The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan

The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781880656617
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Publication date: 06/01/2001
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author


Donald Richie has been writing about Japan for over 50 years from his base in Tokyo and is the author of over 40 books and hundreds of essays and reviews. He is widely admired for his incisive film studies on Ozu and Kurosawa, and for his stylish and incisive observations on Japanese culture.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


Prose of Departure: A Memoir


I wanted to leave. Looking past the catalpa tree, over the syringa bush, beyond the corner where the street ran straight south, past the park and into the future, I wanted to leave behind what I knew. What I wanted was what I didn't.

    Familiar Ohio ran into imagined Kentucky and then spread into the unknown South, deep-dish black and opposite my pale North. Further off lay the blood-red Caribbean, so different from spit-colored Lake Erie—and then the whole world: Pacific and Indian oceans, deserts and jungles, pyramids and pagodas.

    I had seen nothing of this and wondered if I ever would. But who could I ask about it? My parents didn't seem the right ones. He was working hard at Lima Radio Parts, and she was working hard at home. One of the reasons they were working so hard was to stay together to make a nice home for me, the only child. Asking when I could leave wouldn't be polite.

    My relatives—grandparents, two uncles and an aunt on my mother's side—seemed to think it was OK for my parents to put up with each other so they could make a nice home for me. And it was nice enough as homes went in Lima, Ohio. I didn't so much want to run away from as I wanted to run toward.

    That was why at the 1931 Allan Country Fair, I walked right past the prize bull and the biggest pumpkin, right up to Madame Olga and asked her. She looked down at me, wiped her rimless glasses, glanced at her crystal ball, and said: "Yeah, you'll go far."

   Far—I carried the word carefully home and wouldn't answer when my mother asked if all those folks wouldn't think I wasn't well treated, when my father wondered what had gotten into me, a seven-year-old boy acting like that. I didn't answer because I knew they wouldn't understand. They had to spend all their time together because of having to make a nice home for me and they naturally resented it.

    Instead of answering, I repeated that precious word to myself: F - a - r. It sounded like what it was: a fast start, a take-off, and then a soaring up and out. I wondered just how far I would go. I did not wonder why and I still don't. Even now when I know how it all turned out.

    But if I was going to travel I needed a map. And just maybe I already had one, found two years back when I was five and my mother took me to the movies. There, in the cool, dark Sigma Theatre, I had had my first glimpse of the waiting world.

    It was like the Market Street Episcopal Church. There were marble columns and murals, and high on the ceiling were floating figures which could have been angels except that they were all undressed ladies, and everyone was quiet and sat in the gloom until the matinee began, and there was an organ but Mr. Bouffer who rode it up from the basement didn't play hymns: he played "Melancholy Baby."

    Then the curtain rustled up and there was the smell of stirred-up dust and a cold, backstage breeze. The world was about to appear, a better world, and the Sigma Theatre turned into the Pennsylvania Railroad Station with the Broadway Limited just pulling out. And there was Dorothy MacCail in back of the footlights, dancing her wonderful life away, and there was Warner Baxter, high up in a New York skyscraper, depressed by the Depression, getting ready to jump off. And there were coconut groves and the snow-covered Rockies, and earthquakes with untold dead, and floods with Mae Marsh going under. The movies were like that. I went in and sat down and got carried away. These were my own coming attractions.

    I could look past the people and see the places I wanted to be. Behind Clara was all New York and that thing that Dolores del Rio kept getting in the way of was a real volcano. There was the world awaiting me but I had to satisfy myself with my imagination. After seeing The Lost World, I lay in the bath, looked down the white peninsula of my body, and through the steam saw the head of the brontosaurus as it lazed in the turgid lake.

    But the people in the movies were OK too. This was because they were so understandable. Milton Sills, for example, might be bad-tempered, but I knew him as I did not know my father; and I forgave Jack Holt things that I would have for weeks held against my parents; and Norma Shearer I loved like a mother and when she broke down my nose ran as it never did when the real one cried.

    Being with movie stars was also educational. Gary Cooper would eventually teach me that being High-Minded wins out in the end, something I still believe despite proof to the contrary. Henry Fonda would tell me that Good Intentions are enough, and I still act as though that it is true. And Betty Grable taught me how to make Gas House Eggs. You butter a slice of bread on both sides, then cut a hole in the middle. Into this goes the yolk, and the white spreads over the bread as you fry it.

