Donald Richie, a young sailor in the U.S. Armed Forces occupying Japan, was invited one day in the late 1940s to visit a Tokyo film set. In a memoir he recalled meeting a director in a white floppy hat and another man, "someone I guessed was a star." The director turned out to be Akira Kurosawa, the star was Toshiro Mifune. They became major figures in both Japan's movie world and Donald Richie's long, rich career as a writer.
With that meeting, Richie began his love affair with Japanese films and his intense study of Kurosawa. He wrote 40 books, one of them about Kurosawa's films and a separate book about his Rashomon, the 1950 movie (with Mifune among its stars) that opened the world to Japanese cinema. It was so talked-about that "rashomon" became a word in the Oxford English Dictionary to describe a story told through conflicting views.
Richie later wrote the English subtitles for four Kurosawa films. He wrote a book about the film industry of Japan and another on Yasujiro Ozu, the great director of Tokyo Story. Paul Schrader, the American director and scriptwriter, wrote: "Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie."
Just about everyone who loves films and Japan has learned from Richie but he also looked far beyond the cinema. In his twenties, he settled down to the expatriate life in Tokyo, where he would stay till his death in 2013 at the age of 88. He was always, and gladly, an outsider and a foreigner, studying Japan as a phenomenon among the nations. A film critic of the Japan Times for a while, he eventually wrote for that English-language paper on anything that engaged him.
To the outsider Japan presents an array of unique traditions accumulated over the centuries and never abandoned. At various times Richie's books dealt with Kabuki theatre, Zen parables, Kyoto's temples, Japanese tattoos and Ikebana flower arrangements. Like the Japanese, Richie saw the shared values of art and craft. "I remain in a state of surprise, and this leads to heightened interest and perception," he wrote as his career began. "Like a child with a puzzle, I am forever putting pieces together and saying: Of course."
Richie was openly bisexual, and sometimes said that Japan's relatively tolerant view of gay love was one reason he settled there. A vivid, skilful and highly personal writer, he entwined his own life with the special quality of Japan. To him, Japan was a convenient mirror: "We can see the land and the people clearly but we can also see ourselves."
He expressed himself most directly in The Inland Sea (Stone Bridge Press), which was first published in 1971 and has recently reappeared in a handsome illustrated version from a California publisher. It's based on diaries he kept while touring the Inland Sea, a relatively sheltered and relatively isolated group of islands surrounded by the three big islands of Japan.
As always, Richie was interested as much in the Japanese people as in Japan. He was aware that there are still "local faces" in Japan. It was only in the 20th century that people began to move around the country. Japanese wrote so many poems and stories about the route from one town to another because travel was so rare. High mountains and a lack of roads limited mobility, so people lived where they were born. Regional types developed and today those with a practised eye might recognize a face from, say, Kyoto. Richie's account of the Japanese bathhouse, where dozens of people plunge themselves together into near-boiling water, emphasizes the element of collective ritual. "The Japanese bath is only incidentally a place to get the body clean. It is a ceremony of cleanliness." One sees friends, talks business, gossips. "Purified, one goes off with a lighter heart and purer soul."
Westerners ("the coarse, the hairy, the heavypored") should appreciate Japanese skin, he realized in the bath. "There is in this skin a natural perfection that seems untouched." Richie was eager to talk to strangers. "Some Japanese," he wrote, "resent foreigners speaking their language and all resent it if you speak too well." Even so, Richie persevered. At the bar in a small island inn, he met a woman, Momoko, who was obsessed with the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She recited Japanese translations of her poems and eagerly told what she believed was Elizabeth's story.
In Momoko's version, Elizabeth had been forced into a position much beneath her and obliged to give herself to numbers of men, none of whom deserved her. Momoko saw this as one more proof of the sheer awfulness of males. Elizabeth suffered because she loved only Robert, and remained true to him in her heart, consoling herself by writing immortal lyrics.
Although Richie informed her of some facts about Robert Browning, Momoko said "Did he write poetry too?" Momoko refused to accept Richie's version of the story. She knew what she knew.
"This was the way the Japanese mind works," Richie noted. If the reality is insufficient, change it. "It was in this manner that whatever Japan digested reappeared in new, marvellous and very Japanese form." Perhaps a footnote in a book of poems, passed from hand to hand, had ended up in Momoko's sentimental narrative, recreated as a melancholy folk tale suitable for use in a Kabuki drama.
Decades after Richie wrote it, The Inland Sea still gleams with the freshness of discovery. Years ago it was often called one of the great travel books, and so it seems today.