Donald Richie: Author and acclaimed scholar of Japanese cinema

His book 'The Films of Akira Kurosawa' raised the bar for film scholarship round the world

Donald Richie was the foremost authority in the west on Japanese film, and the best-known, for over 60 years. A prolific writer on many aspects of Japanese culture, he was also a recognised writer of fiction and an experimental film-maker.

The book he wrote with Joseph Anderson in 1959, The Japanese Film, Art and Industry, has never been entirely supplanted. That it immediately took a commanding place on the bookshelves, and stayed there, was due both to accidents of history and the prodigious talents of its authors. Before it, no one in the West could form a coherent picture of this industry, by most measures the second-largest in the world. In similar vein, he wrote the first western monographs on Ozu and Kurosawa.

Richie's talents included those of translator, stylist, storyteller and critic. Although he was not a trained linguist, the impact of Richie's contributions to translation from the Japanese would be hard to overestimate. He brought the work of Japanese writers to western understanding, and was an inexhaustible reviewer and champion of the work of other Japanese scholars and translators in the pages of the Japan Times over many decades. His accessible style was derived from a very broad reading of literature; his writing, both fictional and reportage, employed character-portraits to show complex nuances and contradictions.

Richie grew up in the industrial Ohio town of Lima. After the Pacific War broke out, Richie signed up to the merchant marines, in which he nurtured his thirst for travel and broadened his wide reading. At war's end he used a school typing prize to get a desk job in the Occupation forces, hoping to get to Germany. “In their wisdom”, Richie said, “they sent me to Japan”.

Arriving on the last day of 1946 in a bombed-out Tokyo, he was exceptionally placed to observe the country's rebirth. Deploying his privileges like few others, and disregarding strictures not to fraternise with the “indigenous personnel”, within a few weeks he had arranged his first meeting with the writer Yasunari Kawabata, one in a stream of personal encounters. His encounters with the Japanese cinema also started early: “I risked it because, though I could well imagine a life without Kabuki or brothels, I could not conceive one without movies.” His writing quickly got the notice of The Pacific Stars and Stripes, which, he pointed out, had no film critic. And so he started his career “writing about Betty Grable's legs for GIs”. At the same time he was devouring Japanese film and visiting sets.

In 1947 he enrolled at Columbia University. New York was also an ideal base for viewing the history of cinema and for further travel. But it was to Japan that he was pulled, and in 1954 he engineered his return, as film critic for the Japan Times, an English-language paper, and as instructor in American literature at Waseda University. Taking classes in Japanese, he became fluent, at least in conversation, and began researching the history of Japanese film, often from first-hand accounts. In Joseph Anderson, whose reading of Japanese was much better, he found an ideal collaborator.

The Films of Akira Kurosawa appeared in 1965, raising the bar for film scholarship worldwide. The film theorist and historian David Bordwell said “it showed that cinema could be studied with intellectual seriousness.” But it was his book on Ozu, “constructed like an Ozu film”, which he regarded as the higher mountain to climb. He had championed Ozu's films in the West in the teeth of opposition from Ozu's company, Shochiku.

The Inland Sea (1970), has been described by Richie as fiction, but it has walk-on parts for real people. It is highly reflective of both himself and Japan and displayed Richie's bisexuality for anyone with eyes to see. Focussed, as ever, on individuals, it also manages to make acute observations on how language frames Japanese encounters with the foreign.

In the same year he was appointed curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but this allowed him to return home to Tokyo each summer. When the “rotating” position became permanent, he quit, resuming his place as a permanent outsider in Japan, a position he cherished. As he commented in his 1987 book, Different People, “I realised long ago that if I were Japanese myself I wouldn't stay here.” In later years his translations of Japanese film extended to detailed commentaries on DVD releases, allowing a new generation to savour his observations and wit. Valued for his generosity to later generations of Japan scholars, in all he produced some 40 books, several experimental films and countless essays and reviews.

Donald Richie, writer, film historian and film-maker: born Lima, Ohio 17 April 1924; died married 1961 Mary Evans (divorced 1965); died Tokyo 19 February 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
FIFA President Sepp Blatter reacts during a news conference in Zurich June 1, 2011
news
News
people
Life and Style
food + drink
News
peopleKatie Hopkins criticises River Island's 'seize the day' bags for trying to normalise epilepsy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family
film'I survived it, but I’ll never be the same,' says Arash Amel
Life and Style
Retailers should make good any consumer goods problems that occur within two years
tech(and what to do if you receive it)
Life and Style
healthIf one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
Life and Style
tech
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada