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Donald Richie; American critic advanced Japanese film

Donald Richie was an expert on Japanese cinema and culture.

Kyodo News/File 2002

Donald Richie was an expert on Japanese cinema and culture.

NEW YORK — Donald Richie, a prominent American critic and writer on Japan who 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, died Tuesday in Tokyo. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by Christopher Blasdel, a friend.

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Mr. Richie wrote prolifically, not just on film and culture in Japan but also on his own travels and experiences there.

He won recognition for his soul-baring descriptions of a Westerner’s life in an impenetrable but permissive society that held him politely at arm’s length while allowing him to explore it nonetheless, from its classical arts to its seedy demimonde.

Openly bisexual, Mr. Richie also wrote frankly about his lovers, both male and female, saying Japan’s greater tolerance of homosexuality in the 1940s, relative to that in the United States, was one reason he returned to the country after graduating from Columbia University in 1953.

Mr. Richie first saw Tokyo as a bombed-out ruin, arriving in 1947 as a 22-year-old typist with the Allied forces after serving on transport ships during the war.

He spent most of the next 66 years in Tokyo, gaining a ­following among Western readers for textured descriptions of Japan and its people that ­transcended Western stereotypes.

‘‘I remain in a state of surprise, and this leads to heightened interest and hence perception,’’ Mr. Richie wrote in his diary in 1947, describing the thrill of living abroad. ‘‘Like a child with a puzzle, I am forever putting pieces together and saying: Of course.’’

His books, some 40 altogether, were wide-ranging, including historical novels, studies of flower arranging, and travelogues, which were widely praised for humanizing a people still remembered in the United States as a wartime foe. Perhaps his best-known travel memoir, ‘‘The Inland Sea’’ (1971), was the basis of a documentary shown on PBS in 1996.

Mr. Richie made his biggest mark in his writings on Japanese cinema.

In 1959, he and the critic Joseph L. Anderson published ‘‘The Japanese Film: Art and Industry,’’ which many film studies specialists regard as the first comprehensive English-language book on Japanese movies.

In his memoir, ‘‘The Japan Journals, 1947-2004,’’ Mr. Richie recounted how in the late 1940s he paid his first visit to a Japanese studio, where he met a director in a white floppy hat and ‘‘someone I guessed was a star’’ wearing ‘‘a loose Hawaii-shirt.’’

Thus began Mr. Richie’s ­enduring acquaintance with two of the giants of Japanese cinema, director Akira ­Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Richie went on to write several books on Kurosawa and his films, including the 1950 samurai mystery ‘‘Rashomon,’’ whose innovative shifting of perspective among characters won the director global renown. (Mr. Richie wrote English subtitles for three of Kurosawa’s films.)

Mr. Richie also drew attention to another brilliant Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu, whose sparse and subtle handling of themes like family, as in ‘‘Tokyo Story’’ (1953), influenced Western directors, including Wim Wenders.

‘‘Donald Richie was the one to get these films shown abroad,’’ said Aaron Gerow, a professor of Japanese cinema at Yale University. ‘‘He was the first gatekeeper of Japanese film for the English-language world.’’

Mr. Richie met and wrote about many figures in postwar Japan, among them the novelist Yukio Mishima, who killed himself by ritual disembowelment in 1970.

Mr. Richie struggled to make sense of the suicide, often interpreted here as an effort to draw attention to the nation’s loss of martial spirit, and expressed mild exasperation with Mishima’s widow for seeking to hide her husband’s embrace of homosexuality.

Mr. Richie came to bemoan the changes that transformed Japan from the mostly agrarian country he found in the 1940s into an industrialized landscape of unrestrained public works and US-style commercial development.

‘‘It was the most beautiful country I’d ever seen in my life,’’ he wrote in 1992, ‘‘and now it’s just about the ugliest.’’

Donald Richie was born in Lima, Ohio, and lived most of his life alone, though he was briefly married to Mary Richie, an American writer.

‘‘Donald had a sensibility that was not nurtured where he grew up,’’ said his friend Blasdel, the artistic director of Tokyo’s International House. ‘‘He was warm, but also kept his distance, even in his personal relationships. This gives his writing a sense of passionately caring, but also of objectivity and truthfulness.’’

Mr. Richie said he never sought to become a Japanese citizen, but instead seemed to revel in his position on the margins of Japanese society, which, he wrote, offered him far greater personal freedom than he could have had back in Ohio.

‘‘I may have rejected the USA where I was born,’’ Mr. Richie wrote in his memoir, ‘‘but I did not decide to be Japanese. That is an impossible decision, since the Japanese prevent it. Rather, I decided to decorate Limbo and become a citizen of this most attractive, intensely democratic republic.’’

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