Flowing – Review
Otsuta is running the geisha house Tsuta in Tokyo. Her business is heavily in debt. Her daughter Katsuyo doesn’t see any future in her mothers trade in the late days of Geisha. But Otsuta will not give up. This film portraits the day time life of geisha when not entertaining customers.
The difficulty in reviewing Naruse isn’t in attempting to find an excuse for his seeming lack of narrative or aesthetic audacity, in comparison to Japanese filmmakers more well known in the west, but rather in the impossibility to convey the purity of the link between his formal language and emotional acumen. The lineage between how one feels at the close of his masterworks (this particular film being one) and how one got there is more complex than even that of Ozu, Mizoguchi, indeed nearly all other true masters of the melodrama, in-and-out of Japan.
And Naruse deserves the admission of failure from the chroniclers of his legacy outside of Japan.
Flowing is a film at odds; at once, his most simple film in terms of character development (the static nature of seemingly everyone is intentional) and overall narrative arc, but his most complex in the deconstruction of those meanings therein. Rika (played by the legendary Kinuyo Tanaka) is a widow who is hired on in a debt-ridden Geisha house run by Otsuta (played by the recently departed Isuzu Yamada; Throne of Blood, Lower Depths, Sisters of the Gion), and her daughter Katsuyo (the indescribable Hideko Takamine) and taught by Otsuta’s sister, Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita, a great character actress who routinely got her best roles in Naruse), and employing two Geishas, Nanko (Mariko Okada; Eros Plus Massacre, Late Autumn) and Someka (Haruko Sugimura, Ozu’s Nakakita). The cast alone in the film makes it worth watching.
The majority of the film focuses on Katsuyo’s inner and outer emotional distress at her mother’s crumbling financial picture, as well as her own confusion of the course her life should take. She is not a geisha. And she doesn’t want any part of this life. The suitor of this film is ultimately turned down by Katsuyo by her feigning ignorance of his advances. “I’m only half-geisha. I don’t know what I am. Marriage is a dream.”
Like many Naruse films, money is the sole-bearer of narrative action (the geisha-house is falling apart because of debt, Katsuyo is uncertain because she has no means to make a living, Rika enters the film because she has no financial support outside of herself anymore), but it isn’t the only means of societal commentary and communication. The opening few scenes Naruse points to a self-contained hierarchy in the house, within an already understood hierarchy on the part of the audience.
The film opens on seemingly random action; rippling waves (flowing), boats, poles jutting out of the water, passers-by walking down the street; as the opening credit sequence passes on screen. These random, small moments may seem like Ozu-like pillow shots, but even if Naruse was aware of the comparison this opening would bring he was intentionally pushing away from the genial transience of Ozu. These passers-by are geisha. This setting is obviously more working class and run-down than anywhere late-Ozu characters ever even tread their feet. Even in terms of staging, Ozu routinely stages action passing across the screen (usually right-to-left) but here objects either move directly toward or away from the camera. Ozu’s staging gives the sense of a passing moment, Naruse’s feels almost confrontational and cold (machinery coming toward, humanity walking away).
The opening scene concerns Katsuyo being accused of not paying one of the house’s employees her actually earned wages; Namie, an uncredited actress, who soon leaves the house (but that isn’t the actual end of this subplot). Ominous silence pervades the opening few shots as Naruse cuts across the room, studying the freezing cold tension of an unknown emotion. This silence is eventually broken-up by the effervescent Nanako (in maybe the best role this reviewer has ever seen Mariko Okada in), who enters talking almost nonsensically, ignoring absolutely the unease in the room.
When Namie begins her accusation she is chastised and berated, not just by Katsuyo, but every woman in the scene. She is called an ignorant country girl (mocked for not even knowing what Salmon was when she entered this house). She is almost literally laughed out of the house.
Namie exits, Rika enters. As Rika is greeted as the house’s new maid she is chastised for the difficulty in pronouncing her name. As she explains she must work because of her husband and son’s death (normally a golden moment for cheap sentimentality), she is chastised for her age.
No one is given credit (literally and figuratively, factoring in the finances of this house) in this world. They must earn their meager place, even if they don’t enjoy it. The only thing one has in Naruse is their own determination to improve, and most times they fail even at that.
But even in discussing place, Rika is no saintly savior come to help all. Unlike the Buddha of Kurosawa’s Lower Depths, even in her almost pitiful niceness, she mainly just watches everyone fall to ruin, as it were. Naruse suggests that what one receives from accepting their station in life is an ever-lasting, complacent smile, nothing else. Which could almost be read, yet again, as a challenge to the thematic cinema of Ozu; Setsuko Hara, anyone?
Flowing is Naruse at the fullest of his powers. And as such may not be the greatest opener to his work, but will remain for long after to those willing to move within and understand his rhythms as a filmmaker.
Author: Josh DuShane
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