Donald Richie Interview: Conversation with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing, Film, and Japan: An Expatriate's View: Conversation with Donald Richie, writer and film critic, 9/21/01 by Harry Kreisler

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Japan: Discovery

So how did you wind up in Japan? You last left us in China. Did one of your ships come to Japan and you decided to stay?

No. What happened was, the war was over, I was back home. My escape route was cut off. The only place for me to go was back to Ohio. I was unwilling to do that. I heard that the foreign service was accepting people for the two occupied areas, which were Germany and Japan. I signed up, and being a very good typist, I was taken. I put down Germany because I had been all over Europe, but I had never been to Germany. But they, in their wisdom, sent me to Japan. And so on the last day of 1946, I sailed into Yokohama harbor.

What sort of typing did you do? You worked for the civil administration there?

Yes, I worked for a certain part of the Occupation, which was concerned with war repatriations. I thought it would be all about Tang horses and pearls and things. But it wasn't. It was just lists in triplicate. No matter what a good typist I am, I'm not particularly fond of that talent. So I determined to get out, and I went to Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, and did a few articles for them on spec as it were, kind of human interest articles, people living under bridges and things like that. And they liked it. The occupation had humanized itself enough that people living under bridges were now something one could read about. So I was put on the staff, and I became a staff writer. I pointed out they didn't have a film critic, and they agreed, and so I became it. To be sure, I didn't review any Japanese films -- we were not allowed in the theaters. But I reviewed Betty Grable for the troops, that sort of thing.

Let's talk a little about reviewing American films. After all of this traveling, did you see American films differently? Were you more conscious of the way they were because of these experiences?

Oh, yes, of course. When I first saw Betty Grable, for example, I treated her like sort of a more favorably inclined mother. And --

This is in Lima, when you were young?

In Lima, yes. She would teach me things. I remember in Moon Over Miami, she taught me how to make gas-house eggs, which is where you take the piece of bread and put a hole in the middle, put the egg in and turn it over -- gas house eggs -- which I would then make. So I would learn something that way.

Later on, when I was in Japan and was reviewing Betty Grable for the troops, of course, I did not see her as an ersatz mother anymore, nor as a teacher of how to make food. I then saw her as an icon for the troops. My interest had become much more generalized, and I was able to talk more or less learnedly about the effects she was having on the troops, the fact that there's a whole line of such icons in the films that are used for various political purposes. And I could connect her to Theda Bara and [others]. I could do this sort of thing by now.

When you look back at any of these writings, do you still have pride in them?

Thank God I don't have to look at them.

I see.

The entire collection is at the Museum of Modern Art. I haven't seen it for years.

I see. So somebody who wants to do a book or a dissertation on you might want to go there.

Now, at a certain point here you get the idea to do what you weren't supposed to do, which was to go to a Japanese movie house and watch a Japanese movie. Why did you do that? And what was that experience like?

Well, the reason I went ... of course, there are a number of reasons why one does things like this. Our life there was circumscribed in a way which was rather like Lima. There were a number of things one couldn't do. "No fraternization with the indigenous personnel" was still a sign that you saw. And, of course, anybody with any American spirit in them would want to break such a law. We all did that. And if you did and the MPs caught you, then you were reprimanded. But if you were clever, they didn't catch you. And the kabuki, the coffee shops, the bordellos -- they were all off limits, and the motion picture theaters were all off limits, and I could live without kabuki or bordello, but I really, at this point, couldn't live without film.

And besides, film, I knew, was a great teaching tool. I was in this new country and I wanted to learn something about it. I already knew that I understood my own country through films, and it seemed like I could look at Japanese films and I could learn something about the country. So I used to go to places where the MPs weren't, and then sneak in and stand in the back and look at these films. All in a language I could not understand, but when you look at films and don't have titles, and have no idea if it's a mother or a lover that the hero's involved with, you learn something else. You learn about the choices that a director has, you learn about why he makes the movements that he has, you're undistracted by story, you're undisturbed by understanding dialogue -- all of these things give you another way of learning, another way of finding out -- which in the case of film is more true. And so you learn exactly what the director wanted to do and then you can judge how well he did it.

