Donald Richie and I first corresponded in 1966, when I asked him to contribute an article on Japanese cinema to my annual International Film Guide. His flawlessly typed copy arrived on that flimsy but durable rice paper we all used in the days when airmail letters were expensive, long before faxes or e-mail. When Donald returned to the States to serve as curator of film at MoMA, we lost touch, and it was not until 2007 that we again exchanged letters. I was planning a coffee-table book on Akira Kurosawa for Rizzoli in New York. Donald could not have been more supportive, furnishing me with recommendations here, there, and everywhere in Tokyo. He also agreed to write the introduction, doing so right on time and without trotting out any comments he’d already made about the master with whom he drank so much whiskey in the 1950s and ’60s.
For the past half century, Donald’s name has been almost a synonym for Japanese cinema. His numerous books not only made him the guiding light on the subject but also exemplified a kind of fluent prose that eludes the zillions of bloggers in today’s movie criticism world. He wrote without affectation, engaging his reader in a cool analytical discourse. The clarity of his thought, if not the waspishness of some of his judgments, stemmed from a profound self-confidence that sometimes failed him in private life. Donald was indeed an intellectual, but an intellectual for whom film theory, and terms like semiotics and structuralism, were anathema. His fuel was enthusiasm—a simmering passion for life as expressed through literature (by authors as diverse as Lafcadio Hearn, Nagai Kafu, and Henry Green), through film, through Japanese theater, and above all, through the human personality, which he observed so keenly. Never a sentimentalist, he was nonetheless not afraid of emotion, and talking about Robert Bresson or Yasujiro Ozu or his failed marriage to Mary Evans could bring a tear to his eye.
Although we turn fondly to his defining studies of Kurosawa and Ozu (not to mention the lucid commentaries for so many Criterion releases), a glimpse into Donald’s private thoughts may best be found in The Inland Sea, his account of a solitary journey (one might almost call it a pilgrimage) around the seafaring communities of central Japan. Written in 1971, and reissued with a new afterword by Donald in 2002, this fascinating book mentions the cinema only in passing, and focuses on the individuals, of every age and denomination, whom Donald encountered by day, and by night, in this unfamiliar region of Japan.
As his travel writings attest, Donald remained a loner all his life. He enjoyed the company of friends and visitors but felt happiest on his own in his small Tokyo apartment, reading, writing, pottering around, and—until the final, frail months of his life—watching DVDs. During my trips to Japan, we would meet for a sherry in his apartment overlooking Ueno Park, and then wander the nearby streets in search of fresh eel at one of his preferred quiet restaurants. How well I remember chatting with Donald at a Korean café in Azabu-Juban, and confessing that, as I grew older, I thought about death at least once a week. “Once a week?” quipped Donald. “I think about it every day, sometimes every hour . . .”
In 2009, I invited Donald to appear on a panel at the Venice Film Festival. The topic was Kurosawa, the centennial of whose birth (in 1910) loomed on the horizon. The journey from Tokyo to Rome and then, after a frustrating delay, on to Venice, proved fatiguing for Donald, who was eighty-five. He and the indefatigable Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa’s script assistant for almost five decades, arrived on the Lido late at night. But early the next morning, in the breakfast salon of the late, lamented Hotel des Bains, Donald greeted us as cheerfully as if he’d been in residence for a week, his blue blazer and neatly knotted tie giving him the aura of an eminent academic.
The panel attracted considerable attention, not least from Japanese television, and Donald basked in the limelight. We enjoyed a congenial dinner together with Marty Gross and Nogami, and when the time came to say our farewells, Donald informed me, with a puckish smile, that he had sought out the room in which Thomas Mann had stayed before writing Death in Venice. He said so with an air of closure, as though he, like Mann’s alter ego, had come to Venice for the last time. Donald, who had attended all the world’s major festivals, seemed ready to draw his curtains for the impending night.