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Our National Living Treasure

Why Donald Richie Is America's Most Acute and Graceful Guide to the Mysteries of Japan

THE DONALD RICHIE READER: 50 Years of Writing on Japan, By Donald Richie, Edited by Arturo Silva, Stone Bridge Press: 288 pp., $19.95 paper

September 16, 2001|TONY COHAN | Tony Cohan is the author of "On Mexican Time" and the forthcoming memoir "Native State."

Of them all, it was Richie's work that best described the Japan I actually beheld. His acute, unfailingly graceful commentary in the Japan Times--where he still holds forth as film reviewer and cultural reporter--steered me through the thickets of exoticism that ensnare the typical visitor: the sense that one has landed on Mars. Instead, Richie turns strangeness into a virtue, an entry point. "Imagine," he said in a recent interview, "the freedom of looking at something and not knowing if it was edible or not. My first view of wagashi, Japanese sweets. Or not knowing if it were a shoe or a tool. My first view of a geta [Japanese shoe]." Later I'd read his tender, wise 1971 novel-cum-travel odyssey "The Inland Sea" (sections of which are included in the "Reader"), in which intimate knowledge gleaned about Japan and himself--the two are never far apart in his work--is on display. It's hard to imagine a better guide into Japan than Richie.

Arriving in Japan in 1946 as a typist for the U.S. Occupation Forces, forbidden to mix with "indigenous personnel," Richie sneaked into the Kabuki and cinema when MPs weren't watching, and soon became a film critic for the Army's Pacific Stars and Stripes. After studying English and film at Columbia University, he returned to Japan in 1954 and established himself as film critic, author (his books on the Japanese directors Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa are considered among the finest ever written on directors) and essayist on things Japanese. In 1968 he returned to New York to become curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art for several years, then resettled in Tokyo for good, becoming an interlocutor among cultures, a central figure in the world's knowledge of Japan.

Richie has written more than 30 books, scores of essays, hundreds of book and film reviews. (His "Japan Journals, 1947-99" will be published posthumously.) He has written variously about movies, tattoos, gardens, food, gods, folk art (mingei), pop culture, Zen, sex and music. His life and work bear witness to a massive historical shift: from Tokyo's bombed-out postwar Ginza ("a burned wasteland, a vast and blackened plain where a city had once stood") to today's sleek anime (animation), manga (comics) and high-tech arcades. Richie has seen it all and rendered it all, indelibly.

"When I write," Richie has said, "I don't use Japan as a sort of psycho-theater. I don't use it to dramatize myself. I really try to get out there and observe and record."

Richie's style is simple, clean, unforced, his erudition lightly worn. His unassuming exactitude, sharply rendered descriptions and sudden insights attempt to, in his formulation, "redeem reality" by following the precepts of one of his heroes, the director Ozu: "If you use your eyes and ears properly you will understand; if you do not, no amount of explanation will inform you.... Ozu is interested in showing, not explaining. He implies; you infer. He builds his half of the bridge; you build yours."

Resolutely refusing to "interpret" Japan, Richie holds to the view that in Japan, appearances are reality: There is no seething subtext waiting to be unearthed. "Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth. There is no crack between the mask and the face because the mask is the only face anyone ever has--that crack, which contains irony and wit as well as cynicism, does not exist." In Japan, Richie asserts, style and substance are one and the same.

Beauty, sharply observed, is never far away. Writing of a Kyoto garden, Richie notes the sozu, the piece of cut bamboo that fills with water then tilts on its pivot and dumps it "with a resounding clack....The sound cleaves, the air closes, and the silence is the more deep from having been rent. Like an articulated emptiness, a space is formed by its confines."

In Japan, the visitor is a gaijin, a foreigner, always and forever. There is no respite save departure. Richie has always been refreshingly clear-eyed about this. His unvarnished, aphoristic descriptions of being foreign include matters of the flesh: "... travelers the world over are known for their attempts to pick other people up. It is not that they want sex so much as it is that they want something to fill the emptiness that their very freedom has created." And: "The freedom to lose yourself, one of the great attractions of the sexual encounter, is based, after all, upon the assumption that you have first found yourself." "Sex," Richie points out, "makes, in its way, the ideal souvenir." In an essay on Japan's booming sex industry, he gives us the lowdown on love hotels, virtual sex salons ("the ultimate in safe sex") and gay bars. Says Richie: "... to the Japanese (as to the Greek) an appetite is an appetite. When he is hungry he eats, when he is drowsy he sleeps."

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