This book straddles the line between a history and reference book. The early sections tend towards the historical–they describe how Japan accepted cinema and made the transition from traditional entertainments (kabuki and the like) to film. The later sections lose the overarching narrative and begin to read like a laundry list of recent noteworthy Japanese films and directors. There are short sections devoted to Anime and Japanese documentary, but they lack the insight and entertainment value of the first few chapters. Maybe that’s just the material that Richie was dealing with: a film industry in decline, becoming ever more diffuse and hard to define.
Richie seems a true connoisseur of Japanese film–he talks of Kurosawa and Ozu in a doting whisper that had me watching Rashomon with a new-found appreciation. But it is precisely his stewardship of Japanese Film that harms the second half of the book. He talks of the influence of Anime and thus can’t dismiss it, but it also seems as if he has been left untouched by this influence. If I could have it all my own way, I’d have had Richie focus on the “golden” era of Japanese film (call it, say “Fifty Years of Japanese Film”). That would have played to his considerable strengths quite nicely.
As for the Japanese student, this book won’t improve your Japanese directly. At best, you can hope to discover some Japanese films you wouldn’t have watched otherwise. Richie uses the English names of all the films but includes the Japanese name in brackets. I often wished that he had included the name written in Japanese (and not just romaji) so that I could see the kanji, but that’s probably asking too much.
If you’re unsure, try google books. It seems like you can read almost the whole thing online. There is a more comprehensive, informed review here.