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 his. Here is his ode to expatriation, which is as good an apologia pro vita sua as any:
Foreigners, says Alastair Reid, are curable romantics. They retain an illusion from childhood that there might be someplace into which they can finally sink to rest: some magic land, some golden age, some significantly other self. Yet his own oddness keeps the foreigner separate from every encounter. Unless he regards this as something fruitful, he cannot be considered cured.
This is the great lesson of expatriation. In Japan I sit on the lonely heights of my own peculiarities and gaze back at the flat plains of Ohio, whose quaint folkways no longer have any power over me, and then gaze at the islands of Japan, whose quaint folkways are equally powerless in that the folk insist that I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the house because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding.
The American male, in those early postwar years, was a highly privileged outsider in a conquered land, where he could do pretty much what he wanted. Such constraints as there were, were imposed mainly by US occupation officials who disapproved of “fraternizing with indigenous personnel.” Lording it over the Japanese was not Richie’s style, however; he wanted to fraternize, and began to do so, characteristically, by sneaking into off-limits Japanese movie houses. There, pressed together with anonymous Japanese humanity, Richie, as the only foreigner, tried to get a fix on Japanese life by watching Japanese movies. Since this was a period of realism in Japanese cinema, his task was made easier. Anyone trying to do the same today, when most movies are modeled after the Kabuki-like fantasy world of Japanese comic strips, would get a very strange picture of Japanese life.
At first, Richie could not understand a word, but “undistracted by dialogue, undisturbed by story, I was able to attend to the intentions of the director, to notice his assumptions and to observe how he contrived his effects.” It was the start of a lifetime of Japanese film scholarship. In the packed movie houses of bombed-out Tokyo, “smelling the rice odor sweat of the people back then, mixed with the fragrance of the camellia oil pomade the men used to use on their hair,” the seeds were sown of many books to come on Kurosawa, Ozu, and other directors.
There was—still is—a strong romantic component in Richie’s desire for fraternization. The Inland Sea, a kind of philosophical travelogue through one of the most beautiful rural areas of Japan, is a quest for Arcadia, a half-imagined place of natural innocence and guiltless sensuality, where people are yet unsullied by urban sophistication and Western corruption, where “people live better than anywhere else because they live according to their own natures.” The trips were made in the 1960s, when Japan was on the cusp of high-speed industrialization, when the old was about to be buried under layers of steel and concrete. Richie wanted to catch a glimpse of that better life before it was gone for good.
Such a quest is doomed to failure, as Richie acknowledges, since Arcadia does not exist. Romantic perfection, in Japan, or anywhere else, is often promised but never fulfilled. Richie also knows that his longings took him down some well-trodden paths. For the Arcadian myth of Japan, where a purer, more innocent, more sensual way of life is just about to be destroyed by modern civilization, had attracted other visitors before him.
Richie wrote about some of them in a little book entitled The Honorable Visitors.1 The most egregious pilgrim was Pierre Loti, who came to acquire “a little yellow-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes…not much bigger than a doll,” his own little Madame Butterfly, whom he named Chrysanthème. Cocteau, believe it or not, was after something similar. Henry Adams, with his friend John La Farge, imagined that they were “playing baby, and living in doll-land.” And, much later, Truman Capote, still in thrall to his childhood memories of a Japanese florist in New Orleans, who made “toys much too exquisite to be played with,” felt he was in heaven amidst the plastic cherry blossoms and temple fairs of Tokyo.
The assumption behind all these romances is the same as General Douglas MacArthur’s, namely that the Japanese are childlike, or in the general’s words “a nation of twelve-year-olds.” MacArthur was speaking of cultural and political development. Richie has a more positive but, from the perspective of currently fashionable notions, risky take on this. He links his erotic enchantment to childhood nostalgia. Here, in The Inland Sea, is his rhapsody to Japanese bodies, which he calls “early Greek,” unlike “our Renaissance ideas of human beauty.” He writes: “To cup a hand over a breast we would call immature, run a hand along a thigh we would call adolescent—these erase experience and recall innocence. It makes the Japanese seem sometimes childlike. It makes us, once again, for a blessed and horizontal moment, children.”
