The Best of Teachers: A Tribute to Donald Richie (1924 – 2013)


The Best of Teachers

I’m not the best at writing dedications, but, for what has been written and said of the late, great Donald Richie, of his voice, articulate and far-reaching, his writing, mysterious and magical, and his exquisite transitive abilities as just a one man for the criticism of film, to take us to Japan in chapters and in paragraphs, conversations and mental pauses, it’s important and personal that I make an exception to do just that.


I write of film today, in large part, thanks to him, and I’m sadder now, one year from his passing away, that I wasn’t given the chance to one day walk up to him, catch his attention, and tell him personally. But, also, I say thanks for all his contributions. For having learned so much in so little time in his books, I’m not without gratitude.


Since I can remember, my fascination on film has always been on design first, the camera motion and colors. It’s not until I watched true balance of eccentricity and reserve, a mixing of contradictions, like films from Kurosawa– specifically his High and Low (1963)– and Yasujiro Ozu– Ohayo (1959)– that my obsession for film of an Eastern variety was piqued.


I just had to find more information on Japanese filmmaking. I felt sharper and deliberately alert to details then in my watching of movies as a boy, more so than my other film buddies. Like a geek’s high, I ate up all the films I could, and I felt sophisticated even, then talking like I knew the picture shows better than anyone else. I didn’t, not really. But my passion was turning to snobbery on aesthetic, narrative designs, and I couldn’t stop. It was not until Richie’s work made an introduction in my eyes that I would learn to reserve a bit and write instead of talk.


As a young teenage film fan, I was too impatient to then investigate much more than the movies gave, that initial experience of being a spectator first. It was severely handicapping to not study up before and after my watchings, to consume the breadth and capacity for true film appreciation. To go further with readings and serious study, well that was blasphemy for me then.


Now, I chuckle at that inexperience. Mr. Richie has had an affect on my perspective since I first picked up his “A Lateral View” early in college. For the writing, I learned more on the peoples of Japan, of how rich their culture could be. I had never gone so far as then with research and attempt for understanding the movies, before the Richie work. When I fell on top of it, the many different books to choose from, I felt excitement again in film.


And I’ve had the most wonderful meta-mentor relationship in studying his works now. He’s not physically here to talk and teach to me, but with my every turn of the pages in hand I learn, finally closer to the cinema I knew to be great. I understand it so much more from his guidance, and I took notes, as should you.


He certainly has a way with focusing our reading, to ready us for details and then replace the words and phrases for a transcendence of sorts, cinematic imagination. He translates so well, and the offerings, whether on the history of Japan’s cinema, “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film,” or a travelogue, “The Inland Sea”  on the Japanese peoples, their cinematic patience and reserve in editing and celluloid shootings, intricate and layered, inform and tantalize. Those theories of his, the philosophies on mise en scene and directorial choices in characters’ developments, especially protagonists in deep thought and isolation, show a personable respect for sentiment and craft. I adore each reread as I find more and more to study up with.


One may find it silly that I write about him in this way, with the posting on a blog, but I want to share. If not for a few quick trips to the library and lucky searches online, I would have been at a loss of information and entertainment. For you, whoever is reading, I hope you’ve already stumbled across his writings. If not, well I recommend your making time to sit down and read. His careful approach at revealing the seemingly conventional of Japan and its cinema as a thing to behold, a sacred treasure, is worth the endeavor.


Thank you Donald Richie. I hope my rambling on your extensive career has not shamed your name. You may have passed, but your presence in film history, that reserved exchange of ideas on culture, class, and brevity in motion images, is still alive and strong.