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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
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

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments