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Sunday, March 18, 2001

Donald Richie: being inside and outside Japanese cinema

In his five decades as a writer, Donald Richie has investigated everything from the glories of noh to the mysteries of the Japanese tattoo, while attempting everything from the travel narrative ("The Inland Sea") to the historical novel (the meticulously researched, wittily engaging "Kumagai"). He is best known abroad, however, as the pre-eminent Western critic of Japanese cinema, beginning with the seminal study "The Japanese Film," which he wrote with Joseph Anderson and published in 1959.

He not only brought the works of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu to the attention of the West, but also made experimental films himself that, in the 1960s, injected heady new influences into Japanese cinema while pushing the tolerance of Japanese authorities to the limit.

Donald Richie

Until April 6, Image Forum in Shibuya will screen a retrospective of Richie's films in five programs, all in new prints and all selected by Richie himself. They range from the black comedy of "Five Filosophical Fables" and the erotic poetry of "Boy With Cat" to the unsettling sacrifices of "Cybele" and the deadly play of "Wargames."

In a recent interview at his Ueno apartment overlooking the glitter of the night streets and the blackness of Shinobazu Pond, Richie talked with Mark Schilling about the making of the films -- and his memories of an era.

Mark Schilling: What were your feelings on seeing your films again? Is it like looking at another incarnation?

Donald Richie: These films are really archaeological. To see what Tokyo looked like back then is a real treat. To me it's really Proustian. It's like Marcel lying in bed and remembering his life. I see a funny combination of things -- the beauty of it all, the nostalgia and the "Oh, s**t, I shouldn't have done that," you know? It's a combination of critical awareness and, at the same time, a deep emotional sort of nostalgia for the way things were. Remembrance of time past.

You took a film course at Columbia University -- but you didn't make the films for it, did you?

No, I didn't make anything for the film course. I just continued (with) my earlier interest in experimental film. Of course, being in New York, I could go see experimental films. I didn't know what they were called, but I was interested in the camera as Orson Welles had used it in "Citizen Kane." In that film, the camera became an extension of the director himself. For me film was a way to make something, control something, put yourself into the world and get the world to come to you -- some kind of magic.

So it was another form of writing.

Another form of writing, precisely. As a comparison, I said that if the feature film is like the novel, then the experimental film is like lyric poetry. Some deeper emotion is supposed to appear in an experimental film.

There seems to be a big difference in the way you approached some of the earlier films and the way you approached a film like "Wargames," which you made after coming to Japan. In the earlier films, I could see Donald Richie in there, but in "Wargames," it's like the eye of God. (Laughs)

You're absolutely right. Hani Susumu took me to task for this one. He said, "Why do you step back? Why didn't you go farther and farther inside yourself? Why did you become so objective?" In my earlier films I was so subjective.

Then I went on to make more subjective films after "Wargames." "Dead Youth" looks objective, but it's actually a pretty subjective experience. So you could say that I got back to my roots in that film. But it's true, I adopted a presentational mode.

One reason was that I was working with 16 mm for the first time. With 8 mm, you can throw it over to that wall (points), but you can't throw it in the theater. So it's like chamber music -- it's not for a large audience. But suddenly I had a machine that could be used in an auditorium, and this changed the shape of what I was doing. Another reason, of course, was that I was here, so I had a different audience. Also, I was in a position to be a new kind of person. So I was interested in Japanese material. How do I use Japanese material? It's not me.

The 8 mm films I had done here, "Aoyama Kaidan," "Shi" and "Shu-e," were much more like the 8 mm films I had done in New York. That's why they're so personal and lyrical. But once I got the machine and once I digested being here, and once I realized that I would be filming Japan in Japanese, I took a more objective stance. Also, I probably wanted to make a more social statement. "Wargames" is a social statement."

We're talking about 1962, before the Vietnam war.

But at the very beginning of the glorious '60s in Tokyo. This was a time when everybody was reinventing Japan. I was watching Hani and (Nagisa) Oshima doing it in film, (Tadanori) Yokoo in graphics, Juro Kara in the theater, Shuji Terayama in literature, Eiko Hosoi in photography. It was an extremely exciting thing.

