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.”


This fourth installment from his Japan Journals features Donald Richie’s elegy for Yukio Mishima,written shortly after the novelist’s suicide.

15 November 1970. It has been some days now since Mishima killed himself, yet the sense of loss continues. It is not that he did it. I guess we all expected that. It was the way in which he did it. It was like a rape. (So all of us victims are trying to account for it. I will write an essay and give it to the paper.)

The shock that so many felt at the manner of Yukio Mishima’s death was deepened by an equally strong sense of loss. No contemporary writer had more completely disclosed himself; none had more honestly shared his most deeply personal emotions. From Confessions of a Mask onwards, Mishima was himself his own subject and his varied works are all, to an extent, autobiographical.

Indeed, he was often criticized for this. Some thought that a writer should show an occasional glimpse of the self but leave the rest private. Mishima as man of the theater, as body-builder, as film director, as kendoka – this was criticized by those who did not understand that Mishima’s theme was his own life.

I first met Mishima 20 years ago in New York, when he was on his first trip abroad. He was exploring the outside world, that initial parabola which eventually returns the Japanese to a deeper sense of his own culture, his oneness with Japan, which eventually returned Mishima to the traditional drama of ritual suicide.

Even back then, to be with Mishima was to take part in a drama. Meetings with him, no matter how casual, were distinguished by an awareness of the importance of what we were saying. With him, one became objective, saw oneself dispassionately. It was, naturally, he who created this heightened atmosphere, and a part of this was because of the inner consistency upon which he insisted.

I think, in all of his relationships, there was little spontaneity, a quality he both disliked and distrusted, perhaps because it was inconsistent. There was also little humor, for Mishima’s mirth was always serious. But, as though in compensation for this, there was a sense of high intelligence, a sense that one was engaged in something important – in short, a sense of drama. Consequently, there was also a sense of meaning. One always tried to be at one’s best with Mishima – one tried to emulate that ideal which he himself followed: being true to one’s own self.

It was rare consistency which he had created, and it was just this consistency which he admired in those about whom he wrote: the young officer who killed himself after the 1936 insurrection, St. Sebastian, the Marquis de Sade, the acolyte who burned down the Golden Pavilion, Takamori Saigo, Adolf Hitler. All of these, and many more, no matter their differences, shared a quality Mishima prized – a complete consistency of character, a more than ordinary sense of direction, an almost more than human sense of purpose.

There are probably other ways of accounting for this extraordinary life. I remember, several years ago, being asked by a magazine to write a profile of Mishima. I did so and somewhat naively attempted to show that what he had become was predicated upon what he had not originally been. I never saw him more distressed than after he read my piece. “What you say is true so far as it goes,” he said, “but you must see that it does not go far enough. It is easy to say what you have said, but there is more to my life than this. You have stopped at the beginning.”

What I did not see then is plain now: a life is a personal creation. To paraphrase Sartre, an author Mishima had read, it does not matter what life has done to you; what is important is what you do with what life has done to you.

The more Mishima became the man he wanted to become, the more he saw himself – as artists must – as an exemplar, a model. I, on the other hand, refused to take seriously signs of this awareness. I made fun of his private army, for example – called them Mishima’s boy scouts. He did not object to this, merely wanted to know what was the matter with boy scouts. “With these few boy scouts,” he said, “I have at least a core of order.” I asked if he could possibly mean public order and he solemnly nodded. “You are impossible,” I remember saying. “You are more royal than the king.” I had said this as a joke but he did not smile. “So I am,” he said. And so, he proved, he was. Like Saigo, like the officer who killed himself after the 1936 affair, he hated the rationalizing, pragmatic, conciliatory ways which have now become the only way. “Japan,” I remember him saying last summer, “Japan is gone, vanished, disappeared.” “But, surely,” I said, “the real Japan must still exist someplace or other.” He shook his head. “Is there no way to save it?” I wondered. “No,” he said. “There is nothing more to save.”

When I first heard of his suicide, that talk is what I first remembered; he already knew there was nothing more to save. His may have been a political statement, but it was also personal, both despairing and defiant. I also thought to Takamori Saigo. The last time I saw Mishima, several weeks before his death, he took us – Meredith Weatherby, Tamotsu Yato, and myself – to dinner. Though we spoke of many things, Mishima returned again and again to Saigo, his suicide and his faithful friend who dispatched him before killing himself. Saigo saw, he said, that the revolution had failed. He had thought that he was reestablishing ancient virtues but now saw this new government delivered to the bureaucrats.

Mishima spoke at length of the beauty of Saigo’s actions, that gesture when all had failed, when there was no more hope. “Saigo,” I remember him saying, “was the last true samurai.” But even as he said this he knew, I now see, that it was he himself who would be the last.

In this, Mishima was intensely romantic. His death was indeed so romantic that only its seriousness saved it from melodrama. But, as Mishima might ask, what is the matter with melodrama? – it too is a form of drama, and drama is life. And it is true that only a real romantic compares things as they are with things as they have been or could be and who – in the face of public indifference – has the strength of character to live by those standards which he himself finds better.

When he also has the strength to die by them, we no longer know what to say. We have no words for such an event. Those ill-considered, if official opinions of lunacy and so on, are merely admissions that a vocabulary cannot encompass such an extraordinary act.

And such a logical one. Now that the fact is accomplished, it must strike almost everyone as inevitable, and one can trace a pattern which remained invisible until the death itself. It began early, on the first pages of the Confessions, it continued in his film Patrotism, it would have continued on in the script he was going to help me write based on the samurai stories of Saikoku. One now sees the pattern everywhere – in his Noh plays, in his single Kabuki, in that photo exhibition of his life and works which ended on the day he killed himself and which we now view as posthumous.

His suicide, then, was the final stone in the arch of his life. Masayuki Nagare, the sculptor, a friend of both of ours, said the only wise words I heard about this final act. “It was not the death of a politician, it was not the death of a citizen - it was the death of a novelist.”

And so it must be viewed. It was a single, personal, creative act. It does not mean a resurgence of militarism, a reversion to wartime ideals, or anything of that sort – and this Mishima must have known so well that the jeering of the soldiers he was addressing would not have surprised him – his suicide was entirely ritual; it had a small connection with and little meaning for contemporary Japan. And it was just this which created the consternation that accompanied the real shock and the genuine grief.

We met more often than usual during late summer and early fall – all of Mishima’s friends saw more of him than ordinary; he called more, wrote more, paid more attention to us. Often he talked about writers and writings. I said he ought to run for office. He made a face: “A writer cannot be a politician. Look at Shintaro Ishihara. He is neither. All a writer can do is to show something.” I asked him what he was to show us after he had finished that very long novel he was working on. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think I have said everything I can, for the time being at any rate.” He was silent and then said, “The novel I am finishing now is hard work. I don’t know how it is going to end. I have no idea. I don’t know how to do it.” Upon my saying nothing, he continued, “And it is strange. I am afraid to end this book.” I was surprised because I had never heard Mishima speak of fear. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, adding, “All it is is ending a long book.” “Yes, I know,” he said, “but I’m afraid, and I don’t really know why.”

That very human moment is what I remember best about these last meetings. I saw, not for the first time but certainly for the last, the brave and honest man who was always there at the heart of this courageous life that he had created. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. 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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