Donald Richie arrived in Japan shortly after the end of World War II, when the country, as he now puts it, was “flattened”. With few intermissions, he stayed there until this day. He is well-known as one of the foremost specialists on Japanese film history and a long-term foreign or US-American resident of Japan, somewhat less known as the director of experimental films in the 50s and the 60s, quite well-known as the author of several essay collections to do with Things Japanese, and hardly known at all as a critic of film in general, as a painter, and as composer.
The Austrian artist duo PRINZGAU/Podgorschek did a documentary about Richie, titled Â„sneaking inÂ“. Yesterday it was shown at Vienna’s Filmmuseum. Richie was there. The director Brigitte Podgorschek was there. Crowds of people were there; it was absolutely packed. Before the screening, the Filmmuseum showed Oshima Nagisa’s Â„Cruel Story of YouthÂ“ (Seishun zankoku monogatari, 1960), which Richie had introduced with a few words of well placed and nicely phrased sarcasm.
Â„Sneaking inÂ“ first of all contains interview scenes with Richie, interview scenes with others like film critic SatÃ´ Tadao, Ian Buruma (somewhat disturbingly labeled a Â„culture philosopherÂ“, Â„KulturphilosophÂ“ – hell, if there’s one thing I wouldn’t call the prolific Mr. Buruma, it’s Â„philosopherÂ“!), director Hani Susumu. Then there are many shots which exude Japaneseness in one way or another: black-and-white images of Kimono beauties, modern shots of the island Miyajima and the ferry that leads to it, suburbian train pictures, painted stills from classical Japanese films. A bricolage of Japaneseness, one might say. A mixture of just the kind of pictures you’d take as a traveler and just the kind of pictures that would catch your eye when starting to browse Japanese film history. Not unappealing, yet a bit too familiar, conspicuously close to a visual clichÃ© of ye aulde Â„caught between tradition and modernityÂ“-mantra with which texts on Japan are so often introduced. I don’t know how, but there’s got to be a way with images of Japan that allow for a somewhat more, well, complex viewing experience (no, Chris Marker is not the answer).
The films Richie did must have been hilarious. In the talk afterwards, Richie said he wanted to film things beyond taboo, yet put them in a golden frame. In Â„CybÃ¨leÂ“ (1968, I believe), naked human bodies torture each other, mostly by ramming poles and other materials up others’ behinds. All this is nicely decorated with Philippe Rameau’s table music. What was interesting about these films is that you see Japanese people and you don’t ask yourself whether this is a Japanese film. Something beyond superficial ethnicity and exotic glamour. Ironically, Â„sneaking inÂ“ does not take the hint for its own visual attitude.
There was a discussion afterwards, which, really, was a celebration of Mr Richie and his extraordinary accomplishments, just like the film itself. Rather amusing, definitely impressive, but also, well. Charming, occasionally uplifting, leaving you behind in a state of spirited melancholy, with a few aphoristic gems. Well placed, and nicely phrased, straddling the balance between deep truth and boring banality with brilliance, I must say. However.
Glad to have seen Oshima’s film beforehand, though. The pointless rage of listless youngsters is a perfect starter for the celebration menu for an old man’s achievements.
One June 6, 18h, Donald Richie will give a talk about Â„One Hundred Years of Japanese FilmÂ“ at the Â„Institut für OstasienwissenschaftenÂ“ at Vienna University.
Extensive conversation with Donald Richie, Review of Richie’s “Tokyo: A View of the City”, review of the “Donald Richie reader”, interview with Richie by the directors of “The Inland Sea”, filmed after Richie’s famous travelogue.