And I wanted to reinvent, not Japan so much, but the world and myself. I wanted to make a larger film for a larger audience about a larger issue. That's why I tried to get away from lyric poetry. And I took a step toward narrative -- sometimes too much narrative. "Nozoki Monogatari" has themes in variations and it's got a narrative, but so what? My tempo is off, my pace is off, in fact I just can't handle it.

My single feature film, "A Couple," is also a great failure. I'd seen (Alain) Resnais and (Michelangelo) Antonioni and they had a big influence on me in devising new narrative devices. But I couldn't begin to control them. "A Couple" is a very strange picture because it has my earlier self-revealing qualities and the lyrical stuff, but it's also a love story, it has a trajectory, it has all of these things that commercial cinema has.

Whereas "Atami Blues" is more like a short story, even though you're using the same basic structure as "A Couple."

But doing it in a lyrical kind of way. At the same time, there's a little ghost of an antidote -- about how they meet twice, f**k, bye-bye. Originally it was 40 minutes, but I saw that it was sagging in the middle. Before anybody else saw it, I took out 20 minutes and it's a much, much better film. It's still a film I like very, very much.

There's a close integration between the music and the images.

Yes, music is used for transitions -- it's what Ozu used to call noren music. You know, when you go through the noren to get to the next room. I was really lucky about that music. (Tohru) Takemitsu had seen all my earlier pictures and had heard about "Atami Blues." I said, "I don't want to use any music. We won't use any music." And he said, "Use music. Look, here's a tape I was fiddling around with." There were these two jazz pieces and I used them, and it worked very well.

The film itself is like a jazz improvisation, the way the guy picks up the girl, all very much on the spur of the moment.

That's also the way people worked back then -- very improvisatory. We shot it in two days. I worked so fast. I shot "Cybele" in one day.

I thought that might have been shot quickly -- everyone in the cast was naked. (Laughs)

That whole day they were out of control. (Laughs) Everybody knew what the story was, but there was no directing anyone. Kato, the leader of the Zero Jikken troop that I used for the cast said, "OK, kids, let's go." And then they just acted it out, while I and another cameraman were running around filming it . . .

You had trouble with that film when you screened it in Germany, didn't you?

Everybody thought it was too far-out to be shown in Japan, but we screened it one time and nothing happened. It takes a long run for somebody to complain and for the cops to do something. And then it was brought to France, but the French government denied it a license. It was sent to the London Film Institute and they were going to show it, but (England) still had a very strong censorship policy, and it was rejected out of hand. And, back then, everything in the rejected bin got burned, I was told. At least I never got my print back.

It was shown at the (Robert) Flaherty seminar in Germany where it absolutely infuriated the predominantly political-correct audience. Everybody was saying it was about the slaughter at Auschwitz -- all those naked bleeding bodies. I thought it was a feminism statement: Up with the girls. But this was not what they saw. They saw a decadent, savage cult, and they completely missed my major point, which is that you're supposed to contrast the picture with the frame. And the frame is the score -- from the elegance of the 18th century -- the triumph of the Baroque. You're supposed to take this music and contrast it with the barbarity, but everybody missed it.

It's harder to shock people now -- even the police.

Yes, I think the shock value of these films is much, much less now. I think one of the important points in my films is that they are transgressive. And I strongly believe in transgression as a means of self-discovery, sociologically and personally. I think the transgressive is a very versatile, powerful tool. But the transgressive level rises and rises. How do you keep being transgressive today? Now I don't know. Hold hands? Kiss somebody? (Laughs)

Well, "Hannibal" upset a lot of people. I was thinking of that when I saw your cannibal family picnic in "Five Filosophical Fables."

