Life, Ritual, Cinema: The Experimental Films of Donald Richie

  • Donald Richie


Main Theater - Michigan Theater Sun, Mar 26, 2023 12:30 PM



U-M Center for Japanese Studies

Curated by Markus Nornes and Hannah Glass-Chapman

Donald Richie (1924–2013) is credited with introducing the world to Japanese cinema. Born in Ohio, Richie arrived in Tokyo in 1947 to work in the American occupation force. Aside from brief return trips to the US for graduate school and a stint as the film curator at MoMA (1969–1972), he remained in Japan. Richie was a dilettante of sorts who wrote novels, painted, and composed music, but is best known as a prolific author of nonfiction essays and books on Japan. His studies on Japanese film history, Ozu, and Kurosawa are considered classics. Richie also wrote on topics such as Japanese fiction, ikebana, architecture, street culture, famous personages, and more.

Richie’s public image, however, sometimes bordered on cliché, perhaps because he occasionally traded on stereotypes of a long-gone “traditional” Japan. In fact, Richie was paradoxically perverse. A queer man who found a safe haven in Japan, he delighted in the surreal. This particularly comes out in his experimental cinema, which he began making in the 1940s. By the 1960s, Richie was known as an organizer on the Japanese experimental film scene who introduced Japanese artists to developments abroad and programmed their work around the world. This program introduces the other Richie, who was always sexy, strange, dirty, and quite amusing.

Boy with Cat (Neko to shonen)

Tokyo, Japan | 1967 | 5 | 16mm

Lovingly shot on Kodachrome and processed as monochrome, a young man lounges on tatami on a hot summer day viewing photos, with the sound of cicadas and the neighbor practicing piano in the background. The mood is spoiled by an awkward Moonlight Sonata and an obnoxious black cat.

The Dead Boy (Shinda shonen)

Tokyo, Japan | 1967 | 13 | 16mm

“I’m a boy who, not knowing love, suddenly has fallen from the summit of frightening infancy into the darkness of a well.” Based on a powerful poem by the gay poet Takahashi Mutsuo and shifting between multiple realities and times, it is the most complex and touching of Richie’s works.

Stillness—Suspension—Motion (Sei—chu—do)

Tokyo, Japan | 1959 | 5 | 8mm

Richie captures the strange rhythm of sumo, where the wrestlers quietly and repeatedly face off—eye to eye—before smashing into each other. He focuses on the rippling muscles of the bodies, suspended, then in furious motion.

Atami Blues

Tokyo, Japan | 1962, 1967 abridged version | 20 | 16mm

Co-written with then-wife Mary, this winking story about flirting takes place against the backdrop of a famous hot spring, ubiquitous movie posters, and sumptuous jazz by Richie’s friend Takemitsu Toru. It may look conventional, but a sly and slightly dirty ending betrays a sensibility excluded from the mainstream films on all the posters.

Life Life Life

Tokyo, Japan | 1953 | 6 | 8mm
Fifteen years before Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Richie anticipated the animation of Terry Gilliam in this early 8mm film. He cut up Life magazine and animated the clippings through clever use of strings and editing. These “Four American Fables” offer up a slicing critique of gender and 1950s consumerism.

Life (Jinsei)

Tokyo, Japan | 1965 | 4 | 16mm

In 1964, Richie and friends wrote a manifesto that kicked off a small film movement called Film Independent. They called for 2.5-minute shorts on the theme, “An Advertisement for Myself.” Richie’s humorous contribution, which he “scored” himself, tells the story of a life from birth to death. This is Richie’s “long” version. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

War Games (Senso gokko)

Tokyo, Japan | 1962 | 20 | 16mm

Richie’s most famous film was shot during a typhoon with butoh dancer Hijikata, whose antics behind the camera provoked the delight of the film’s child subjects. It is a parable of raw power and very human antagonism—and our ability to step back and out of the fray.

Human Sacrifice (Gisei)

Tokyo, Japan | 1959 | 10 | 8mm

Richie met Hijikata, the great founder of butoh dance, through mutual friend Mishima Yukio. They decided to collaborate on a film about segregation. Richie memorialized the film in his diary: “It is more than ever about the death of an individual, a distinct kind of human sacrifice.”

Cybele: A Pastoral Ritual in Five Scenes

Tokyo, Japan | 1968 | 20 | 16mm

Programmers in Paris and New York refused to show this film, arguing it was a tasteless recreation of the Holocaust. Richie thought he was making the blackest of comedies about mystery-goddess Cybele—mediator of the civilized and the wild, the living and the dead—and her following of ecstatic, self-emasculating devotees. Shot with the performance art group Zero Jigen. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

Markus Nornes is Professor of Asian Cinema at UM and a longtime programmer for the Yamagata International Film Festival. He co-directed The Big House (2018), which played at the 56th AAFF. 


Hannah Glass-Chapman is a 4th year undergrad at U-M dual majoring in Asian Studies and Film, Television, & Media. She enjoys studying Asian cinema, directing, and screenwriting.