Yesterday I raged about the Siri Fort Auditorium; today let me cast my wrathful gaze on some of the people within – boors, louts who have neither the sense to stay away from events that are of no interest to them nor the sensitivity to show some respect when an 81-year-old film scholar is addressing an audience that might actually want to hear what he’s saying. Donald Richie, one of the world’s great authorities on Japanese cinema (and a Westerner who has lived in Japan for nearly 60 years), spoke on "notions of ‘Japaneseness’ in film" for around 25 minutes, in one of Siri Fort’s smallest auditoria. For at least 15 of those 25 minutes, his voice (firm, given his age, but occasionally strained) had to compete with the sounds of journalists barking instructions at photographers - who in turn shuffled in and out at whim, setting up their equipment as noisily as possible, zipping and unzipping bags and muttering phrases like "budha bhenchod" loudly to each other at intervals.
Other things were happening simultaneously. Inevitably, there were a large number of people who had no clue why they were sitting in this auditorium, listening to this old man ramble on, and who chose the most interesting points in Richie’s lecture to stand up, yawn and stretch noisily (one of them made a freakish ululating sound) and exit, after tripping over three or four of the seated attendees.
Given all this, I consider it one of the minor triumphs of my life that I heard as much of Richie’s talk as I did. It was very general, which was just as well, but he said some interesting things about the origins of Japanese film (theatre being the life-force of early cinema; the important role played in the early days by a character known as the "benshi" - a Japanese approximation of the sutradhar/Greek chorus, who would stand near the screen and comment on the action while silent movies played). He spoke about how Japanese cinema’s idea of "realism" is very different from that in the West, giving the example of the scene halfway through Kurosawa’s Ikuru, where the hitherto realistic structure of the film is ruptured by the introduction of an anonymous narrator who informs us about the death of the protagonist ("Western audiences," said Richie, "still can’t quite come to terms with this break in the narrative. But the Japanese easily absorb such shifts from conventional notions of realism"). He also discussed Anime, the Japanese "manga" comics and made gently deprecating remarks about the excesses of violence in the modern direct-to-video films.
Unfortunately, he didn't speak much about Yasujiro Ozu. The previous night, while introducing the Taiwanese director's Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Cafe Lumiere, a tribute to Ozu, Richie had commented on some of the trademarks of Ozu's work: his disapproval of plots ("they entail the misuse of characters") and his reluctance to use devices like fades and dissolves in his films, which he thought of as camera-gimmickry. I had been hoping to hear a little more.
P.S. I’m a fan of Richie’s work; his The Films of Akira Kurosawa is one of my prized books on film, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in Kurosawa in particular (especially the influence of the dramatic form ‘Noh’ on his work), and in 20th-century Japanese art and culture in general. And here’s an online interview.