Monday, July 18, 2005

Donald Richie lecture (preceded by another brief rant)

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.


  1. Just to say I love reading your blog -- it's helping me get back into the world of cinema and books, which I opted out of years ago.

  2. If you like Donald Richie's book (I've owned it for more than a year now) you would also like his other works in general on Japanese cinema and also Stephen Prince's The Warrior's Camera (Prince provides commentary on most of the Kurosawa dvds).
    I thought the break in the middle was excellent, and was a more realistic way of showing Watanabe's death than having to go through some painful and melodramatic death scene. Kurosawa may have done that but his screenwriter and friend Shinobo Hashimoto (who acted as a realism "guardian") warned him not to slip into melodrama which tended to happen often when Kurosawa was writing. Just suddenly announcing his death on screen is startling and takes the viewer away from the character of Watanabe (since the film wasn't entirely about him, a mistake Kurosawa made in Scandal and The Bad sleep well). This is why Kurosawa opted to use a narrator who describes watanabe to us in the opening scene because it simultaneously defines Watanabe by his disease and distances us from him, and that is why his death is offscreen in Part 2 which shows the "terrible triumph of society" where regardless of Watanabe's attempts, no one recognizes them and uses him as an example, and by the end of the film Watanabe's efforts are suppressed once more.
    I was drinking a volatile mix of ginger beer (which is nonalcoholic) and some Samuel Jackson (mmmm...mmmm..mothafacka! It'll get ya drunk!)
    Actually it was a simple bottle of Jack Daniels.

  3. Loved this post.. yes and i cant stand ignorami who dont have the patience to sit and apply their brains while listening to someone of worth.

    Hi! First time here.. will come back for more :)

  4. Yeah...most people in such events don't even know what the event is about. It's incredibly irritating...

    But speaking of Kurosawa.....I just saw this fairly recent movie "Zatoichi: The blind swordsman", that squeezed in many little tributes to Kurosawa....not too bad a movie (though I'll take Yojimbo any day). You might like it.

  5. boye..Remember Murphy's laws?? It says, anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong :|

    Anangbhai, I like your Mogambo pose!

  6. Asian horror films are the best. But most of them also have really bad sequels.

    Was the Zatoichi the new Zatoichi with Takeshi Kitano or the old one with Shintaro Katsu? People say the new one isn't as funny. I thought it was great without taking away from the old series.

    Trivia: The old Zatoichi was set to star in Kurosawa's Kagemusha, but him and the director had a feud on the set. Guess who won?

  7. Not all the old Zatoichi films are good either. :-) I would also recommend The Twilight Samurai by Yoji Yamada and The Samurai Trilogy, based on the legend of Musashi Miyamoto. In fact, I was planning to blog about the trilogy and The book of Five Rings

    But then I'm very biased towards Toshiro Mifune. Only Amitabh can match his swagger. [Steve McQueen could, but he was too cute. :-)]

  8. There are too many uninterested people these days. Nice one.