Friday, February 22, 2013

In Memoriam, Donald Richie (1924-2013)

Donald Richie, 1924-2013.
My favorite American writers tend to be those who got the fuck out of America at some point.  Herman Melville goes off on a whaler for years at a stretch.  Henry James and T. S. Eliot go off to England and become British (I always like to think that the British balanced the scales by gifting us Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden; they could have kept Hitchens).  Ezra Pound settles in Rapallo in Italy.  Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs emigrate to Tangiers.  William T. Vollmann decides that the best way to learn about the Afghan Mujahedeen is to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 1980’s.  And today Eliot Weinberger adventures around India, sifting through that country’s newspapers in search of stories for his fiction-y non-fiction pieces.

If we go back to circa-1900, two Americans made trips to Japan that would have important ramifications for both countries: I am referring to Lafcadio Hearn and Ernest Fenollosa (and to their credit, they were always kind of foreign-ish Americans, even when they were in the U.S.; Hearn was half Greek and half British and was born in the Dodecanese islands and Fenollosa was Catalan).  These two would become the first great American interpreters of Japanese culture who approached the matter from a Japanese perspective.  There was nothing superior or Eurocentric in their engagement with Japanese literature; they found in it material equal to that of its Euro-American counterparts.  Lafcadio Hearn’s famous renderings of Japanese folk tales would provide many Anglophones with their first exposure to Japanese literature and they would go on to provide the source material for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 masterpiece, Kwaidan.  Fenollosa would play an important role in preserving Japanese Noh theater (fallen into decline during the Meiji restoration) and his unpublished translations of Noh plays would be “literary-d” up by Ezra Pound and published in 1916.  Someone in the know (no… pun intended.  Jesus Christ) can correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I believe these to be the first large-scale translations of Noh plays into English, as the Briton Arthur Waley’s book of translations was not published until 1921.

I’m getting off track here.  By presenting Lafcadio Hearn and Ernest Fenollosa, I mean to compare them to their later twentieth-century counterparts, the great American Japanological Donalds, Keene and Richie.  Donald Keene is perhaps the pre-eminent American expert on classical Japanese literature of his time (and I say “American,” but he took Japanese citizenship in 2011 and now resides in Japan permanently).  Richie, although certainly possessed of no mean literary knowledge, distinguished himself as the great American interpreter of Japanese cinema (and he knew everybody in Japan, writers and film people; there’s a wonderfully inexplicable photo of him with Yasunari Kawabata taken in the late 1940’s long before Richie had distinguished himself in anyway; Richie was evidently one of those people who know how to make themselves liked wherever they go).  Richie’s and Keene’s paths to Japan were fairly similar, as they both came there in the aftermath of WWII, but whereas Keene was already a fluent writer and speaker of Japanese, Richie doesn’t appear to have begun to learn how to speak Japanese until the Occupation, and up to his death he never learned to read or write it.
A young Richie with Kawabata.
In 1948, he met the film distributor Kashiko Kawakita, who introduced him to Yasujiro Ozu and other Japanese cinematic luminaries and with whom he would work for decades in bringing Japanese cinema to the West.  Speaking of Ozu, he wrote a book-length monograph on Ozu’s films and another on those of Akira Kurosawa (alas, I have not read either).  I have, however, read a number of his essays, including those collected in Viewed Sideways: Writings on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan, as well as his essays for Japanese releases by the Criterion Collection, with whom he worked on a number of projects in the last years of his life (he did the subtitle translation for films like Drunken Angel and Kagemusha).

Now, his film essays are generally excellent, but I must say that I have been somewhat troubled by the approach he takes in some of his essays on broader aspects of Japanese culture.  There is an unfortunate tendency to make grand, all-encompassing statements about the Japanese: “The Japanese do this, the Japanese think that…” Well, there are many millions of Japanese, and you can’t make sweeping generalizations about them, anymore than you can about any other group.  When you start to make these generalizations (and this I learned from William Burroughs), you’re no longer talking about reality, but rather about abstractions.  Furthermore, it’s these generalizations that lead to unhelpful and stereotypical views of cultures, any cultures.  Jonathan Rosenbaum asserts that in Richie’s Ozu book, the Japanologist tends to interpret certain elements of Ozu’s work in terms of Zen Buddhism, and Rosenbaum quite rightly argues that this is just cultural essentialism.  Ozu’s works are those of an individual and there’s no reason to assume that distinctively Japanese cultural elements inform his films’ iconography.  If we were talking about, say, Stanley Kubrick, I don’t think we’d seek out quintessential Americanisms in his work, nor would we turn to them to explain things that were cryptic to us.  We wouldn’t zero in on the French-ness of Godard’s films.  So why should we engage in this kind of essentialism with a Japanese filmmaker, just because he happens to be Japanese?

But I hate to dwell on this problem when discussing Richie, as it’s just one flaw in a largely excellent career spanning over six decades.  All of us outside of Japan who love Japanese film are in Richie’s debt, both in general, for his efforts to disseminate it outside of Japan, and in specific cases, for his work on films like Harakiri and Kagemusha.  The world of film culture will be poorer without him.

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