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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Inland Sea (Blu-ray)
The Inland Sea (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // Unrated // August 13, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 26, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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I was privileged to know the great essayist and observer of all things Japanese, Donald Richie (1924-2013). Not all that well, but we talked and exchanged letters occasionally, I meeting him in Tokyo when I was there, and for a few memorable days when he came to Kyoto for a visit, when I arranged an event here, a reading of excerpts from his books.

He was already in his eighties then so I, concerned about his advancing years, made sure to provide both a barstool-type chair for him to lean on while he was giving his talk, and a sturdy, comfortable chair for him to sit in after, to meet and greet the large crowd that had come to see him. He used neither. He spoke for about 90 minutes, then stood around chatting for the next several hours, still so full of energy when it was over he insisted walking back to my car afterwards, a good kilometer away. We discussed anything and everything, and though my experiences and talent were microscopic compared to his, he never made me feel like a pupil, though he was surely, for me, a great teacher. And while I knew him only slightly, it was like we'd been friends for decades. From what I gather, he was pretty much like that with everybody.

Watching Lucille Carra's film adaptation of his great "travel novel" The Inland Sea (1992), and all the wonderful supplements Criterion has assembled for it, brought back a flood of memories. There's a new conversation with two who knew him far better and for far longer than I ever did, filmmaker Paul Schrader and Dutch writer Ian Buruma, and in that chat, they perfectly encapsulate the essence of what made Donald Donald: unfailing generosity, a curiosity about everybody - famous artists and homeless people alike. He was, very much, a man of his generation whose passions stretched back another century and more, a gay man liberated by life in what, when he arrived, was a third-world, defeated country and, where, rather than feeling restricted by his place as a perennial "outsider," a foreigner, he reveled in it.

Like many, I first became aware of Richie through his books on Japanese cinema, particularly The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, co-written with the enigmatic Joseph Anderson and first published in 1959. How many film books written prior to about 1980 are still worth reading at all? Precious few, but the Richie-Anderson remains the Gold Standard.

Only later did I discover Richie's greatest talent, as an essayist observing (or "regarding," as he liked to say) the world around him, which in his case included Japan from shortly after the end of World War II until well into the 21st century. His book Different People offered short essays on famous celebrities like Toshiro Mifune but also ordinary people he'd quietly study on the subway or in a restaurant. One chapter, about a middle-aged neighbor caring for her senile old father, is so funny that, while reading it aboard the Shinkansen, nonplussed fellow passengers wondered why the strange foreigner nearby was falling out of his seat with laughter.

One of the last books he published before a long, terrible hospital stay ruined his health to the point where he stopped writing altogether, was The Japan Journals: 1947-2004, a carefully chosen collection from Richie's personal journals dating back to the 1940s. It traces his discoveries traveling all over the country, and equally astute observations in short walks from his various homes in Tokyo across six decades, drawing parallels of those made homeless by war in the 1940s to those made homeless by ruthless capitalism in the 1990s, and mourning Japan's insistence on bulldozing its own culture for the sake of globalization.

The Inland Sea is partly about that; to call it a travelogue does it a great injustice. (The book describes itself as "travel fiction," which isn't quite right, either. Richie considered it a novel.) In any case, the movie excerpts, with narration by Richie himself, his travels east-to-west along the Seto Inland Sea, 9,000 square miles of water bordered by three of Japan's four main islands: Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, a waterway stretching nearly 300 miles, from Himeji to Hiroshima.

The film, like the book, is really a collection of vignettes, with Richie not limited to descriptions of landscapes and touristy sites, but everything, like the Buddhist priest, a fan of Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra, bemoaning the cost of restoring his temple buildings rather than the cheaper option of tearing it all down and building an entirely new one. We see an island of fishermen dominated by cats, lazily sunning themselves in the shadow of fish-soaked nets. Richie describes boarding the wrong ferry and winding up at a leper colony, an island not on any official maps. The film revisits the location, where classical music is heard throughout the island, to guide those blinded by illness.

At other times the film observes young couples, drinking coffee and looking at snapshots, and an old man practicing his Japanese calligraphy. Richie marvels at the simplicity of a remote shrine on a small, rocky island, peppered with pine trees. He discusses Shintoism and its differences and similarities with western-world religion. We see the busy fish market, workers hacking away at the day's still-living (but not for long) catch, and hosing down the blood-soaked wooden trays they're brought in. It's the people that most interest Richie, and his observations hold ours. In the film but not the book there's a working-class woman well past retirement age, widowed during the war, who found work delivering newspapers in a big pushcart, something she's done every day for nearly her entire adult life. In the film, a customer barely acknowledges her lifelong labor.

The movie, made without Richie's direct involvement, carefully locates places he described in a book published 20 years earlier, adapted from material dating another 10 years or more. Times have changed, with shiny new bridges connecting the islands, and in one scene the audience glimpses a man in a coffeeshop listening to a Walkman, foreshadowing a Japan where strangers no longer talk with one another at such places, or on buses and trains - they're too busy texting now, or listening to music downloaded into their iPhones. Richie, for decades, saw all this coming, and The Inland Sea is to a large extent a memorial to Japan's poorer but more human and, in some respects, happier early postwar period.

Video & Audio

  Criterion's new Blu-ray of The Inland Sea arrives in the form of a new 4K scan of the original 16mm A/B negative, presented here in 1.66:1 widescreen. The photography, by Hiro Narita (Never Cry Wolf) benefits greatly from this excellent transfer, which belies its smaller gauge format. Even better is the uncompressed LPCM stereo surround, transferred from a 35mm magnetic DME track. The audio is quite the revelation, as good as the best IMAX mixes, and similarly immersive. It also brings out the delicacy of Toru Takemitsu's gentle musical score. English subtitles are included, of course, and the disc is Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements include a new interview with director Carra, who generously credits all her collaborators, and details the origins of the project and Richie's limited involvement. The previously described conversation with writer-director Schrader and cultural critic Buruma is delightful, as they warmly remember their one-of-a-kind friend. Also included is a short interview with Richie himself, apparently shot by Carra crew while The Inland Sea was being made. Finally, a fold-out essay by Arturo Silva extols the film's virtues, compares it to Richie's book, and discusses Richie himself.

Parting Thoughts

A disarming, beguiling little film, impossible to adequately describe, The Inland Sea is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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