Pioneer

The Inland Sea

by Donald Richie, with an introduction by Pico Iyer
Stone Bridge Press, 255 pp., $16.95 (paper)

When Donald Richie first landed on Japanese soil on New Year’s Eve, 1946, he felt his “testicles descend to the earth.” Aside from a few years in New York, he never lived anywhere else again, and became a famous author of books on Japanese cinema, as well as other subjects, including the street life of Tokyo, the American occupation, and the art of Japanese tattoos. He has also written several novels set in Japan. Other Americans dedicated their lives to Japan before him and some knew a great deal, but few matched Richie’s intimacy with Japanese society. We have been friends for almost thirty years. His writing on Japanese films was one of the things that inspired my own interest in that country. Like others, I have benefited from his wisdom, by no means confined to the movies, ever since.

What could he have meant by that arresting phrase, about his testicles coming to earth? Is it to do with finding love, or the promise of erotic adventure, or something related, but more profound perhaps, something like finding the freedom to feel comfortable in his own skin? Richie has often said, and written, as much. This passage, for example, in The Inland Sea: “‘What do you think of Japan?’ This is the first, the salient question that one is asked…. How to respond? I think the most honest answer is: I like myself here.”

To understand Richie, one has to know something about his childhood in Lima, Ohio, described in The Donald Richie Reader. These snatches of memoir, compiled by Arturo Silva from Richie’s writings, are so witty and stylish that, pending the publication of his copious diaries, one longs for a full autobiography.

Lima, Ohio, in the 1930s was not the ideal place for a young man of wit and style to linger. As long as he can remember, Richie wanted to leave Lima, preferably for some distant land, far over the rainbow, hinted at in the dark of the Sigma movie theater where the artist as a young boy caught his “first glimpse of the waiting world.” There were some distractions from provincial torpor, to be sure: a swarthy boy named Manuel, who “smelled of funny things like garlic which we never had in our house,” a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and of course the movies: “When the lights went down and the curtain went up and exhaled upon me its great stale breath, I was on my way.”

After hitchhiking to New Orleans in 1941, inspired by the fanciful fictions of Frederick Prokosch (notably in The Asiatics), Richie joined the US Maritime Service, and saw the world as a bookish ensign and purser, before arriving in Japan on the last night of 1946. The country was in ruins, of course, but the people impressed him with their willingness to dust themselves off and get on with life. What’s more, they were happy to let Richie get on with …

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