    Movies were for getting away. So never did I look at the marquee to see what was playing. It didn't matter: movies were all the same. You were supposed to go out happy. Here was a place where people fought only to make up and no one was ever left-handed, like I was. In the dusty, dark of the Sigma I was content, at home as I never was at home. When the lights went down and the curtain went up and exhaled upon me its great stale breath, I was on my way.

    Yet, though dazzled by the silver screen, I saw through it. Movies might be fun but you couldn't trust them. Someone had imagined these patterns, created these shapes, and everything was not as it was, only as it ought to be. For example, travelling like they did in the movies—no sooner on a train than off it, boats used only to neck on, no one ever paying the taxi driver—I wouldn't get anywhere trying to get around like that.

    But by that time I'd discovered another map, one I trusted more and one which over half a century later has still to let me down. I had found it when I was six—at the Horace Mann Grade School. It was a small room with an interesting smell since it was next to where they kept the creosote and the mops. There on the shelves was knowledge stretched—book after book, like travel folders. Or more like different sorts of people, all of them staring at me as people do when they know something you don't.

    And I stared back. In the late afternoons after class I would run my fingers down their spines, wondering at what they knew. I'd already met some of them, like the Little Lame Prince who couldn't walk very well, being lame, but who had this magic cloak, like a small gray cloud, and it would nudge its way to his tower window, just like a car parking, and he would climb on and it would carry him away.

    Just like me. Only with me it was books I climbed on as they flapped their pages and flew me off, carrying me to Oz, to Pellucidar, and to Omar and to Baghdad. All I had to do was follow the words as they led me over the mountains and across the seas. There the sun shone on the walls of the City of Brass as though a great fire had broken out, and the full moon flooded the leprous ruins of Omar; in the jungles of Paraguay the sloth eats twice its weight in fruit in one week, and red and blue in equal parts make purple. I was equally astonished. Spitting in my paint set, I rubbed together the salivated red and blue. It worked. I had a purple finger.

    Words were as magic as the movies, but they always did what they promised, and they were more real. Maybe people imagined them too, but they didn't have to entertain a whole theatre sitting in the dark, they only had to entertain me, sitting there under the reading lamp.

    If words can do that when someone else writes them, I thought, then they must be even more powerful if you write them yourself. I tried this out and on my yellow, lined tablet wrote: cake, dog, God. Even, daringly: pee-pee. But they just sat there.

    Writing was hard. Though they looked alike, written words were not like words read. You probably had to go out and look for them and then you had to make them behave. Yet you could learn to do it. I found this out one spring Saturday when, eight or so, instead of reading my library book about a dumb boy named Penrod, I was looking out at the wet afternoon world. And feeling sad.

    No, I decided. Not sad. It was more attentive than that. Being sad meant looking at the floor or at your hands. But I was looking out of the window and seeing the wet black of the tree trunks, the plain brown of the ground beneath them, the bare gray of the sky.

    I wasn't feeling sad, yet that was the only word I knew to describe how I felt. So I stood on the armchair and pulled down Noah Webster, and he at once offered me sorrowful and mournful, melancholy and something called dolor. Also pensive, wistful, rueful, sombre. And, at the bottom—elegiac. The word with its two e's like sadly half-shut eyes looked attractive. I wrote it down: Elegiac. And, suddenly, I had captured what I was feeling. It was not the sadness of the trees or the earth or the sky, it was the sadness in me.

    Elegiac became a title. Under it I wrote: The trees are wet and black. The ground is wet and brown. The sky is wet and grey. Then I stopped and thought and wrote: And there is the smell of the rain and the ground.

    And as I wrote it I smelled it. Earth, water, a waiting smell, cool but not cold, something alive but quiet. The smell of soil was there—it was only there on the tablet, yet I was smelling it as though it was real.

    And it was real. It was real because I had written it. Sitting in the armchair, looking out through the storm window, I had made something just like the books did. And not only had I made it wet and fragrant, I had left something behind, for there it lay on my paper. Anyone could read it and I could make them feel the same. I had made an experience and in creating it I had been myself created, for I was now different from what I had been before.

