Thursday, February 28, 2013

Donald Richie Appreciation

I am sorry to say that a month into my resolution to write Favorite Director post every month, I am already off track. I don't have any good reasons - at least I can come up with a decent substitute though. Donald Richie's death is important to note. He was a giant, obviously, in the process of bringing Japanese films to the United States - opening for this country what I have to consider one of the three truly consistently great film cultures (along with the US and France.) He championed Japanese films, he wrote about them, providing excellent introductions to a number of the most important filmmakers - in the age of DVDs, providing the voice for many commentaries on Japanese films. I am fairly certain that he would have been the first writer I read on Japanese films, and always there as a guide. He was not, I have to admit, the most important critic of Japanese films I read - I was much more influenced by reading Audie Bock and Noel Burch - but he was still very important to me, as well as crucial to the world of film.

My favorite of Richie's books was, in fact, The Japanese Film - I found a used copy of the 1959 edition, and read it with delight. It's a great book, well researched, well written, comprehensive, covering film as art as well as the history of the industry, which was very useful information. It reminded me of Andrew Sarris - sharing Sarris' auteurism, and willing to do the work, seeing the films, tracking down the industrial information (something Sarris did less of, but is a big part of this one.) A very useful reference. And a fascinating document, especially that 1959 edition - that puts it right on the cusp of something. It's right on the edge of the new wave revolution, well into the critical part of the change - by then, the French had established a lot of the premises of the new wave: championing directors, genre films, pictorialism, realism, trash (all at the same time) - elements that seem to be just outside Richie and Anderson's book. You can see too that the critical divisions that would form over Japanese films were appearing. The French had formed opinions by then, based, I fear, on a very scant exposure to Japanese films - they had already taken sides for Mizoguchi and against Kurosawa. Not so Richie and Anderson. They did not share the French passion for taking sides - they praised Mizoguchi and Kurosawa - and of course they had seen more than just the festival films, and knew, for example, that Ozu was in their class as well. But they were also pretty clearly in awe of Kurosawa.

Though what is even stranger to read now, after the fact, is the way they characterize the Japanese film industry in 1959. They lament that no new talents have emerged since Kurosawa and Kinoshita (and their treatment in Kinoshita is interesting itself; he has been somewhat forgotten, surpassed in reputation - certainly availability in the states - by the old guard (even Naruse), by Kobayashi and Ichikawa, by their successors - Oshima and Imamura, even Shinoda, Tesugahara, and Suzuki, are all far more available.) They lament that the system does not seem likely to produce any new talent soon - that it is stagnating - that there have been no more movements lately. All this is in 1959 - and 1960 saw 3 revolutionary Oshima films, a couple Yoshida films, Pigs and Battleships came out in 61, etc. The 60s were a burst of energy - the Ofuna new wave - Imamura, the revitalization of some of the older directors in response to this - an increased sense of command by some of the directors they mention (Ichikawa and Kobayashi especially) - they said things in 1959 that by 1961 would sound insane.

But thinking about this - another superb book on Japanese film, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto's Kurosawa book, suggests that the discovery of Japanese film in Europe and America begat film studies as a discipline. It showed a mature industry/art that existed outside western culture - that could not be studied along with Welles or Godard without positing a different way of studying film than through culture. This was, you could say, the time when film had to be taken seriously as an art - treated, in fact, as an independent art, the way music or literature or theater were. Japanese film was a surprise - it showed a different way of doing things, though not unrecognizable - it certainly fit the theories of people at the time - Mizoguchi was tailor made for auteurists. So was Ozu, when they found him. But maybe even more than this - the attention given to Japanese films in the west was reciprocated by attention to western films (and theorists) in Japan. These things indicated an exchange of information between Japan and the rest of the world - an exchange going both ways. So while in 1959 the Japanese filmmaking system seemed increasingly static - bureaucratic, commercial, slow to change, with no way out of the cycle it was in - the mere presence of Americans writing about Japan indicates contact with the rest of the world - and Japanese were reading Americans. And while it is true that Ofuna new wave came out of itself, without a lot of push from the west (Oshima and Imamura and others were independent and tough and had their own ideas) - but they were able to piggy back what they did on the French new wave (they stole the word!); they did what the French did - they started theorizing their work. They connected what they were doing to the rest of the world.

And that brings us back to where we started - because Donald Richie was as important as one man could possibly be in making that connection.

And now? in his honor - and since this is, in fact, meant as a kind of series of lists - here is a list - the 10 Best Japanese films... sort of. I limited myself to one per director, to get past Ozu, which is always a challenge....

1. Early Summer - Ozu
2. Seven Samurai - Kurosawa Akira
3. The Pornographers - Imamura
4. Ugetsu Monagatari - Mizoguchi
5. Late Chrysanthemums - Naruse
6. Fires on the Plain - Ichikawa
7. Ceremony - Oshima
8. The Emperor's Naked Army Marches on - Hara
9. Charisma - Kurosawa Kiyoshi
10. Fighting Elegy - Suzuki

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