Japan Scholar Gained Outsider's Perspective
Melissa Block talks to Markus Nornes, professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan, about Donald Richie, who died Tuesday in Tokyo at 88. The prominent American critic and writer on Japan helped introduce much of the English-speaking world to the golden age of Japanese cinema in 1959 and recounted his expatriate life there spanning seven decades.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Donald Richie adored Japan, from his first days as a typist with U.S. occupation forces soon after World War II to the six decades he spent absorbing Japanese culture and cinema and writing about it in dozens of books. Donald Richie died yesterday in Tokyo where he had lived for most of his life. He was 88. In the 1991 movie made from his sensual travel memoir, "The Inland Sea," Richie narrated stories about his voyage around the Japanese islands.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INLAND SEA")
DONALD RICHIE: To travel deeper and deeper into the inland sea is like traveling deeper and deeper into time, into yesterday and the day before that.
MARKUS NORNES: It's just luscious, beautiful piece of writing. Last night, after I heard about his passing, it's the book I pulled for my shelf to go back and spend some time in.
BLOCK: That's Markus Nornes, a professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan and a friend of Donald Richie for 20 years. He says Richie devoted himself to bridging a gap between cultures.
NORNES: He's often called an interpreter of Japan, but I think of him more as a mediator.
BLOCK: What did he want Americans to know about Japan and the Japanese?
NORNES: I think at the beginning of his career, it had a lot to do with introducing them to the wonders of Japanese cinema. But then he also started writing about flower arrangement, food, the people he met, just small things in daily life.
BLOCK: I want to play you a bit of tape from a talk that Donald Richie gave in New York in 2006. He was talking about his life in Japan and his perspective as an outsider for all the many, many years he lived there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
RICHIE: I can look down in the sunny valley of the land I've chosen and know that I can never go down there. You know, I look at it, but it's - I'm never going to belong to it. I become a citizen of limbo. And limbo is the most democratic state that there is.
BLOCK: What do you think Donald Richie is saying when he talks about that limbo and looking down on that valley of the land that he's chosen?
NORNES: I think it's an embrace while at the same time a creation of some distance because, you know, he went there to get away from the oppressiveness he found in America. He found it less oppressive to be gay or to be bi. He could be in Japan and not worry about all the kinds of protocols that people in Japan would have to live by. He could carve out his own way of life.
BLOCK: When you spent time with him over the years, talked with him, what was he like? What kind of man was he?
NORNES: At first, I wasn't sure. I first met him at the Hawaii International Film Festival. We were at the opening party, which was at Jack Lord's house, of all places. And I went up to him and introduced myself as a grad student interested in Japanese film. And he listened to me. He went, uh-huh, uh-huh, that's nice. And he walked away.
BLOCK: He was dismissive, huh?
NORNES: Totally. But over the years, everybody talked about how he was such a wonderful person. And he would welcome everybody going to Japan with open arms and help them - I mean, just go out of his way to make sure that they had a great time and got what they needed if they're doing research or writing journalism or anything. So I finally looked him up again, and he turned out to be exactly that kind of person.
BLOCK: Well, Markus Nornes, thanks for talking to us about Donald Richie.
NORNES: It's my pleasure.
BLOCK: Markus Nornes is professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan. We were talking about the writer Donald Richie, an American expert on Japanese culture and film. Richie died yesterday in Tokyo at 88. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.