Directed in 1956, the year that prostitution was outlawed in Japan, Flowing explores the inner workings of a changing world, as traditional geishas faced the impending decline of their hidden way of life and the looming spectre of prostitution. It depicts the story of a widow, Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is forced to work for a living and becomes a maid in a struggling Tokyo geisha house where its proud mistress (Isuzu Yamada) tries to save the house from becoming either a restaurant or a brothel. It is through Rika that we are introduced to the various geishas, who drink and fight, worry over the lack of clients, and attempt to stave off imminent extinction. Based on a book by Koda Aya, Flowing is a showcase for both Naruse’s powers of empathy, and his natural talent in constructing complex female characters on-screen. The result is one of the most innovative and revealing of all geisha films. —Eureka Entertainment
Mikio Naruse is one of the least known of Japan’s early master directors, both in the West and in Japan, yet he created some of the most moving, darkly beautiful works in Japanese cinema. Like Kenji Mizoguchi, Naruse showed an uncanny understanding for the psychology of women. Like Yasujiro Ozu, he preferred subtle shifts of character over broad strokes of plot. Unlike either of these early greats, however, Naruse’s vision of humanity was much darker and more clinical. He stripped all vestiges of hope or acceptance from his films, what remains is only a willful struggle to endure. His relentlessly negative view of human existence has resulted in Naruse’s often being labeled a nihilist.
Born in Tokyo, in 1905, Naruse was the youngest of three sons of a desperately poor embroiderer. Although he excelled in elementary school, his family could not afford to further his education. He was instead enrolled in a two-year technical school. There, he spent virtually all of his free time… read more
Even more so than Hitchcock, though not quite in the same psychoanalytical terms, Naruse had a penchant for doubling his characters, especially women. As Chris Fujiwara rightly points out, it's fairly common for a Naruse heroine to have a "rival or mirror image, whom she finds waiting when she turns a new corner, who legitimately possesses the man to whom the heroine has at best a moral or sentimental claim, or who stands as a living reproach to the heroine." From No Blood Relations ('32) (in which it's a child, not a man, at the center of the conflict) to Yearning ('64) (remember the wayward young woman who wanders into the shop one day?), from Wife! Be Like a Rose! ('35) (in which both the mother and the daughter in the city have rural counterparts) to Untamed ('57) (two of Takamine's three husbands in the film are stolen by her rival), this motif is expertly deployed by Naruse. And one could locate dozens of other such examples throughout his remarkable oeuvre. In Flowing, Yamada Isuzu's character has not one but two 'rivals': her parsimonious step-sister (Kahara Natsuko) and her calculating mentor (the great Kurishima Sumiko, in her final role, her first in 18 years). (Arguably, the characters played by Sugimura Haruko and Nakakita Chieko could also be added to the list, not to mention that of our surrogate of sorts, Tanaka Kinuyo.) And here it's not a person who comes between them, but rather a place: a financially crumbling 'okiya'. "To act in his films was really an honor for actresses,” Tsukasa Yôko once stated. "He understood perfectly the psychology of women." Featuring one of the greatest, most generationally diverse female casts ever assembled in cinema history, Flowing is the ultimate embodiment of Naruse's disposition toward women.
Falderal, as a result of your post, I now have added this film!
If there was a singular moment of silence in your life would you fill it with noise? Why? To ignore the unbearable sound of just living in one more meaningless moment? Okada enters in noise, leaves in silence; she is also the only character to have anything nice to say to Tanaka when she arrives. Naruse points us to hierarchies. Let us figure them out, shall we?
Starting today, and for most of April, Film Forum in New York will be honoring five of Japan’s greatest actresses in a portmanteau retrospective