This is, as I said, unfashionable. But Richie is nothing if not self-aware. He knows exactly what he is up to. In The Honorable Visitors, he notes the condescension of Western visitors who find the Japanese charmingly childlike, and takes note of the politics behind such picturesque views: “To condescend is to have the power to do so. Americans and Europeans visiting Japan, brought with them, in their mental luggage, this assumption of superiority. They still often do.”
Sex, he observes elsewhere, “is imperialistic since it always implies a top and a bottom, and one of the ways to encompass (and subject) the distant other is through what is often called the act of love but in this context should probably be called the act of sex.” Yet, side by side with this hard truth, comes almost inevitably the more romantic notion that Westerners find in Japan and other imagined Arcadias something that we, in our supposedly superior, more sophisticated, more cynical part of the world, have lost.
Two characters in Richie’s The Honorable Visitors also appear in Christopher Benfey’s fine new book, The Great Wave. Henry Adams, historian and aesthete, and John La Farge, the painter, were products of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age, and Edith Wharton the Age of Innocence, when dirty politics and a rush for riches followed the Civil War. The coarse energy and baroque self-indulgence of post-bellum America was ill-suited to artists, intellectuals, and aesthetes, many of them from Boston, who hankered after a more refined or spiritual way of life, a kind of lost world of natural nobility.
Hankering came in various ways. Adams himself, as Benfey points out, was nostalgic for the more gallant aspects of the old South. Others—Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, Ernest Fenollosa—were attracted to Buddhism. Herman Melville had a romance with South Sea islanders, and hoped to be “deconverted” by them from his modern Christian ways. Lafcadio Hearn looked for nobility among the poor Creoles of New Orleans. But at one time or another, all of them were infected by a strong dose of Japan-ophilia. In Zen austerity and reserve, writes Benfey, “they found confirmation of their own recoil from Victorian excess and ostentation. In Old Japan, in short, they thought they glimpsed a Golden Age, a world they were eager to visit before it disappeared.” Just as Donald Richie’s romantic yearnings produced a rich store of cultural knowledge, the Japanese dreams of nineteenth-century Americans resulted in some of the best Asian art collections in the world, such as that of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Some of the Japanese journeys described by Benfey were little more than glorified shopping sprees. In 1886, Henry Adams was disappointed by what he saw as rather slim pickings in the Japanese art market. Tokyo, he declared, had been “cleaned out.” No wonder, since friends of his, notably Edward Morse, Fenollosa, and Dr. Bigelow, had already been there, foraging before him. Still, Adams bought plenty, and was more flexible in his tastes than Fenollosa, who despised anything produced after the sixteenth century, especially woodblock prints, which Adams acquired in large numbers.
Edward Morse came to Japan to instruct Japanese students about Darwinism and modern science, but the main attraction for him was the prospect of finding rare seashells. From collecting brachiopods, he turned to tea bowls, and other pottery. Benfey explains how the various objects of Morse’s desire were linked, in his own mind, by a Darwinist need to chart evolution in nature and art. Morse, writes Benfey, “had an acute sense that ‘Old Japan’ as he had known it, was on the verge of extinction…. Good Darwinian that he was, Morse wished to preserve a fossil record of a vanishing civilization…. If the Japanese did not intend to preserve Old Japan, then someone else would have to do it.”
Even though Japan was never colonized, this account offers an interesting illustration of the twin effects of Western imperialism, in India no less than in Japan: modernization on the one hand, in the form of railways, factories, and science; on the other, the systematic preservation, in universities and museums, of the vanishing past. The two always go together, are indeed part of the same enterprise. Alas, the museums that benefit most are usually far removed from the source of their treasures. Only a few decades after Morse’s last trip, in 1882, the Japanese would subject their imperial territories in Korea, Taiwan, and China to precisely the same process.
