Sunday 2 June 2024

Guide to Kozaburo Yoshimura at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2024

Kozaburo Yoshimura

Guide to Kozaburo Yoshimura at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2024

By Alexander Jacoby

Kozaburo Yoshimura (1911-2000) is one of the neglected masters of classical Japanese film. An almost exact contemporary of Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita, he was responsible for some of the postwar Japanese cinema’s most compelling films, which bear eloquent witness to social change in a rapidly modernising country. But these are dramas above all, which grip and move audiences; as Tadao Sato wrote, they are “not mere social criticism, but films that flesh out the human element of the story”.

Yoshimura’s long directorial career began in the 1930s and continued until the 1970s. With an embarrassment of riches, and with the enthusiastic cooperation of both Kadokawa (which holds the rights to the Daiei archive) and Shochiku, my co-curator Johan Nordström and I had to be selective: this programme concentrates on the decade from 1951 to 1960, when Yoshimura’s art was at its height. And since Il Cinema Ritrovato will, as usual, itself offer an embarrassment of riches, its audiences will have to make hard choices. So if you can’t follow the whole Yoshimura programme, what should you prioritise?

Well, the heart of Yoshimura’s postwar output is his outstanding sequence of films about women in the new Japan, made mostly at Daiei, the studio that most encouraged his ambitions. These earned him comparison with Mizoguchi for his sensitive exploration of female experience. Focusing repeatedly on women working in traditional professions (geisha, kimono designer, confectioner) in the old capital of Kyoto, he dramatised the social and political transformation of Japan in the wake of defeat and occupation. He worked mainly in vital collaboration with screenwriter Kaneto Shindo (himself also a celebrated director), whose carefully constructed scripts give the films structure and precision, and with many of the great actresses of the 1950s Japanese cinema.

If you see only one film, Itsuwareru seiso (Clothes of Deception, 1951) on June 22 and 27 is probably Yoshimura’s most intensely dramatic work. It’s the story of a changing Kyoto told through the contrasting lives of two sisters, one a geisha in the city’s Gion district, the other working for the tourist board. Shindo’s script surveys the old capital without sentimentality, but also without cynicism. At the heart of the film is a blistering star turn from Machiko Kyo, fresh from her career-defining performance in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. But heroine Kimicho, though a ruthless woman in her way, is no mere femme fatale; this is a complex, nuanced performance at the heart of a complex, nuanced film. Japanese critics placed it third in that year’s Kinema Junpo Top Ten, and detected echoes of Mizoguchi’s pre-war classic Gion no kyodai (Sisters of Gion, 1936) in the treatment of place and theme; the two films do indeed make fascinating comparison. But Yoshimura’s vision is his own, and the climax is one of the most exciting scenes in his cinema.

I was proud to programme a personal favourite, Yoru no kawa (Undercurrent aka Night River, 1956), here at Bologna in 2016… and saddened that the only available prints then were somewhat faded, muting the beauty of the ravishing colour cinematography. It’s a pleasure therefore to have the opportunity to show a brand-new 4K restoration from Kadokawa on June 24. Here’s a chance to see Kyoto in full colour before it was transformed by postwar modernisation; but Yoshimura and his cinematographer - Kazuo Miyagawa, often hailed as Japan’s greatest - also make wonderful symbolic use of the new medium. The film is a visual feast, which also boasts a marvellous, confident star performance from Fujiko Yamamoto playing what critic Hiroaki Kono called “a new type of Kyoto woman”. Japan’s finest female screenwriter, Sumie Tanaka, furnished a script with a subtle feminist message, and the film has a fine sense of the way in which old traditions can co-exist with progressive values. If you missed it in 2016, seize the chance now. If you saw it in 2016, come back and see it with new eyes.

Four years later, over at Shochiku, Yoshimura followed it up with Onna no saka (A Woman’s Uphill Slope, 1960), his tenderest and most affirmative film. Again shot in beautiful colour, it forms a fascinating tailpiece to the director’s ongoing exploration of Kyoto, its traditional professions, and the role of women. Another intricate script by Kaneto Shindo follows the fortunes of heroine Akie, who comes to Kyoto when she inherits a shop and factory which manufactures and sells traditional sweets. Mariko Okada, as the practical, liberated heroine, personifies a new mode of postwar Japanese femininity, yet she is also a woman who finds new meaning in Kyoto’s traditions; this is a film that gracefully reconciles the past, the present and the future as Yoshimura and Shindo explore the various options open to women in the Japan of 1960. The film has its sadder moments, but if you want to leave the cinema on a note of real hope, this is the Yoshimura for you, on June 28.

So there are three top recommendations, if that’s all you have time for. But how can I fail to mention Nishijin no shimai (Sisters of Nishijin, 1952), another Kyoto story with an exceptional ensemble cast? How can I overlook Chijo (On This Earth, 1957), a powerful tale of a young man’s political awakening set against the striking backdrop of another of Japan’s old cities, Kanazawa (again filmed in glorious colour). Are you a fan of Mizoguchi? Then you will need to see Osaka monogatari (Osaka Story, 1957), a striking satire on materialist values from a script by Yoshikata Yoda, which Yoshimura inherited after Mizoguchi’s death. Are you a connoisseur of rarities? Then don’t miss Yoru no sugao (The Naked Face of Night, 1957), a film which won high praise from Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie as long ago as 1959, but which, as far as we can trace, has never been shown in Europe. After all, you will have to see all of them. 

Buona visione!

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