"Baby Hannibal." People have asked me, 'Do you mean that as a statement about the Japanese family?' Of course the answer is no. They may be Japanese, but this film has nothing to do with Japan. That's my comment on families. But not Japanese families. Oh, (Yukio) Mishima loved that picture, because Mishima was transgressive. And he wrote marvelous things about the whole picture but particularly the family picnic -- that was really, truly meaningful for him.

Were you out there all by yourself? Was anyone else in Japan making these films that could not be shown without attracting the attention of the police?

Masao Adachi was making movies which were very, very questioning. Hara Kazuo's early films, in the '70s and '80s, also could not be shown. He is perhaps the leading exponent of transgressive cinema, as in the "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On." He's transgressive in a different way from me. I'm never transgressive sociologically or politically. I'm still on the lyric poetic side, and I'm still talking about expressions of feeling.

We had an audience for this kind of film. People sometimes ask why I stopped making films after '68, and the reason is, I lost my audience. There may be an audience now -- we'll find out -- but back then there was this dry period when there just wasn't an audience. The people who had been looking at my films all started working for Parco. (Laughs) Everyone had the same problem.

Did you feel that you were part of that avant-garde circle -- or were you outside?

I was always outside. We are never inside here, are we? Have you ever felt inside? I've never felt inside. Does any idiot feel inside, I wonder. I wasn't being condescended to, which was nice. I was included in the earliest screenings at the old Sogetsu Kaikan. This was before Hiroshi Teshigahara became the iemoto (head of the Sogetsu school of flower arranging). He was the renegade son of the old iemoto. They had all the money in the world and he sort of liked modern art, so they had Yoko Ono doing her gibberish and everybody was doing something, and I was always included as part of that gang.

It was to their advantage to have me, because through me they could indicate that they were not insular. Having me as a member and enjoying my stuff kept them from being marginalized. Nobody talked about it, nobody thought about it, nobody formulated it, but there was a political role I was probably playing as (far as) their image went. In any event, I was always treated extremely well, but this is Japan and they were Japanese so they could not help, even with the best intentions in the world, but to exclude me.

You're not someone parachuting in to do a documentary on the exotic Japanese and, at the same time, you're obviously not Japanese. So your own position is ambiguous.

I felt like Shelley when he was making poems in Italy. He just kept on writing poems. He didn't stop to think that he was in Italy. Byron didn't either. I mean, these are big names to throw around, but still the impulse is the same.

But you were still working with Japanese actors in Japan. In the comedy "Five Filosophical Fables," the type of humor does not seem to be something that the Japanese were doing at that time.

That's right -- the film's dedicated to (Buster) Keaton. The genesis of that film was that I saw a mime troupe, a Japanese mime troupe. And they were so good and so funny. I'd been thinking about making little allegorical fables, and when I found them I realized that I could do that. So I got to know them. They were a very young, very struggling mime troupe, and I didn't pay them very much. (Laughs) I wrote the scripts, and they acted them out. I didn't really have to tell them what to do. As soon as they read the script, they knew what it was, so they understood the humor.

It was a precursor of what Sogo Ishii and Juzo Itami started doing in the '80s.

Itami knew my films quite well. At that time, he was an actor going with a girl I was seeing a lot -- Kazuko Kawakita, whom he eventually married. He emulated one of my films in the first film he made -- a 16 mm film called "Rubberband Gun." He and Kazuko made it, and it had my sense of humor in it, a very funny little film.

"Life" is another one like that. It plays almost like classic slapstick, but the sen

sibility is still contemporary.

Those comic films were very often allegorical, and that one was, too. The kind of flippancy I showed about serious things was new to Japan; the fact that I could be flippant about something like life. This approach also occurred to (Kon) Ichikawa and (Keisuke) Kinoshita, but they couldn't get the focus so narrow. They couldn't control things to the point where they could be outrageous enough to do this.

These things were very much in the air in the '60s, and that's why the films were popular. What will the younger generation make of these films, I wonder? The people who will go to see them are already half-converted anyway. We're not going to get any dudes with skateboards or girls in platform shoes. (Laughs) It's going to be presumably a thinking crowd. I think they'll find them amusing. I think they'll laugh.

