Screening the Samurai 

Donald Richie reflects on a half-century of Japanese cinema.

How do we in the West, who have never ventured out of the West — or, if so, only as short-term tourists trailing after tour guides atop the Great Wall — ever gain a deeper view of cultures far from ours? We absorb those cultures' creations: homegrown literature, food, fashion, and films. But we also rely on skilled and sensitive Westerners who devote their careers to immersively experiencing and describing the faraway places of their choice. We owe a lot to these cultural ambassadors, such as Alexandra David-Neel on Tibet, Karen Blixen on Africa ... and Donald Richie on Japan. Hailed as the chief Western expert on Japanese cinema and a longtime observer of life in the islands where he spent most of the 20th century, Richie will be in conversation with local film producer Tom Luddy at the First Congregational Church (2345 Channing Way, Berkeley) on April 21.

Having first arrived in Japan as a typist with the American occupation forces after World War II, the Ohio native became fascinated with Tokyo, deeply moved by the knowledge that "so many of those who worked and played here had burned in the streets or boiled in the canals as the incendiary bombs fell and the B-29s thundered." Early articles in the Stars and Stripes — "I have often thought that I became a writer simply because I knew how to typewrite" — led to ever more prestigious work as Richie's circle grew to include Yukio Mishima, Nagisa Oshima, Toshiro Mifune, Yasujiro Ozu, and other brilliant figures of that era. Mishima's suicide-by-seppuku in 1970 "was indeed so romantic that its seriousness alone saves it from melodrama," Richie reflects. "But, as Mishima might have asked, what is the matter with melodrama? It too is a form of drama, and drama is life. ... Those crazy enough to say he was insane merely show us that their vocabulary cannot encompass such an extraordinary act."

Along with writing the English subtitles for films by top Japanese directors and making several films himself, Richie has authored nearly forty books, including A Taste of Japan, Tokyo Nights, The Inland Sea, The Scorching Earth, and Erotic Gods: Phallicism in Japan. (Several have been published by Berkeley-based Stone Bridge Press.) In the process, he has also become the West's go-to guy on just about all things 20th-century-Japanese, from Zen to theater to food. Alice Waters once paid him a visit, but "how do you take Chez Panisse to dinner?" At a neighborhood restaurant, "she picked at her toriwasa" — fried chicken with horseradish sauce. "Too strong? Too strange? Her husband spurned his. The pheasant on rice went better. Later I took them to the last phallic stone in Tokyo, on the Ueno island. This impressed." 7:30 p.m., $10, $5 for students.

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