Lucille Carra’s 1991 film The Inland Sea is a selective adaptation of the classic 1971 travelogue/memoir of the same name by the renowned expert on all things Japanese—and for cinephiles, the man who was most profoundly instrumental in introducing Japanese cinema to Western audiences—Donald Richie, who is heard in voice-over reading passages he adapted from his book. Many of the places described in the book are revisited in the film—a scenic stop here, an encounter there—and all the while, moments of exquisite beauty mix with the everyday. “All things Japanese” was Richie’s ostensible subject; his actual subject was always himself. (He denied being a humanist but did accept being called a romantic.) Being a foreigner in Japan has something of a romantic flavor to it, but for Richie it was a position of realism: never being allowed to wholly fit in, he could all the better observe the people. In Carra’s film, we are invited to observe too.
A seemingly casual scene early in the film is shot from aboard a boat, in a single long shot, as it sails past a small crag of an unnamed island, at the top of which is a small Shinto shrine. As shrines go, this one is quite modest, but caught this way it becomes, for Richie’s narration, an occasion to expound on certain principles of beauty (“simplicity . . . accidental . . . context”). Then, as the shot comes to an end with a downward tilt of the camera, so that all we see is flowing water, and separating himself from “travelers from the fragmented West” who are “ravished by such visions of natural wholeness,” Richie declares: “I am happy because I am suddenly whole, and I know who I am. I’m a man in a boat and looking at a landscape.”
Vividly different is a later visit to the gaudiest and most garish temple imaginable. Over about three dozen shots that vary widely in type (close-up, long shot, and so on) and subject matter (animals, tourists, architectural details), Richie tells us its story: a munitions manufacturer, wanting to memorialize his mother, erected for her this complex of buildings that includes copies of many of Japan’s famous sites. Again, the narrator concludes with a pronunciamento—“When kitsch becomes this grand, it becomes art”—even comparing the builder, who “has created a world of his own,” to “Michelangelo, Velázquez.”
As dissimilar as these two scenes are, they are both part of the natural and flowing wholeness that distinguishes this remarkable film. The first is immediately preceded by shots of coffee-shop life, during which we listen to an excerpt from “Nessun dorma” (as earlier we watched a monk first chanting a sutra and then raking his garden while we listened to “Stardust,” sung by Frank Sinatra—the Sinatra sutra scene, as I like to think of it). Juxtaposition for its own sake is not so much the point here as it is to say, “This, too—all of it—is Japan.”
“Documentary and fiction cross freely the so-called boundary between them in these reveries of a solitary traveler.”
“Just as the book contains at times a bittersweet nostalgia for a lost way of life—or one that perhaps never existed—so part of the film’s power lies in its evanescence.”
“Whether his topic was Godzilla or Zen gardens or ghosts, Richie was the very best Western writer on Japan.”
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