Thursday, May 11, 2017

Viewed Sideways: Writings on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan by Donald Richie

One of the challenges of not knowing the language is having to rely on outsiders or translators to catch a glimpse of Japan. But I'm also lucky on two counts with this limitation.

First is that an outside observer can offer up insights that may not be seen by someone raised in a culture. 

And second, as Viewed Sideways shows, Donald Richie is the inside outsider. Someone who spent so long in Japan and focussed so much of his keen observational skills on understanding the place that he brings a magical illumination. 

Looking at a wide range of culture and style issues mainly over the course of the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s, Richie seems to be as relevant a read today as when each of these pieces were written. (I like the fact that each is dated)

For instance the chapter on time in Japan - Japanese Rhythms - maps out in 1984 something true today. Japanese work is often about being in the office as a matter of attendance not getting work done. A certain amount of long hours for show.

In the culture part he casts his eye, in one essay, on traditional Japanese theatre. I have seen Noh but never really understood it until I read the 1966 piece in Viewed Sideways. This masterful but short article explains a deeply difficult art form in a way that makes sense and builds appreciation. 

Richie’s eye for and explanations of Japanese cinema (and all film) are of course deeply insightful and an education in cinema (he was best known for his film commentary). My mind doesn't view a movie in the same way but I relished the explanations, especially the use of atmosphere over plot in Japan.

The closing set of essays directly confront his own foreignness and his observations of himself and japan. Fascinating and honest like so much of his writing in this volume. 

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