Was that the reaction when you first screened them? Or did people just stare at the screen?

No, it was a very smart audience. Everybody knew exactly what the targets were.

So you weren't ahead of the audience.

I was only ahead of the audience in pictures like "Cybele," but there was hardly any audience, nobody ever saw it here. Occasionally I was behind the audience, I think. "Nozoki Monogatari" was too clunky for the audience of the period. I think they were sharper than that.

The one film that the Japanese consistently admired was "Boy With Cat." They admired the structure. They mentioned the haiku and said that, structurally, I was very much influenced by Japan. So if you look at the films structurally, you can certainly say, if there hadn't been an Ozu, there wouldn't have been "Atami Blues." And you can certainly say that if Japanese poetics hadn't existed, there wouldn't have been "Boy With Cat." And if there hadn't been a whole layer of Japanese modernist prose poetry, there probably wouldn't have been "Dead Youth," at least in the form that it is in.

That film is very much based on the Japanese poetic structure. It's based on a poem by Mutsuro Takahashi, which is read at the beginning. Anyway, I tried to use the same sort of jump-cutting, lack of narrative and repetition that occurs in poetry. The gay audience didn't like it. They thought the boy was too old. (Laughs) They thought it could not be used for masturbatory purposes, which is what all that Japanese gay pornography is about. And my picture could not be used in that fashion.

It's much too serious a picture. It's too solemn a picture, really. It's all about Thanatos. Some people have called it old-fashioned because of this linking of love and death.

You have the juxtaposition of the tombstone and the boy playing with himself. (Laughs)

That's right. How much more symbolic can you get? There's a long tradition of this in Japan as well. Mishima liked this film a lot, he told me privately. He only wanted to talk about the cannibal picnic in public, but he was deeply stirred by this particular picture. But I think the influence of Mishima on the picture is minimal.

I don't think that, other than structurally, I had too many Japanese influences. I dragged what I could out of myself and I also modeled my stuff on Europeans I'd seen. A lot of the sensibility comes from (Jean) Cocteau.

I was thinking more of (Luis) Bunuel actually.

Absolutely Bunuel. I'd seen "Un Chien Andalou" and "L'Age d'Or" very early, and they had a tremendous influence on me. Cocteau and Bunuel were my patron saints. But among the lesser saints were people like Bruce Bailey and Bruce Conrad -- and Maya Deren, whose films had a large influence on me. So you could say Japan for structure and of course for actors and story material, but this sort of self-revealing stuff -- that certainly didn't come from Japan. Well there are a few -- (Osamu) Dazai and (Ryunosuke) Akutagawa, for example, who killed themselves.

But usually, it's a very careful society. Its very presentational. My films may look representational but I'm doing them in a presentational kind of way. I mean, the elaborate baroque choreography in "Dead Youth," for example. You have to figure out the story of "Dead Youth" from what is not shown. The shape of it is what it's about. The hole in the middle of that picture is the subject. Otherwise, you can't really tell what the picture's about.

In "Cybele," as well, you are bringing in influences that certainly aren't Japanese. When I saw the guys dancing and falling down, dancing and falling down, I was thinking of frescoes from ancient Greek art -- it had an archaic feeling to it.

There is an archaic feeling. That was certainly one of the intentions. After all, I was doing a story based on an ancient legend, and doing it with people with their clothes off like in a Greek fresco, and it's framed like a Greek fresco.

There's also a sense of danger. The woman jumps in with the men, and I'm thinking "What's going to happen here?" The ancient Greek rituals weren't always fun and games. They could turn bloody, they could turn dangerous.

The Bacchantes dismembered Orpheus. And Cybele herself emasculated her priests. I think that what some people expect at one point or another is cannibalism. That is one of the few perversions not indulged in this particular picture. Do you think it still has power? I guess it does have power. It does transgress.

That film and "Wargames" were, to me, disturbing films.

Oh good, I'm very pleased. I can still disturb. Why be transgressive if you can't disturb, right? That's wonderful. (Laughs)

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