The Film Files:Donald Richie, the worldwide authority on Japanese film, shares his movie memories

Eric L. Due – Metropolis

One of the year’s best-sellers has been Donald Richie’s tokyo journals: 1947-2005—first edition sold out, paperback out in a few weeks. The 494-page selection from nearly 60 years of expatriation is, however, only half of the journals. Before these unpublished entries go to their final resting place in the Donald Richie Collection at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Metropolis prevailed upon the author to share a few final tidbits.
Nov 3, 1983
With Akira Kurosawa
Courtesy of Donald Richie
Movie lunch. Nagisa Oshima in full kimono—an inward look, eyes close together as though peering at each other. With him I always feel that there is a transparent barrier, like a pane of glass. Not only me from him, but him from the rest of the world. Today he did not have much to say because he never does in company, only when he is with a single person or with the millions on the tube. Today he was in company and other directors were there. Kihachi Okamoto, in black, looking just like Godard now that his eyes have gone bad. He too said not a word, but Masahiro Shinoda talks enough for anyone. Now grey and a bit plump he still has that boyishness that allowed us always to refer to him as the Boy Scout. Since he speaks a kind of English it was this language that he was using today, but he was thinking Japanese. I heard sentence after sentence beginning with: We Japanese. On the other side of the room, his wife, Shima Iwashita. Lots of makeup these days and each time I see her in a kimono more beautiful than the one before. She always looks as though she has a secret. Perhaps it is the little-cat way in which she holds her mouth; perhaps it is because her dark eyes always seem to know much more than she is saying. At the other table [Teruyo] Nogami instead of [Akira] Kurosawa, who could not come. But she, right-hand woman deluxe, is Kurosawa. He is something she puts on like a suit. Against the wall [Kazuo] Miyagawa the cinematographer, always small and smart—dapper. Bows like a little boy, hands held to sides. Perhaps the finest eye in all of cinema and at a party he acts like one of the help—no waiter ever gave a smarter bow. Non-movie folk too. Next to me, Issei Miyake. Talk about boyishness. He has a rare gift. It is as though he stepped into you. His laughter, his stories, his attitude toward himself (he treats himself like a deplorable but still presentable younger brother)—impossible not to like him. Anything this spectacular is a construct but it is one that he now not only believes in, he has also become it. Much of his success (clothes are clothes and that is all) must come from this unusual gift he has. Afterwards, some milling before departure. Again I notice that film directors rarely talk to each other. Oshima, Okamoto, Shinoda—they kept apart. In fact the only time I saw one approach another was when Oshima walked up to Kurosawa at one of the parties and introduced himself. They had never before met. One can understand why they do not usually meet. Directors can only talk shop. And if we have directors talking then each can only talk about his new film.
May 17, 1989
Black Rain, Shohei Imamura, 1989
Went to see [Shohei] Imamura’s Black Rain again. This time, knowing what would happen, remembering the power, I am relatively unswayed and can pay attention to the construction. Before, immersed in the story, I did not realize just how many doors are open and shut, just how many windows are peered through. Interior architecture encloses and delineates this film. As in [Yasujiro] Ozu, the fact that domestic architecture confines also serves to shape these people. How free is the great outside, the paddy—and the big fish jumping? Perhaps a symbol but, more, a big happy fish. No doors and windows for him. And the sick girl forgets herself in wonder at this great jumping creature. This is what art is made of, I think, a concern for parallels and balance and enclosure and freedom, contrast, opposites, but not many. Just two or three, enough to make a container to hold the strongest of emotions.
June 4, 1989
Equinox Flower, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958
Coming back from Karuizawa in the train, looking out of the window, contented, humming, I suddenly remember the final scene of Equinox Flower of Ozu where Shin Saburi is doing just this. To be sure he is going to see a married daughter and I am coming from seeing a son married, but the effect is the same. Also the contentment—something I felt by proxy over 20 years ago and am now feeling in reality myself.
Dreams, Akira Kurosawa, 1990 (¥3,129)
Courtesy of Warner Home Video
Feb 5, 1990
The new Kurosawa film, Dreams. Sententious to an extreme. Old folks in the film (Ryu Chishu himself at least eighty, made up as an “old man”) tell us we are destroying our nature. So we are, but such bold statements will not make us stop. Still, the film is beautiful and oddly innocent. And the spectacle of Kurosawa’s moral earnestness is in itself impressive.
With Masahiro Shinoda
Courtesy of Donald Richie
June 25, 1990 Learned that I had made a serious mistake in translation. For all these years I have been translating Ozu’s Higanbana as “Equinox Flower.” Well, that is what it means if you use the dictionary. But now I discover that the higanbana is the spider lily. Maybe the mistake was all for the best, however. Imagine going to a nice quiet Ozu film called Spider Lily.
