Donald Richie, U.S. expert on Japanese cinema, dies

Writer, scholar and experimental filmmaker was 88


Donald Richie, an American writer, scholar and experimental filmmaker best known for introducing Japanese cinema to the West, died in Tokyo on Tuesday after being rushed to hospital with heart failure. He was 88.

Born in Lima, Ohio on April 17, 1924, Richie came to Japan in 1947 after WWII with the U.S. Occupation forces and soon took an interest in all things Japanese, including music, literature and cinema.

Starting as a freelance for the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper, he transitioned to writing film reviews while widening his acquaintance with leading figures in the biz, including helmer Yasujiro Ozu and pioneering foreign film distrib Kashiko Kawakita.

In 1959 Richie teamed with fellow Japanese film buff Joseph Anderson to publish “Japanese Film: Art and Industry,” the first in-depth investigation in English of the Japanese biz from its beginning to the present day.

Richie followed up in 1965 with “The Films of Akira Kurosawa,” an influential book-length study of Kurosawa’s films that for many years had no rivals in the West.

From 1969 to 1972 Richie was the New York Museum of Modern Art’s film curator. He programmed the first major retro of Ozu’s films in the U.S., which was key in establishing him as a world-class auteur.

In 1977, now back in Japan for good, Richie published “Ozu: His Life and Films,” a book that further cemented his rep as the West’s leading authority on Japanese cinema.

Starting in the 1950s and continuing through the 1960s Richie also made experimental films on 8mm and 16mm that pushed the boundaries of the permissible in his adopted country, featuring male nudity, group sex and ritual animal slaughter. Though little seen at the time of their making, they were later revived theatrically in Japan and six were released on DVD in 2004 by Image Forum.

Richie also published novels, travel books, photo books and essay collections, but remained best known for his work in cinema. In addition to lecturing and teaching courses on Japanese cinema both in Japan and abroad, he translated scripts, wrote subtitles and provided commentary for The Criterion Collection’s DVD releases of pics by Japanese auteurs, including Ozu, Naruse and Kurosawa.

Richie had a four-year marriage to writer Mary Evans that ended in divorce in 1965. They did not have children.