Feb 27, 2013
Donald Richie with Akira Kurosawa
CJS mourns the passing of Donald Richie, the great essayist and film scholar. Mr. Richie was our Toyota Visiting Professor back in 1993. People still talk of his time in Ann Arbor, as did he whenever he met Michigan faculty. Our own Japanese film scholar, Abé Mark Nornes, spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about his friend and colleague (http://www.npr.org/2013/02/20/172519479/japan-scholar-gained-outsiders-perspective). However, as our own memorial to Donald Richie, we would like to offer you this touching blog post from one his former UM students. Peter Larson was an undergraduate when he "took" Mr. Richie's class; he is currently a PhD candidate at our Department of Epidemiology.
Donald Richie, RIP
By Peter Larson
Sometime in 1993, I became interested in Japanese cinema. To date, I'm still not sure why, but it happened nonetheless. I picked up a large tome, "The Japanese Film: Art and Industry," for a discount while I was working at a local bookstore. That book was written in 1959 by a Mr. Donald Richie, who, it turns out, was teaching a class at the University of Michigan, where I was enrolled. It was too late to add the course to my schedule, but I went anyway, listened to the first lecture and was immediately hooked.
I approached Mr. Richie after class and asked him if it would be alright if I sat in on the class. He looked a bit distressed and asked if I would be doing the course work. I said that didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to come to the course every week and listen to his lectures.
Richie loved the Japanese cinema. His lecture style was so un-alienating that one couldn't help but love it, too. He would present the films in a manner that made them entirely foreign and unique products of the particular culture that produced, but simultaneously fit them squarely in a worldwide tradition of movies. He would present his lecture on the movie of the week, then we would watch the film in a theater, where he would deliver an abridged version of his Tuesday lecture for people who didn't have the pleasure of attending his class. I think I learned more about art, cinema, media, culture, social science, the humanities and politics in that one 7 week course that I did in the entire remainder of my undergraduate education.
The time for the first mid term came, and I sat for it. Richie came up to me again with a distressed look on his face and stuttered, "A-a-are you taking this c-course for c-c-credit?" I said no, but asked him if I could take the exam anyway. He looked stressed but said yes, no problem. The following week, when he passed back the exams, he had thoughtfully commented on my work, writing more than a page of notes, ending with "If I were grading this, I would give you an A+. Good work." When the time for the final exam came, the entire incident was repeated. To this day, I'm not sure why my not officially signing up for the course stressed him so. Perhaps he had too many students. I would like to think that he was trying to be meticulous and follow the rules to the letter, which was rather uncharacteristic of a man who flouted so many rules in his lifetime. Perhaps Japan had rubbed off on him more than he cared to consider (though there was no sucking of air through teeth).
I would see him on the street and he would always say hello. I regret not engaging him more while he was there, but it's hard to just approach someone when you're a starstruck kid...
Shortly after that, I became more and more immersed in Japanese cinema studies and decided that I wanted to go to Japan and eventually pursue a graduate degree in the field (I didn't do the latter). I arranged for a job teaching English conversation in Osaka (with the help of a friend), and left for Japan in November of 1996. It was there that I started speaking Japanese on a daily basis, and met my wife, who still puts up with my abhorrent command of the language.
If I had not taken Richie's course, I don't think I would have gone to Japan. It can't be said that life would have been better or worse had I not gone, but it certainly would have been very different, and probably a little less interesting and certainly minus a life partner. For this, I am entirely grateful for Donald Richie's existence and wholly sad for a great man's passing.