The Donald Richie Reader

50 Years of Writing on Japan by Donald Richie (edited by Arturo Silva)

by John G. Nettles


Greet the Rising Sun

I was at a friend’s house a couple of months ago to watch movies, and he, being an anime fan, was all excited about having snagged the DVD of Princess Mononoke. Would I like to watch it? I’d heard decent things about it, so I said okay. Two hours later I was reeling from sensory overload (tempered only by my bewilderment at the casting of Billy Bob Thornton). My friend started talking excitedly about Hayao Miyazaki and other Japanese animators—and I just stared at him, nodding like I understood a damn word he was saying. And as I did I was struck by a sudden realization, that not only did I not know the first thing about anime, I knew virtually nothing about Japanese pop culture at all.

Now on the scale of human tragedy, not having seen Akira doesn’t exactly rate in the top ten, but it did and does bother me somewhat. As someone whose vocation is the study of popular culture, it constitutes a serious shortcoming to be clueless about the source of so much of it, especially if one believes, as I do, that the future will ride in on a wave of amalgamated global culture, that American pop’s dominance of the marketplace of ideas is eroding fast—our inescapable future is as jambalaya, and the sausages had best get used to the ways of the crawdads and the cayenne peppers.

cover art

The Donald Richie Reader

Donald Richie (edited by Arturo Silva)

50 Years of Writing on Japan

(Stone Bridge Press)

So on my way home I took stock of my J-pop Quotient—what did I actually know about things Japanese? This is the sorry sum of my knowledge:

- Godzilla and Gamera will never battle each other. There is no Godzuki.

- Throne of Blood and Ran are Kurosawa doing Shakespeare. A Fistful of Dollars is Leone doing Kurosawa.

- Shonen Knife do the best cover of “I Wanna Be Sedated” out there.

- Reading Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings and then picking up a sword will only get you hurt.

- Racer X is actually Speed Racer’s brother, long thought dead—but don’t tell anyone.

- Don’t read Shogun. Ever.

Thus I nutted up and went off on another of what my wife calls my “obsessions du jour.” I can’t stand it when I feel I ought to know about something and I don’t, so I have a tendency to saturate myself in a topic until I’m satisfied that I can have a cogent conversation on it. Over the years, my darling one has displayed infinite patience while I immersed myself in studying Universal monster movies, neo-Paganism, Jim Thompson, the gunfight at the OK Corral, Sherlock Holmes, the Beat Generation, postmodernism, Nathaniel Hawthorne, underground S/M culture, and the ecology of the oak tree. And now she has to endure stacks of anime and yakuza movies on tape, books on zen, manga, and assorted maps and travel guides cluttering up our shoebox apartment as I try to get behind a land and a people I will probably never meet. Light a candle for her—her husband’s gone bye-bye.

This, then, is the first of a batch of reviews of books about “J-pop,” that catchall phrase for the strange and tangled web of product and diversion that fuels Nippon and thus influences the world—if there is any doubt about this, ask a child (I have two) to name ten great historical figures, then ask him or her for a list of favorite Pokemon.

When I proposed this series, one of our writers expressed his fervent hope that this not simply be a forum for discussions of Space Cruiser Yamato and Bubblegum Crisis guaranteed to draw drooling fanboys. It won’t be. All pop culture, J- or otherwise, is at all times a complex intertext encompassing not only the entertainments of a society—movies, TV, music, books—but the nature of the people who produce and consume those products. The celphone and the SUV aside, in most cases product responds to demand, and so we as pop scholars, punk archaeologists, look at these entertainments not for their own sake but for what they tell us about humanity at large. Pop makes no sense without culture, and there is no culture without pop.

Thus before I can even dream of understanding Japanese pop, I have to meet the Japanese, and there is no better place to start than with the work of Donald Richie. Richie, film critic for The Japan Times and former film curator for the Museum of Modern Art, and himself an experimental filmmaker, moved to Japan in early 1947 as part of the post-World War II Occupation and has called it home ever since, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Akira Kurosawa and the brilliant novelist Yukio Mishima, and writing on all things Japanese. His book The Inland Sea was made into a wildly popular documentary for PBS, and his prolific output runs the gamut from the great film directors to life in the smallest towns and most remote areas of the archipelago.

The Donald Richie Reader is a sampler of Richie’s life’s work, and damn, is it good. The pieces selected come from Richie’s books on film, particularly his book on director Yasujiro Ozu and a seminal book on Japanese film in general, his travelogue The Inland Sea, his book of profiles Different People, and several collections of essays and short fiction.Although Richie is often compared to Lafcadio Hearn, his view is not that of the blithely detached observer but of the daily resident, immersed in the culture in the course of just getting along. At the same time, because Richie is within Japan but can never be of Japan, he is always at sufficient distance to maintain objectivity. Richie loves the Japanese, hates the Japanese, both embraces and endures the Japanese. In other words, there is nothing condescending in Richie’s observations and commentary—just like the static, domesticity-themed films of Ozu, Richie observes Japan and its people as they are, neither “quaint” nor “ruthless,” as other observers would have them seem.

Throughout his work one point is central: the greatest contrast and point of confusion between the Japanese and Westerners lies in their respective concepts of the surface of things. While Westerners are wary to a fault, distrusting surfaces and ever obsessed with the true meaning behind them, the Japanese exist in an eternal now that renders all of their expressions true. One sees this in the Japanese smile that emerges even in frustration—Richie exemplifies this in an anecdote about a neighbor who smiled as she missed a subway train—the transition being the ubiquitous phrase Shikata ga nai, “It can’t be helped,” with which one elides from one emotion to the next. While a Westerner would curse his luck, or the train, or whatever made him late, for the Japanese the moment has passed, it is no longer now. It is also this concept that explains the often baffling-to-Western-minds nonchalance about death—it too happens in a now that will come when it comes. More than once Richie mentions the shrine at Ise, which is torn down and identically rebuilt every twenty years whether it needs to be or not, and it is a perfect metaphor for the ephemeral nature of time in a land where the ancient is constantly crowded out or bulldozed by the modern—in Japan, the only constant is change, and the ostensible is always real.

The beauty of Richie’s observations—and they are beautiful, rendered in Richie’s elegant, understated prose—is that they come out of the quotidian details of Japanese life rather than from the sweeping advancements and spectacles. Sidebars throughout the book deal with such minutiae as the cultural significance of the fart, public urination as an illustration of the difference between public and private property, the importance of texture to the Japanese palate, and what it means that Richie’s cigarette filters went suddenly off the market. It is in this regard that Richie is so valuable. He realizes that no detail is too small to have significance, that culture—any culture—evolves as all living things do, one atom at a time.

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