More serious the earlier mistake, discovered but uncorrected: translating Kurutta Ippeiji as “A Page of Madness.” Neither Joe Anderson nor I knew that this is an idiom for “a page out of order.” However, it could have been worse. I remember poor Ivan Morris to the day of his death cringing at having translated the name of the actress Isuzu Yamada as “Yamada of the Thousand Bells.”
Oct 17, 1990
With Leza Lowitz, editor of The Japan Journals
Courtesy of Donald Richie
I introduce a program of the films of Shuji Terayama I chose for International House. When you look at these short films you look into his mind. His mythology is there, beautiful, distant, wrong end of telescope, the past animated. And I remember him with his odd searching gaze, his rueful little-boy smile, his sickly complexion—for the kidneys that killed him had gone bad in childhood. In the first film the naval officer father takes off his pants, then his fundoshi, and staggers drunk and naked about the old farmhouse, and in the last Terayama sits in his director’s chair, back to camera, as the play of shadows is dismantled, and then gets up without a backward glance and leaves. And in an hour and a half I have encompassed a life.
Den’en ni Shisu, Shuji Terayama, 1974
Feb 12, 1991
Party for the prize-winning of Sakura no Sono [The Cherry Orchard]. The all-girl cast is there, and since the film was made half a year ago and they are now about 18 years-old each, looking different—one changes fast at that age. I go up to the one I like best, the one who played Yuko, and begin a conversation. Yuko is ready for it—at a big party, talking to a real foreigner. Then some battle-axe appears, takes part in the talk, kills it—her mother. Talk to another young actress, the one who played the bad girl. Maybe she really is bad. Nineteen and hard as nails. “Huh?” she says when I congratulate her on her difficult role. “What are you talking about? It was a piece of cake.” I see she also stands apart, eats by herself, has nothing to do with the other girls, but does have a roving eye for executive types. Maybe this is a case of life imitating art.
Feb 23, 1992
With Marco Muller, now artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, and Nagisa Oshima; (top) with director Keisuke Kinoshita, Italian actor and screenwriter Adriano Aprà and critic Tadao Sato at the 1984 Pesaro Film Festival
Memorial service for film documentarist Shinsuke Ogawa at Athenée-Française. The auditorium is gotten up with rice sheaves, spring flowers, reminiscent of the mountains of Yamagata where he lived and made long films on rice farming after finishing his series of documentataries on the “radicals” getting in the way of the eventual construction of Narita Airport.
I sat with Nagisa Oshima who later gave an emotional memorial speech. He is good at that. I heard him give one equally tearful a few years ago for the still living Kurosawa. At the service lots more speeches, telegrams read, a two-hour performance of his uncut last footage—about snow apparently.
I remember the talkative, volatile, opinionated and occasionally irresistible Ogawa in Milan. One of his favorite films was Miraculo a Milano of De Sica. Particularly he loved the final scene where the cast flies off on broomsticks over the spires of the cathedral. And there he stood, I remember, on that cold afternoon in front of the cathedral, saying: “I cannot believe it. It was right here they took off. I don’t believe it. I am here. Really here.”
The Cherry Orchard, Shun Nakahara, 1990
July 2, 1992
Took Dick Cavett to lunch. Being with him can be demanding. He never forgets anything. Can reach in and produce a minor actor of [the] ’30s and his one famous line of dialogue. Or, one idea will attract another and he goes sprinting off into the distance. Or, determined to interest and amuse, a string of one-liners files on, empty jokes betraying his night-club-circuit, talk-show background.
Talking of his beloved Setsuko Hara—safely distant, however: he took flowers, heard her coming to the door, dropped the flowers, turned, fled—he wanders to a consideration of Ozu’s audience, sees correspondence to guests at party, remembers party at John Lindsey’s, remarks on quality of present mayor, then wonders (loose connection) about the Hindu goddess Kali and from there to Amaterasu-o-mikami, and did I know that Setsuko Hara played her in that awful Toho movie? What was its name? Oh, yes. Dick is consistently interesting and also consistently tiring, because you have to trot beside him to keep up. Not that trotting is not good for you.
Then he stopped stock still, spoke of his analyst and for the first time told me the details of his years of depression. He tried to make me feel it, its awful texture, and he succeeded. He communicated that coarsely woven and hopeless state.
