpheus for which he did costumes and sets. He complains that in doing everything over for its revival he had to make everything larger. The ballet had been designed for the City Center and not the big Lincoln Center. “It is really a chamber work. That is how I saw it too, with my little rocks. Now those little rocks are enormous so that they will be visible in all that space. A great mistake. Scale is one of the most important of all things and we violated our scale. No. I violated it. Balanchine and Stravinsky kept things the same. Mine was the part that had to give. I regret it.”

October 19, 1982. Lunch with Edwin Reishauer. He talks about the Great Kanto Earthquake, which he remembers. Wasn’t in Tokyo but in Karuizawa. Nonetheless, the shock was so great that it knocked over chimneys and killed one person there — crushed under his roof.

What he remembers well is the massacre of the Koreans which began at once only hours after the earthquake. They, the minority, were being held responsible, not for the earthquake but for the terror and despair of the Japanese themselves. Ridiculous charges: poisoning and the like.

He remembers a child, a deaf girl, consequently unable to speak. The crowd confronted her. She could not tell them that she was Japanese. They killed her. Tore her to pieces. Whether she was Japanese or not is not the point, of course. A child was murdered.

Reishauer simply tells the story. He makes no apology, makes no attempt to account for what happens. Takes for granted that this is what some Japanese did. Does not say so. No moral reflections at all. He knows his people very well. He knows and he accepts.

December 5, 1982. Invited to dinner by Margarite Yourcenar and Jerry Wilson, just the three of us, at the Takanawa — sole for her, abalone for him, steak for me. I watch her and Jerry together. It is like grandmother and grandson. It is also not like that at all. They are as much themselves with each other as though they had been married for years. At the same time, however, he is also there for her convenience. (In the bar for pre-dinner drinks, Mme. went ahead. Usually it is he. This time he followed her, large among the little tables, and said, with affection and good will: “Where she goes, I follow.”) At other times she is permissive as a mother. Jerry did not like the Noh and, carried away by his novel emotion, he turned it into a little act. He also, without knowing, turned it into a performance of his Arkansas mother not liking the Noh. He used words (“land’s sake”) appropriate for this. The unconscious imitation apparently pleased Mme. She also offered further reasons for finding the Noh boring. But since she did not actually find it so, it was done with some playfulness, but with no hidden acknowledgement at all to me that we were at this point seeing through Jerry. On the contrary, it was like a mother reveling in her child’s foolishness.

Later, talk about Mishima. She astonishes me with the pronouncement that his wife could have no longer much loved him, since she survived him. I asked if she were indeed that romantic, that she thought a great love could not survive a death. Oh, yes, she said cheerfully, she was just that romantic.

“But, you,” I said, “survived and lived to write Les Feux.”

She looked at me as though trying to guess how much I knew. Since I knew nothing this did not take long. She said: “Yes, it was a difficult time but it could not compare.” Consequently, I learned nothing about this particular crisis she had undergone, and of which I had only vaguely heard.

She wonders if Mishima’s wife knew, then said: “Of course she did but she did not want to believe, did not want to know.” She added that sometimes the person himself did not want to know. Mentioned Henry James as an example I told her about Leon Edel saying that he had “sat on” (unfortunate term) letters from James to Hug Walpole which proved what Edel did not want to believe. Yes, agreed Mme., because otherwise, much of James, The Pupil, would not be understandable. Mme. Mishima, like Edel, was not wanting to admit.

Not wanting to admit was also treated just as normal as was the homosexual impulse itself, however. Everything is normal in Mme. Yourcenar’s world, hence everything is understandable. It is not that she is an Olympian, as has been said, but that she is so absolutely accepting. Everything is human to her. Hence, nothing is alien.

She does, however, find Japan the most difficult country she has ever been in. The simplest things defeat her. They went out to buy pencils and returned, defeated, no pencils. I wonder how this could be and then realize that her world is entirely one of language and she has no language for this country. Some kind of converse, this is what she expects, and this is what she misses here.

Not that it is not here. It is that it is not open to her. No Japanese language, and the Japanese themselves not often making the intuitive leap one finds admirable in Mediterranean countries. Blank incomprehension or evasion is what she is met with. This intrigues and puzzles. As a consequence the two of them go mainly to the theatre. Jerry simply “adores” the Kabuki and so that is what they have seen. Some 40 hours of Kabuki since arriving — both because of their interest and because it is if for them, oddly, a place of refuge from Japan itself.

Looking at her I am suddenly struck by a resemblance I did not see before — a certain similarity to Colette. Not that they are both women, not that they are both androgynous, but rather their interest in detail, their fascination in how something is done, their acceptance of the natural world and their celebration of it — a combination of interest and awe. I watch her turning her sole with interest and concern, watch the way she savors a chopstickful, crumbling it with her lips.

What is it in this gesture? Something I have seen in Flemish paintings. Then a phrase, not a particularly good one but a descriptive one, occurs. She is a patrician peasant. The lips are those in Brueghel, the eyes are those in the Livre des Heures. Feet squat on the ground, she soars to an enormous height, her eyes (she shares them with Simonne Signoret) looking wisely into the far distance. Is that the reason for her charm? — that she manages to encompass a dichotomy, close it, and consequently appears so whole.

The evening is over. She picks up the tiny pot of living plumeria I brought her and holds it as though warming it in her rough hands. She is not tired, but she will be. I take my leave. She and Jerry look after me as I depart, the two of them there, a woman who likes strange and beautiful sons and had none, a young man who likes old and wise mothers and had none. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #277. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Donald Richie

Donald Richie is first honorable visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the nineties, Donald replied, Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes. Mr. Richie passed away in 2013.


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