A number of Benfey’s Japanophiles display attitudes that from our perspective can only be described as patronizing, sometimes bordering on the contemptuous. Percival Lowell, another Darwinist Boston Brahmin, declared that the Japanese were a “childish” race. More eccentric, in view of the enthusiasms of so many other Western travelers, is Adams’s conviction that “sex does not exist in Japan, except as a scientific classification…. Sex begins with the Aryan race.” But since Adams had embarked on his Japanese trip in search of inspiration for a funeral ornament in memory of his wife, who had just killed herself, erotic interests were perhaps not foremost in his mind.
One quickly finds of course that most people in search of never-never lands, in Japan or anywhere else, have their reasons for not feeling comfortable at home. Each of Benfey’s subjects has his own Lima, Ohio, so to speak. Lafcadio Hearn was the abandoned son of an Anglo-Irish surgeon and a Greek peasant. Adams had always felt himself a misfit. Bigelow was a nervous homosexual who tried to impress the world with his manly interests, as when he introduced Theodore Roosevelt to judo. La Farge, the exotic son of a French plantation owner, had a bad marriage and preferred, as Benfey puts it, “the company of men, either cultured companions like Adams…or exquisite Asian men… who made little claim on him.”
Being alone in a strange and exclusive foreign land can lead to acute self-consciousness but also allows a person to lose himself, or at least those aspects of himself he does not like, the kind of thing that makes life at home a torment, the kind of thing that exotic strangers far away from Lima, in their presumed innocence, would not even think of noticing. Again, Donald Richie finds the words for this in relation to his romantic quest. Why, he asks, are travelers everywhere “known for their attempts to pick people up.” This, he says, is because “naked, lying down, one is resolutely oneself, the person one otherwise left at home. The freedom to lose yourself, one of the great attractions of the sexual encounter, is based, after all, upon the assumption that you have first found yourself.”
In the case of Henry Adams, this is put a little differently. Benfey writes that Adams was drawn to Buddhism because of its promise of Nirvana, “that extinction of individual personality and desire that was, in its Sanskrit meaning, likened to the blowing out of a candle.” This might sound like the opposite of what Richie is saying, but it is closer than one thinks. The deepest attraction of Japan for Richie is the very Buddhist notion that everything is fluid, impermanent, illusory, that there is no such thing as a fixed self, an inner soul, and that “appearances are reality,” since “no one ever taught [the Japanese] to expect more of life than life can in fact offer.” To accept this, he believes, is to be free. This also accounts, I think, for Richie’s love of the austere, spiritual, almost Buddhist films of Ozu Yasujiro and Robert Bresson, the art of Giorgio Morandi, and the novels of Henry Green. One of his great insights as a critic is to have seen what they have in common, and to celebrate their spare beauty.
In the end, of course, it does not matter much why people are attracted to this or that place, what their sexual habits are, or that their prejudices go out of style. The important thing is what they do and leave behind. Benfey gives a fascinating account of the creative sparks that flew between Americans and Japanese in the Gilded Age and after. Even as American scholars were introducing the Japanese to Darwinism, the remarkable Okakura Tenshin was inspiring Frank Lloyd Wright, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Martin Heidegger through his lectures and books, such as The Ideals of the East (1903) and The Book of Tea (1906). He must have cut quite a figure, this freelance scholar in his fine kimonos, conducting tea ceremonies for le tout Boston in flawless English.
Even more extraordinary: in the 1920s, the young Count Kuki Shuzo, author of a famous treatise on Japanese dandyism, was swanning around Europe, studying with Heidegger, with whom he exchanged ideas on the philosophy of language, and taking on as his French tutor in Paris the young Jean-Paul Sartre. It was Kuki, Benfey tells us, who introduced Heidegger’s ideas to Sartre. If this is true, I’m not sure we should thank him for it, but the impact was clearly huge. One more detail: Kuki’s real father was probably Okakura Tenshin, who had a long affair with Kuki’s mother, an ex-geisha who married well.
