“Night River”: Kozaburo Yoshimura films thwarted love in 1950s Japan


There is a French passion for Japanese cinema, as evidenced every week by the circuit of exceptionally abundant revivals and reissues. This week, the release of the unpublished Rivière de nuit (1956), in a brand new print, draws attention to the name of Kozaburo Yoshimura (1911-2000), a filmmaker little identified in France, but whose career spanning sixty years spanned the century, from silent films to the modernity of the 1960s and 1970s. The man is renowned for his numerous portraits of women, a fascinating vein, whose post-war Japanese production was fruitful, in that it made the feminine the outpost of economic and social changes. Working with actresses was Yoshimura’s specialty, who cast the most famous of them, including Setsuko Hara, Machiko Kyo, Ayako Wakao and Fujiko Yamamoto.

It is the latter, Miss Japan 1950, then under contract with the Daiei studio, who interprets with classic elegance the modern heroine of Rivière de nuit , the film being part of a series of works that Yamamoto then devoted to Kyoto workers. The enigmatic title seems to designate an obscure flow, a secret course, and resonates with Kiwa’s life, which travels against the current. Indeed, the worker is an artist in her field and devotes herself body and soul to it, making splendid kimono fabrics, even if it means remaining single at the critical threshold of thirty.

The situation causes the despair of her father, in whose workshop she works, and whom she surpasses in virtuosity, when her younger sister, already settled, is married and settled in Tokyo. Several men flutter around her, but it is on the neck of another, Professor Takemura (Ken Uehara), that she one day surprises one of his creations: a floral tie which becomes a motif of loving crystallization. Kiwa then begins a discreet affair, from hidden meetings to peripheral escapades, in Tokyo or elsewhere, with this married man whose wife is dying.

Pure emotional plasticity

Kozaburo Yoshimura does not take his heroine’s artistic vocation lightly nor does he use it as a decorative argument. This vocation finds, on the contrary, in each surface of the film, each section of reality, an opportunity to be reflected. For example, when Kiwa insists on reproducing on frame the characteristic gray of Mount Hiei observed in the early morning, in the window recess. Or drawing inspiration from the sight of the red fruit flies that the professor, a geneticist at Osaka University, studies to make the pattern for a dazzling kimono.

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