September 23, 2014

Writer and Critic Donald Richie, 88, has Died

Posted on 23. Feb, 2013 by in Remembrances

American ex-pat, writer, and critic Donald Richie, author of the memoir The Japan Journals, 1947-2004 and The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, an expansive English-language book on Japanese movies co-written with critic Joseph L. Anderson, died on Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 in Toyko. He was 88.

Richie was born in Lima, Ohio in 1924 and came to Japan in 1947 during the American occupation. He was noted for introducing the West to the Golden Age of Japanese cinema and recounting “his expatriate life there spanning seven decades.”

New York Times reports,

Mr. Richie wrote prolifically, not just on film and culture in Japan but also on his own travels and experiences there. He won recognition for his soul-baring descriptions of a Westerner’s life in an impenetrable but permissive society that held him politely at arm’s length while allowing him to explore it nonetheless, from its classical arts to its seedy demimonde.

Openly bisexual, Mr. Richie also wrote frankly about his lovers, both male and female, saying Japan’s greater tolerance of homosexuality in the 1940s, relative to that in the United States, was one reason he returned to the country after graduating from Columbia University in 1953. Mr. Richie first saw Tokyo as a bombed-out ruin, arriving in 1947 as a 22-year-old typist with the Allied Occupation forces after serving on transport ships during the war. He spent most of the next 66 years in Tokyo, gaining a following among Western readers for textured descriptions of Japan and its people that transcended Western stereotypes.

——

In February of 2005, writer Tom Cardamone wrote an enlightening review of Richie’s The Japan Journals, 1947-2004  for the Lambda Literary Review. We have reprinted the review below:

Reading about 20th Century Japan, you inevitably come across Donald Richie. He’s nearly omnipresent, meeting, reviewing and working beside the greats of film and literature that define much of Japan’s shimmering modern culture. The Japan Journals, 1947 – 2004 offers a half-century of keen observations, both historical and deeply personal, that go beyond defining Japan or self, and reach further to intertwine the meanings of place, travel and identity.

The book is positioned to be shelved in Asian studies. In fact there is no mention of his sexuality on either side of the dust jacket. It wasn’t an issue for me when I picked up a copy; my initial interest was in his friendship with Yukio Mishima (or Mishima Yukio, as Richie prefers the Japanese placement of surname first throughout the Journals). Readers likewise interested in Mishima will find the Journals rich in personal, gossipy accounts of his art, his sexuality, and his very public death. In the ensuing decades, Richie befriended and informed the other chroniclers of Mishima’s astounding creativity—drinking with Coppola, dining with Marguerite Yourcenar.

The Japan Journals opens with his harrowing description of a fire-bombed Tokyo, drawn from an interview Richie conducted as a young soldier. Early on he comments “People are my preferred scenery.” Too true; fascinating people, from Zen monks to the homeless, TV personalities and royalty, all are beautifully, candidly photographed by his prose. His travels in Japan take him from an occupied country to an economic super power; and throughout these journeys he observes the Japanese as individuals within the context of great, unprecedented change. Also, apparently for several decades, Richie was the man to meet in Japan. His journals are literally stocked with captivating vignettes; evenings out with the likes of Avedon, Capote, Peter Greenaway, Kawabata, Kurosawa, Ozu…the list goes on. We see Beat Takeshi drafting a screenplay across the aisle on a late-night flight, Richie escorting Stravinsky to a concert—really, a whole page of artists and celebrities if you wished to list them, not to mention his frank observations of their personalities and talent.

Initially his own sexuality is clouded in the various attitudes of his generation; writings at first coy or poetically ethereal; later in life he willingly takes to the tea room, exploring the liquid linguistics of covert sexuality with great aplomb, but his adventures are in the context of the insider/outsider. He knows what’s going on, but his avid participation somehow precludes membership. And he begrudgingly states his preference for the “pejorative” queer rather than gay, and this is late in the book, when the Journals become a more self-conscious work, no longer the sketch pad of his travels or literary projects, but a message in and of itself.

Mid-life his more permanent partners often seem, for lack of better words, friendly trade. (I think Richie would prefer the term “lover,” but his description of his role in these relationships struck me as that of a mentor-in-the-classical-Athenian sense, with a little money thrown in as well.) Often these relationships evolved into life-long friendships after romance faded/made way for heterosexual marriage. In one amazing entry he substitutes for an errant father in the traditional wedding ceremony of a former lover. Richie, too, had a brief run at marriage, a hugely surprising turn of events as the journal is neglected for four years in the pursuit of various projects, leaving the reader to pick up the narrative and find him married to a woman and seriously questioning the decision. Frequent, lengthy gaps appear in the text and, oddly, are not off-putting; almost always at such points his writing was entirely dedicated to some project: a book, a movie, travel. This was a missed opportunity for the editor to provide chapters, though she does fill in the gaps with valuable descriptions of Richie’s diverting activities. (A joking reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire had this reader longing for the occasional footnote as well, as some entries refer to people and places in Japan well-known to Richie, but not so much to me.)

The primary reason for this review, however, is not to drag a reluctant Richie to an entirely different bookshelf, but simply to make The Japan Journals equally available for readers with an interest in gay Japan. Toward the end of the editor’s helpful introduction, Richie’s sexuality is broached by the carefully-worded comment that his attraction to Japan “was partially based…upon his own emotional direction-one proscribed and indeed illegal in the United States of his early years. To be attracted mainly to other men in a culture that does not allow it is reason enough for leaving. In Japan he discovered much that was not permitted, but that this was.” And this expatriate mentality takes hold early on as his central defining characteristic, meaning he was never “turning Japanese” as the song says, but certainly looking at both countries, both hemispheres, East and West, one abandoned but worth reporting back to, one a new, curious home, neither the foundation of identity. The question of whether it’s a stretch to apply the expatriate mold to sexuality (Do certain definitions really constrict an individual or the lack thereof allow them to construct neat, translucent closets?) is another issue all together. What’s important is that, in closing this wonderful book, you’ll want to travel. And that is the difference between tourist and traveler; the latter yearns to go further then the map provides.

 

The Japan Journals, 1947-2004
By Donald Richie
Stone Bridge Press
Hardcover, 9781880656976, 294 pp.
September 2005

 

[Photo: Donald Richie via Stone Bridge Press]

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