May 6, 1993
The Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa, 1957
In Sydney I am doing a seminar on Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. The students and I are watching it—after I have introduced it and before I lecture on it. We reach the part where Washizu has been given his little country palace and his lord appears with his procession—pretty little building set in the summer paddies, soldiers idling, farmers working, [Toshiro] Mifune coming on the run.
And suddenly, in my memory, everything turns real: the summer breeze of Izu, the lazy sun of an early afternoon, the stale smell of water standing in the rice fields. For a moment it is that day in 1956, 37 years ago, and I am standing there, 33 years old myself. See—just to the left of the camera, just out of range. Here comes Mifune running, and there stands my younger ghost, right of that pillar, just off screen.
Ah, there is that young soldier who smiled at me and who I was too busy to go talk to and whom I never forgot. And the summer sun beats down and the fresh breeze of Izu bathes my face, and then the story continues and the film ends and the lights go up and the students open their notebooks and I stand up and began talking about the influence of the Noh.
July 8, 1996
A party for Tadao Sato upon the completion of his four-volume Japanese film history. There was Sachiko Hidari. She has aged elegantly, and tends to be grand. Looking at a nearby actress somehow different appearing, she said: “She has had something done to her face. One of those things where they make new holes for the ears and pull everything up.” I mention that the director of her own latest film is there. “Where, where? I must snub him. He understood nothing about me. Nothing.”
Oshima’s wife [Akiko Koyama] is there with news that her husband [who had suffered a major stroke] is now in a wheelchair and is genki, if you can be that in a wheelchair. The director of Violated Angels, Koji Wakamatsu, is there, now even more grey, even more affable. Since his old films were at the Haiyuza last week and my old ones are there this week, we talk of the brave days of 1965.
Nobuhiko Obayashi is the master of ceremonies and manages to snare me into making a speech. I say whatever comes into my head, talk about the singular fact that you can really trust Sato as a film critic, something rare in Japan; you always know he is speaking for himself and not for his old sensei, or for some film company, or for his country. No one listens—not to me nor to any of the other speakers. Once eating begins the ears are stopped. Me too. I put away large quantities of lobster and caviar and uni and don’t hear a word from anyone.
Nov 3, 1997
To see a 1936 [Mikio] Naruse film, Kimi to Iku Michi (“The Road to You,” the title might be rendered), which no one had seen since its premiere. Toho had finally been prevailed to make a screening print. And there in the audience was a dapper gentleman in his ’80s who was introduced as Hideo Saeki, one of the actors in the film. He was interviewed on the stage and told us a bit about making [it] and then said that, of all the actors and technicians who worked on that film, only he survived. He hoped, he said, that they were all up their watching today, and then he broke into tears. It was very sudden, the way that real, wrenching sorrow has, surprising in its vehemence. Then the film begin and what no one had seen in 60 years was before us—including Hideo himself at 20, strong, athletic, handsome.
Oct 31, 1998
To the opening of the Tokyo International Film Festival. There I found Non-chan [Teruyo Nogami]. We sat together and talked about Kurosawa. He had his last script all done and even had the money for it but kept putting it off because he said that he would have had to direct it from a wheel chair and that that was just too mitomonai—maybe “unseemly” would be the best translation.
A tall, young man came up to talk with her and I was introduced. Kurosawa’s grandson. When he left I told her that I had met him before, when he was four or so, at one of his grandfather’s birthday parties. She said he probably wouldn’t have remembered me. This led us to talk about gone and vanished friends. I said we were just about the last left. And she smiled and quoted a poem about two leaves, the last left on the old tree.
The funeral mood was maintained by the minute of silence as we all stood and observed the death of Kurosawa. After that Armageddon, two hours and half of mindless noise and violence, so crudely made that there was no tempo, no pace, no suspense. All the scenes seemed four seconds long and even the narrative barely survived. It was a feature-length music video with Bruce Willis in it. It seemed lively but this was really the galvanized jerkings of a corpse.
June 2, 1999
With Michael Rayns to the National Film Center to see Gosho’s Where Chimneys are Seen. Since it was shot largely on location, there unreels 1953 Tokyo. The Ueno plaza with its statue of Saigo where I walk almost every Sunday—how small the trees were, and how empty the view. I see the old Nikkatsu Theatre down there, long gone, long forgotten. One of the scenes is right in front of where I now live. It is filled with construction and the lake seems smaller. Also there seems to be no Benten Temple, now the principal ornament of my view. The present structure was postwar I knew, but more than eight years postwar? What moves me most are the people—that friendly, ragged, wily, beautiful and hopeful crew that I can never forget, even now that they are extinct.
The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 is published by Stone Bridge Press.
Copyright Metropolis Japan Today

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