The Lafcadio Hearn of Our Time
February 19, 2013 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Donald Richie, American author, journalist, critic and expert on Japan, dies at 88.
Smilingly excluded here in Japan, politely stigmatised, I can from my angle attempt only objectivity, since my subjective self will not fit the space I am allotted . . . how fortunate I am to occupy this niche with its lateral view. In America I would be denied this place. I would live on the flat surface of a plain. In Japan, from where I am sitting, the light falls just right – I can see the peaks and valleys, the crags and crevasses.
-- from The Japan Journals, 1947-2004

Interviews with Mr. Richie from 2009 and from 2001.

posted by Ice Cream Socialist (23 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

Thanks Don, for introducing me to so many wonderful films. Will have to peruse my copy of Films of Kurosawa tonight.
posted by SomaSoda at 11:24 AM on February 19, 2013

posted by sciencegeek at 11:37 AM on February 19, 2013

Richie's review of Kurosawa's classic Ikiru ends with a quote from film historian Richard Brown:
Ikiru is a cinematic expression of modern existentialist thought. It consists of a restrained affirmation within the context of a giant negation. What it says in starkly lucid terms is that ‘life’ is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man’s life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that to him is meaningful. What everyone else thinks about that man’s life is utterly beside the point, even ludicrous. The meaning of his life is what he commits the meaning of his life to be. There is nothing else.
In the case of Donald Richie there is more. His reviews, books, and essays are a great legacy, and our esteem for him can only grow as we discover through his words and learn through his experiences.

I probably have as many Donald Richie books on my shelf as I do Alexandre Dumas. That's saying something.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 11:45 AM on February 19, 2013

posted by clockworkjoe at 11:47 AM on February 19, 2013

posted by cazoo at 11:52 AM on February 19, 2013

Without a doubt, Donald Richie is responsible more than anyone else for introducing Japanese culture to the West after the war. His Japan Journals is an amazing book, mixing the Occupation with Ozu, plus frequent encounters with Susan Sontag (whom he took to live sex shows).

Richie's place is post-war Japanese high society also points out how distinctly American the West's understanding was following the war, and how much American sensibilities have influenced how Japan is perceived in the "outside" world - it was a distinctly Japanese-American relationship.

I think the Internet and social media have changed everything over the past ten years or so, in regards to who gets to "decode" Japan, but Donald Richie set the stage.

What a life he led. What amazing people he met.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:53 AM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by cobra libre at 11:59 AM on February 19, 2013

I'm not really sure if it's accurate to call Donald Richie the "Lafcadio Hearn of our time", although I suppose there was the similarity in that neither was able to read or write Japanese.

Hearn was a deeply unhappy man following his departure from Matsue, and was plagued for most of his short remaining life in Japan with health problems, notably poor eyesight. While Hearn did write for Harper's, and did eventually teach at Tokyo University, he was an outsider for most of his life (save for his brief life in Matsue), and his writings include a lot a pure invention - his poor eyesight and limited language ability meant he had to rely on the imperfect translations of a native helper. Indeed, he could barely communicate with his own wife.

While Richie also identified as an outsider, he was the consummate insider, mugging in photographs with everyone from Mishima to the Japanese royal family. And he lived a long and happy life.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:18 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by ageispolis at 12:19 PM on February 19, 2013

I'm not really sure if it's accurate to call Donald Richie the "Lafcadio Hearn of our time"

Well, me neither, but it makes a pithy post title.

It's from a Tom Wolfe quote. "Donald Richie is the Lafcadio Hearn of our time, a subtle, stylish, and deceptively lucid medium between two cultures that confuse one another: the Japanese and the American."
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:26 PM on February 19, 2013

In my field (film studies), Richie is a giant. I have taught a class on Japanese Film a couple of times, and, whether I want it to or not (though I generally do), Richie's take on that nation's cinema informs pretty much every lecture and discussion.

I have a fun story about him:
I met him once, in about 1999, when I was in grad school. He was a friendly, soft-spoken man who was happy to chat with a dopey student about movies. He had been asked by, I think, Sight and Sound to compile a list of the best films of the 1990s. He clearly regarded such a task as a silly one, which of course it is, as he asked me for the names of some films that I admired. As I mentioned a few, he scribbled them down on his Sight and Sound form, in no particular order. So Donald Richie's "Best Films of the 1990s" list is actually about half mine!
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:13 PM on February 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

posted by kozad at 2:05 PM on February 19, 2013

posted by longdaysjourney at 2:59 PM on February 19, 2013

I saw him speak on my first day in Japan. When I came here on a foreign term, we landed at Narita, and we piled on buses, and were taken to the (I think) the Tokyo American Club in Roppongi, and after a brief orientation, Mr. Richie spoke to our group of 82 jet lagged college students about the things he'd seen and done. I had never heard of him before, I don't think most of us had, but he was, I remember, a fascinating speaker.

Later, when I came back to Japan, I made the connection between this funny older guy who'd given us a lecture and the guy who regularly appeared in the Japan Times. I kicked myself for not realizing that having him as essentially our welcome to Japan was actually a pretty amazing event.

This news was pretty much how my day got started. Damn.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:45 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

from the NYT obit:

Mr. Richie lamented the changes he saw transforming the nation. In books like “The Inland Sea,” Mr. Richie bemoaned the passing of the quaint, agrarian country that he found in the 1940s, the victim of decades of unrestrained public works and American-style commercial redevelopment.

“It was the most beautiful country I’d ever seen in my life,” he wrote in 1992, “and now it’s just about the ugliest.”

posted by ecourbanist at 3:58 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have often told Asian Studies students that nothing they read can ever prepare them for the experience of being in Japan. But Ritchie's works came closer than anyone, he helped prepare me for the experience of being myself in Japan.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:41 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Gotanda at 4:58 PM on February 19, 2013

Richie did many audio commentaries on Criterion Collection DVDs. List here.

Fandor also has a good set of links about Richie.

His book 'The Films of Akira Kurosawa' is really invaluable and a pleasure to read. I wish there were more books like that on great directors.

posted by Rashomon at 5:38 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Donald Ritchie's incredibly good book on Yasujiro Ozu is one of the best books on film I've ever read; it changed entirely the way I saw film, and had huge impact on my way of approaching art in general.
posted by koeselitz at 5:48 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by jet_manifesto at 3:23 AM on February 20, 2013

Yeah, that Ozu book is excellent; it always made me happy someone as amazing as Ozu had a book worthy of his work.

Richie's stories about Oshima also get me. He will be missed.
posted by ifjuly at 7:53 AM on February 20, 2013

Thank you for The Inland Sea Mr Richie.

it makes a pithy post title
Only if you know who he was, and unlike Donald Richie I'd never heard of this Lafcadio Hearn.

posted by Rash at 1:14 PM on February 21, 2013

Here's an excellent essay from the Japan Times about Donald Richie, by photojournalist and author Stephen Mansfield.

Only if you know who he was, and unlike Donald Richie I'd never heard of this Lafcadio Hearn.

Oh, for crying out loud. I feel terrible about picking that quote -- I realized too late that "pithy" isn't a good mode for obituaries -- but this criticism goes beyond that. I give up.

posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 5:29 AM on February 25, 2013

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