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Donald Richie: Episode Four

By most standards, I am not particularly cultured. So, it might surprise you to hear that recently I was in a small, basement club in Tokyo watching Japanese avant-garde films from the 1960s. Yeah, it surprised me too.

I was there to see the event’s host, an 82-year-old author who has lived in Tokyo for some 60 years. Anyone who takes cinema seriously or who knows anything about Japanese culture has heard of Donald Richie. He is considered a central figure on Japanese film, and the man has pounded out more than 40 books on Japanese culture, in addition to his own films and weekly columns. There is scare a scholar known more widely than he.

Any readers I have might note that I have mentioned him before. He is an elderly legend and an accomplished Japanese academic. He is also American. Or, he was born in the United States, and, as he told me, still maintains that he is, “an American living in Tokyo.” Even after calling Japan home for 60 nearly-consecutive years.

It was odd to see him. A man of great success by many measures, he was dressed fashionably as one might assume of a man possessing his artistic celebrity, but his style was contrasted by an aged figure and frail demeanor. When fielding questions about the films, his on-point responses, overstuffed with names that incite cinematic marvel, were slowed by an occasional cough or a moment’s hesitation.

My fourth episode, Honorable Visitor, in which I interview noted author Donald Richie:

It was clear the difficulty in some of Richie’s delivery was a new arrival. This is a man who has made a career on his voice and style and presence. In the shadows and spotlights of the trendy club, I saw him not as an authority, but as a smartly dressed version of my grandfather, more interested in a good night’s sleep than watching experimental film and answering questions from an audience of pretentious cosmopolitans.

He sat in a folding chair with a small crowd of fifty who watched him rewatch these 40-year-old ultramodern short films made by names like Shuji Terayama. To my lower-middle class American sensibilities, the films were strange and the child nudity stranger. It was only this college education I am fortunate enough to be pursuing that helped me pick out any meaning at all.

It was only afterward, when Richie was engaged in a discussion with a Brit, a German and a handful of Japanese film enthusiasts about how the films couldn’t be watched in much of the United States, that I really thought about this man. He was born in a little American town and tried to find the world. He put on a nice suit and stylish glasses and became a legend. How odd and seemingly inorganic to me.

I walked out into the rain of a Tokyo September and found my way to a train station, the sky hidden by more tall buildings than I ever met in Philadelphia, trying to decide if there was any sense to be made about the man, the movies or the night.


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