The problem with Arcadian romanticism, the search for lost innocence and noble savagery, is not simply a matter of fashion. In literary style, it tends to produce sentimental visions rather than believable characters. Richie’s The Inland Sea shows some of this defect. His accounts of sailors and fishermen picked up on his way, pictures of touching innocence, hard muscle, and soft skin, are interesting only insofar as they conform to the author’s romantic imagination. There is also a tendency, again rather out of date now, to divide the world too glibly between Japan (or “Asia”) and “the West,” and Richie’s usually negative ideas of the West often sound rather too much like his memories of Lima, Ohio.
What made Richie a truly important writer was, perhaps not surprisingly, the cinema. The reason his books The Japanese Film,2 Japanese Cinema,3 and The Films of Kurosawa4 were so inspiring to me, as a student in Holland, before I had set foot in Japan, was Richie’s feeling for character and his humane understanding of life. His thumbnail descriptions of the people portrayed in Japanese movies made me want to rush out and see not just those movies, but Japan itself. Through his writings on film, he made the Japanese come alive, not as visions, but as individuals with lives that seemed both interestingly different and very familiar to me. The irony is that he was not talking about real people, encountered on his travels, but characters made up by Japanese scriptwriters. Nonetheless, he made them sound absolutely real.
Richie once said in an interview that Ozu’s characters expressed themselves in different ways from Westerners, but that their feelings were the same. Few Western critics or writers on Japan have been as good as Richie at bringing out this common humanity. Most books on Japan still depict its people as odd, sometimes threatening and sinister, sometimes endearing and wise, but in any case bafflingly different from other people. That Richie managed to cross that hurdle is not only due to long experience or critical intelligence, but also to the very thing that fires his erotic imagination: his sensual love of people, not as abstractions, like “Japanese,” “Asians,” or “Westerners,” but as individuals whom he seeks out in real life, as much as in the movies.
Richie’s romanticism, then, is both a great strength and sometimes a drawback. When he writes about cinema, its fictions as well as its directors, actors, and actresses, it is always a strength. He is indeed at his best when he writes about people he knows well, or finds in fictions, rather than those he hankers after or picks up, or uses as exemplars of native innocence. A wonderful collection, originally entitled Different People,5 was later published in an expanded edition, retitled Public People, Private People.6 The latter title is more apt, since some of the featured characters are well known, and others not. Again, in my view, it is where the public and private meet, that he shines. His sketch of Mishima, checking himself in the mirror of the Tokyo Hilton restaurant as he tries to pass on a young acolyte to Richie as a farewell present before committing ritual suicide in the summer of 1970, is sad and funny, and rings absolutely true in spite of its grotesquerie.
My favorite, however, is a short description of the young Donald Richie, in 1947, standing on top of one of the few remaining buildings in a raffish entertainment district of Tokyo, together with the writer Kawabata Yasunari. Neither could understand the language of the other, as they surveyed the ruined city in the pale winter sun. Kawabata had written a beautiful story before the war set in this neighborhood, which had once been a hub of cheap dance halls, movie theaters, and burlesque houses. All Richie could do was blurt out the names of some of the characters in the novel. He assumed Kawabata must be feeling sadness and horror at all that was lost in the man-made carnage of 1945. Then: “I looked at that birdlike profile. It did not seem sad. In fact, he smiled, peering over the parapet and pointing at the river.”
Kawabata appeared to have accepted fate. This is what life had to offer. And so he smiled, just as characters in an Ozu film do, even in adversity, when they might have hoped for something more. Richie, being a romantic, always hopes for something more, yet is most deeply moved by the dignity of those who accept life as it is. That is why he fell in love with Japan in 1947. It is why he writes so beautifully about Ozu. Here he is, on the films of the Japanese master, but everything he says applies to his own best work as well:
Human nature in all its diversity and variation—this is what the Ozu film is essentially about. It must be added, however, that as a traditional and conservative Asian, Ozu did not believe in any such essence as the term “human nature” may suggest to us. Each of his characters is unique and individual, based on known types though they all may be; one never finds “representative types” in his films. Just as there is no such thing as Nature, only individual trees, rocks, streams, etc., so there is no such thing as Human Nature, only individual men and women.
May 15, 2003