So in a way, not knowing the language of the Japanese, you learned even more the language of their cinema.

Yes. And through the language of their cinema, you learned the other more important language of ... oh, the body language, the moves, the looks, the expressions, the assumptions -- all of this you learn. Narrative, and understanding it, would only have been an impediment to this.

You've written several studies of Japanese cinema and you've written about two of its most famous directors, Ozu and Kurosawa. Tell us a little about your conclusions about Ozu and how very different he was from most American directors, if not all American directors.

Well, paradox is involved, because Ozu learned probably more from American cinema than anybody else. But book coverhe learned from the cinema of the twenties -- from the popular cinema. So, if it hadn't been for Our Gang, we probably wouldn't have great child comedies like I Was Born, But.... The paradoxical thing is that he took these very means and turned them to his own uses. He took the means of primitive cinema and put them to the most sophisticated uses, which would include things like allowing no pans, allowing no dollies -- cameras on wheels -- allowing only one form of punctuation, which is a straight cut -- that is, no dissolves, no fades-in/fades-out -- and making an extraordinarily stringent, majestic kind of film, which in its way is not too different from the films of 1918, except they are done with a degree of sophistication which the West has yet to match. Which allows many a critic -- Japanese, as well as Western -- to talk about the "haiku-like" structure, the economy of means which they find Japanese -- the use of space, which is found to be Japanese. And it is Japanese, as far as I know. But the point is that it's more Ozu than it is anything else. And it is these book cover things which make his cinema the contained experience that it is.

Kurosawa, on the other hand, also learns from the West. He's very fond of John Wayne, for example. He's fond of the Western people and of the Western genre. And so he's able to, again, move all of these things into his own vision of his own world, which, again, is completely unique. But this is uniqueness on one side, which is Kurosawa's, and one which is Ozu's.

You say at one point that Ozu doesn't want to show the story, but how his characters react to what happens in the story and what patterns these relations create.

I said it.

And so it's really this -- and I fear I won't do justice to what you're saying -- but this very simple, empirical presentation of an everyday life is done in such a way that we come to see patterns to which we react. And you're saying that it requires a lot of the viewer. His simplicity makes our job more complex.

Or makes our job more rewarding.

Yes, both, yes.

He builds his half of the bridge; we build ours. This is a modernist trait. And, indeed, one can see and one has seen Ozu as a modernist. That is, book coverif you remember how Gertrude Stein, for example, or T.S. Eliot, or Henry Green write, they write in a way which the ordinary reader might find oblique, but if he moves toward them, he will find to be more rewarding than not. In the case of Henry Green, for example, one is presented, much as in Ozu, with these geometrical blocks. And it is of these that one makes one's own sense in creating a narrative. But you have to bring your attention to it, because Ozu very often proceeds at a deliberate pace. And while he may seek to lose you, it's always for playful purposes, never seriously seeking [to lose you]. If you look at Tokyo Story, for example, and examine the chronology, you will see there are many places where time and space are played with. The discreet blocks of the narrative remain there, but are yours to interpret. And, in fact, if he has anything really important like a wedding, he'll be just like Jane Austen, he'll leave it out. She is also a modernist, which is why we like her so much.

This very discreet way of communicating is something which the modernists -- and I'm talking of the school from 1920 to 1940, let's say -- learned to do. Ozu knew all of this. There was a big modernist school in Japan -- Kawabata is part of this. He used these techniques, coupled, again, with primitive means to lend a "quotidian" quality. I suppose that's the word I would use, mainly --as in Vermeer. I mean, it's all milk jugs, but it's magic, you know. The same way with Ozu's: it's just a red coffeepot, but it's magic.

How have you contributed to making the depth and complexity of Japanese cinema available to the West?

You know, sometimes people say that I'm the man who introduced Japanese cinema. And this is not true. I mean, many people did this. Joe Anderson and I, when I wrote our first book ... we did write the first complete menu, so you don't know what's on the table until you read our book.


And so in that sense, and also in the sense in that my later books have sought to disclose whole fields, and to connect them to the sociology or the anthropology of Japanese life. All of this which it gives the reader a context, which they hadn't had. People ask me what I am, and I say I'm a film historian. I guess that's what I am.

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