Donald Richie is the most inside of outsiders writing on Japan today. Equally comfortable in the neon warrens of Shinjuku, the deserted verdure of a neglected Shinto shrine, a fishing boat on the Inland Sea, or the studios of Japan's greatest film directors of the 20th century, Richie applies his considerable insight and intelligence to making sense of the country he has come to claim as home. He has written numerous wide-ranging books and articles over the course of his long association with Japan, and Arturo Silva has scooped up generous dollops from all of the published works and some previously unpublished in The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan .
What are Richie's enduring preoccupations? He is a sensualist, he has deep spiritual feeling, and he has a scatological sense of humour. He writes about the smooth translucency of Japanese skin; about the temple verandahs in Kyoto; and about the whimsicality of the fart. Richie has a sharp eye for taking some small aspect of social behaviour and exploring its implications and fit with a larger sense of cultural mores, leaving a deft, often humorous sketch that captures something precise and essential about Japan.
A good example comes from his 1975 book, A Hundred Things Japanese , from which one of his entries - " ta-chi-sho- ben " ("to urinate in a public place while standing") - is included in the Reader under Silva's rubric, "The body". Richie notes that what makes this action typically Japanese is that it is performed more openly and freely than in most other countries. Why should this be so? He goes on to discuss the commonly felt dichotomy in Japan between private and public - private politeness and public rudeness in particular. This paradox has been noticed by foreigners with apprehension for quite a while.
As Richie says: "The fact that no one practices tachishoben within the private garden, but everyone does on the public street on the other side of the wall, is just another example of the dichotomy at work. The garden belongs to us, or to people we know, and must therefore be respected. The street, on the other hand, since it belongs to everybody belongs to no one and need not be respected at all."
This observation is a straightforward example of something about public versus private life that has by now become a truism in our understanding of Japan. But Richie does not stop there. He continues by noting that the persons likely to witness tachishoben are either going to be one's drunken companions who will be indulgent, or else total strangers who will ignore one. In either case, although for entirely different reasons, the standing urinator will not be censured. And then, Richie gives us yet another slant on this indulgence: "Urban Japanese still cling to their rustic origins and are fond of calling even Tokyo a village. They secretly yearn for the rural life of a former age and admire behaviour among their fellows which they feel to be naturalI Recognising the farmer in themselves, [they] look upon those nonchalantly relieving themselves in the street not entirely without approvalI a life closer to nature and the natural instincts of man."
In a wickedly apt finish to this theme and variation on public/ pubic, Richie concludes: "In this way, tachishoben enjoys a tenuous if polar link with the tea ceremony. Both, at extreme positions, are a part of the spectrum of the Japanese way." Vintage Richie.
Anyone who has had more than a passing interest in Japan will have read something by Richie. Most obviously, Richie is the foremost film critic writing in English about Japanese movies. If interested in Japanese cinema, you can consult his definitive books on the directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu (both published by the University of California Press) as well as several more general books on the art and history of Japanese film.
In this volume, editor Silva includes several fascinating preprints from Richie's Japan Journals (the whole of which is to be published posthumously) that shed light on how he came to be involved with Japanese cinema in the first place. Richie's lifelong susceptibility to the pull of the visual language of cinema draws the reader back to the book's prologue, a short memoir of a boyhood in Lima, Ohio. The young and restless Richie found movies an excellent way to escape the drab commonplaces of smalltown life, as, later, was the American military. Ultimately, Japan itself served him as the ultimate escape from the ordinary.
Perhaps the best loved of all Richie's books is his intimate account of a journey to explore himself and his relationship to Japan in a work called The Inland Sea (1971). Here, Richie reveals his deep knowledge of Japan by the way he describes conversations, chance encounters, situations with ordinary people that ring utterly true to anyone who has spent time as a foreigner in Japan. Richie has the knowledge of the insider, but, at the same time, the perspective of the eternal outsider. This gives him the ability to notice and describe things that are so utterly commonplace as to be transparent to the Japanese themselves. It is a little ironic that in his headlong escape from humdrum midwestern American life, Richie has ended up a connoisseur of the ordinary Japanese.
Everything about this book that is Richie text is worthwhile, and that is most of it. At the same time, I was put off by Silva's gushing and lengthy introduction, "The great mirror", and found myself wondering if Richie himself might not be a little embarrassed by the hype.
One of the problems with a mixed collection of so many different works is that the voices of the texts, each with integrity when between their own covers, become jarring when thrown together. This dissonance is exacerbated by the over-designed format of the book itself. The reader is often confronted with two unrelated narratives on the top and bottom halves of the page. Posterised abstract photos are turned into chunky running heads. The most annoying piece of design, borrowed from magazine format, is the practice of pulling out a single phrase and highlighting it in blown-up italics in the middle of a page. One's eye cannot help but be drawn to that first, and then it appears repetitive when read in context. Is this meant to be an aid for people who skim rather than read? Whatever the intention, it definitely detracts from the flow of the text.
If you are already familiar with Richie's various works, this collection will be a welcome way of making connections between them. But if you are just starting out, I would recommend reading The Inland Sea instead.
Liza Dalby is an anthropologist, and author of Geisha and Kimono .
The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan
Author - Donald Richie
Editor - Arturo Silva
ISBN - 1 880656 58 2 and 61 2
Publisher - Stone Bridge Press
Price - $29.95 and $19.95
Pages - 232