    I felt different. All you had to do was forget yourself. Just stop thinking and look outside, as though your eyes were windows. And then you drew what you saw as well as you could. And soon I was no longer there; I was outside—free. And what was left of me was sitting there, trying to describe. I sat up, felt brand new. I had my new map. Now all I needed was a way out. This I didn't yet have, though I was looking.

    "Just where do you think you're going, young man?" asked my father. "Just down to the corner. Mama said I could."

    And, as I was going through the kitchen, "Wherever are you going at this hour?" asked my mother, her hands full. "Just down to the corner. Daddy said I could."

    Having received both their permissions, I took my blue bike out of the garage and peddled off into the October night, feeling the frost nibbling, for the air had, said the evening news, a bite in it.

    Winter rushed by as I raced in the dark up Charles and down Hazel. Then, from far away, the sigh of the Broadway Express as it fled, and the distant smell of the last of the afternoon's bonfires, raked leaves curling and glowing, going up in smoke. I peddled through the public square, raced up Market, past the Lima Library—my new home once I was out of grade school—and at a new, far corner, beyond Baxter even, I straddled my bike in the wild, cold dark and looked at the street lights vanishing in all four directions, as though I were truly the center of all things. And in any of these might my future lie, I thought.

    I could start right off, biking south. The street was Elizabeth but then it turned into the Old Cable Road, and after that it was Route No. 7, and after that it would be called something else, and then something else again. I could see it looping its way, ribbon-like, as it ran down a hill, across a bridge, up a mountain, around a lake, going south—always south—where it was warm and there was no frost. And if I were on it, peddling away, I would run straight into summer.

    The edge of town, a stand of trees, and I stood under those brittle branches and looked at my breath white in the streetlight and felt the cold beauty of being alone. A distant dog barked, a freight train clanked and shuffled, and fifty thousand souls seemed already asleep in this sooty town at the corner of the state, under an oyster-grey lake, from where the Great Plains went on forever.

    At the Catholic school on North, I stopped at the sports field, looked at the basketball court, and up at the ring dark against the night—round, as though surprised, with a mouthful of stars, it was waiting for something: like me. And there, on the other side of that empty circle, God—maybe.

    Early religious impulses had been complicated by my confusing him with Lon Chaney. Taken at four to see The Phantom of the Opera, I was midway carried screaming out. The phantom, gripping someone by the ankles, had dragged him from the eyes of man. My mother's explanation that that was no phantom, only someone named Lon Chaney, made it even worse. Bound, unable to move, Chained.

    Thereafter my prayers, kneeling by the bed, were made perilous by Lon, lurking under the bed slats and ready to grab. And since I was deep in converse with God at the time (OK, please bless Mama and Daddy and me), he and Lon began to merge. Eventually they became identical—God with his pushed-up nose, awful teeth, and his fancy headgear like the feathered, felt touring hat my grandmother used to wear when out in the Buick.

    And so when I stopped being afraid of Lon, I stopped believing in God. And in all of his belongings—my immortal soul, for example. This I had heard of, if never seen, and the more I learned the more unlikely such a thing seemed. Eventually it became just one more of the grownup lies, all of them to be detected and disposed of.

    Why would anyone, I wondered, go to the trouble of inventing such things. The world was quite enough as it already was. The problem was that you couldn't get at it from my angle. It was there all right but you couldn't see it very well from Lima, Ohio.

    But I tried. Peddling back through the night I would look into lighted dining rooms where the natives were eating their ethnic food. Once returned to the syringa and the catalpa, I gazed into my own lighted dining room and watched my mother setting the table, my father reading the paper. The man of the house sat under the bridge lamp and perused The Lima News, I thought, while his wife in the kitchen prepared their evening meal. He is reading about the Depression, which is deepening, despite President Roosevelt. This evening they were having frankfurters and German pan-fried potatoes. Perhaps she has been crying again, her eyes seem red. He never cries but the wrinkles in his forehead indicate that he wouldn't mind.

    There in the dark outside, an anthropologist, I tried to imagine that they in their lighted interior were black, or yellow, or red—something attractively different from what they were, white like me. And then in the light of that window I also darkly wondered if these unlikely natives were really my parents. Probably not. They had found me at some interesting place, or had been given secret charge of me. I was too different to be theirs.

(Continues...)

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