- Where I Am Sitting, the Light Falls Just Right
A Note About Donald Richie
In 2004, the preeminent expert on Japanese cinema Donald Richie published The Japan Journals: 1947–2004, extensive excerpts from the personal journals he kept while an expatriate in Japan. During those years, he became acquainted with all the major directors, actors, and critics of Japanese cinema, as well as international authors, poets, translators, and artists.
Richie dated the final entry in his book 18 April 2004—the day after his eightieth birthday—and considered it to be the last of his journal writing. But about a year later, he noted to himself, "I had thought the fit was finished, that everything lay safely dead on the page. But no, the urge remains." And so, to his surprise—and mine, as I had been permitted to edit The Japan Journals—he started again to record his careful observations of the daily moments of his life.
What follows here are excerpts from journals Richie kept from 2004 to 2009. They display the same candid manner of the earlier entries—a style that reveals Richie's care and masterfulness through a deceptively simple, almost off-handed prose. Richie is unsentimental and unassuming about his own life, yet tender and witty in his assessment of friends and critics. Readers come to know the mind of a fascinating man who has lived an extraordinary internal life, while witnessing and participating in one of the great social transformations of the twentieth century.
As I noted in my introduction to his book, Richie saw and described the remarkable changes that took place in postwar Japan, beginning with his arrival in Tokyo on 1 January 1947, as a journalist for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. What he recapitulates in his journals is both more and less than a large spectacle. He was more attracted to the private than to the public. He sometimes mentions big events, but more often he records the details. His emphasis is usually upon his reactions rather than the events themselves.
What was Richie's purpose in keeping his journals? Certainly, like anyone who keeps a journal, he wanted to intervene, to make lasting the ordinarily perishable, to save experience. Typical is the beginning of the entry for 18 December 1996: "I walk the windy streets of Shibuya, a territory completely [End Page 1] given over to the young. Here they come in their hordes, driven by fashion. Let me describe them lest this motley show be lost forever."
There are other reasons for journal-keeping as well. Richie has been, like any foreigner in Japan, restricted to the role of spectator. Even though he has lived there most of his life, he has never become a citizen, merely a permanent resident. He pays full taxes, but he cannot vote. And, given Japan's peculiar attitude toward foreigners, he has been powerless in many other ways as well.
Richie's first fame came for his work on Japanese cinema. With Joseph Anderson, he wrote The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, which is regarded as the seminal study of Japanese film. He went on to write well-regarded books on Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujirō, as well as further histories of Japanese film itself. In addition, he has written numerous essays on cinema, taught at various universities, served on many film-festival juries, and so on.
Whatever its other qualities, film demands observation. One sits in the dark and regards. Richie's detachment and the keenness of his attention are qualities that make his observations so valuable. In his journals, he can stand apart from himself and observe not only the context of his life but also its sensitive center—himself. This is something he learned to do.
Part of the fascination of these journals lies in just this: their rich immediacy, their passion for detail, and their impartiality. Each page is like a scene from the past, brought alive again and illuminated by the writer's intelligence and concern. Not that the tableau is ever complete. We always seem to be examining a corner, though in great detail. And with that we are aware of an attitude...