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

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The Independent Online

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.