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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 53.1: Michael W. Harris
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Fumio Hayasaka and Donald Richie: A Friendship

Michael William Harris


It was with great sorrow that I first learned of Donald Richie’s death on February 19, 2013. It was the final semester of my PhD in musicology at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I was in a mad dash to finish my final dissertation draft. I learned of it from one of my professors in a simple e-mail with a link to his obituary in the New York Times, it was only a few days prior that I had asked her if she knew of any way to get in touch with him. My reaction to the news was a bit selfish because, you see, I was hoping to one day interview Richie and here he had died before I could. Richie was the final living link to the subject of my dissertation, composer Fumio Hayasaka (and the subject of my Cinema Journal article).

Hayasaka and Richie first met late in the summer of 1947. Richie had made the acquaintance of the "pale, spectacled man” when the composer had asked to meet him because he had heard that Richie had recordings of new classical music. After a meeting in Richie’s quarters where they listened to Berg’s Violin Concerto, Hayasaka repaid the favor by inviting the young writer to Toho Studios to watch a filming of a picture he was scoring. This meeting, while seemingly nothing special at the time, was the first meeting of Donald Richie and an up and coming young director named Akira Kurosawa. It was also memorable because of the film Richie happened to witness in production: Drunken Angel. Richie describes his visit to the set in his journals:

A whole blasted out neighborhood had been built around a scummy-surfaced sump on the banks of which were a few new plywood buildings, their fronts festooned with neon. In the sump itself floated carefully placed garbage, a single shoe, a cardboard box, and a child’s lost doll. Yet what I was seeing was no different from what I had seen on my way there.


There was the camera, there was the mike, and there were banks of lights. And there was the director, wearing a white floppy hat; there was someone I guessed was the star. He, in a loose Hawaii-shirt, a young actor with slicked back hair, was practicing menacing an older man with a beard and round-rimmed glasses.

The young actor in the Hawaiian shirt was Toshiro Mifune, soon to become one of Japan’s biggest stars, while the man being menaced was Takashi Shimura, one of Japan’s leading actors. The director in the floppy hat was of course Akira Kurosawa and it was the first time that all three were working together. This film was also the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Hayasaka and together the four men would work together to create some of Japan’s most popular and distinguished films, including Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949), Rashomon (1950), and Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954).

This same story was recounted in the New York Times obituary, leaving out, however, the integral role of Hayasaka, an understandable if regrettable omission. Hayasaka travelled in some of Japan’s most illustrious circles, and his funeral in 1955 was the cause of a large public funeral procession. However, he is hardly known in America compared to his contemporaries in Hollywood, such as Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, or Miklós Rózsa.

But the friendship between Hayasaka and Richie was something I desperately wanted to talk to Richie about for it is only hinted at in his published journals. As an American living in Japan, Richie could have provided me with many insights into the composer’s life, career, and his attitude towards writing music in the post-war period. Essentially doing what Richie always did best: helping Americans to approach and read Japanese films and culture.

Richie presence in my dissertation research was much like that of Hayasaka, an elusive ghost leading me through the forest of interpretation, which I always imagined as the forest in Rashomon. I could never see the complete path, but I could always see the trail left by those before me, and once I discovered the relationship between the two men, so much made sense. I was chasing not only Hayasaka, who has very little written about him in English, almost all of it as part of a larger narrative, but also Richie, who introduced Kurosawa, and by extension Hayasaka, to American audiences and has influenced how generations of scholars interpret their works.

Richie would write about Hayasaka in most of his works on Japanese film, always discussing his work with Kurosawa and also Kenji Mizoguchi in very warm terms, though always retaining his critical eye. In his journals, Richie’s final mention of Hayasaka was when he went to a concert of the composer’s music many years after his death. He writes under the entry for January 31, 1999:

I went to a memorial concert for Hayasaka Fumio, through whom I first entered the Japanese film world. […] I had heard [the Piano Concerto] at its premiere [in 1948]. [Tonight] I was sitting in Hibiya Hall, and there was my friend smiling and bowing from the stage. I now wondered what I would remember of it, as I had not heard it since. […] And as I listened I relived my five-decade-old delight. It was like meeting Hayasaka again.

I now listen to the music of Hayasaka and read the words of Richie and wonder about their friendship. A composer whose music accompanied numerous wartime propaganda films and whose works were used in nationalist celebrations, and a young American who came over as part of the Occupation forces and never left, falling in love with the country.

I may never get to meet either man whose works inspired me throughout my dissertation, but I hope that I can help to further both of their legacies in my work.

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