One of leading directors of contemporary European cinema, Pedro Costa gave a lecture in Tokyo in 2005 where he outlined the potency of the great Japanese masters as both presenting and hiding certain images of Japanese life and experience. “I knew the Japan of films, above all of the three directors most known in Europe – namely, Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse.” (1) It is almost impossible to ignore the connections between these three directors that Costa posits together, as they worked within similar genres, concerning themselves with similar themes. They gave attention to the tension between modernity and traditional Japanese life, and most notably presented icons of ordinary Japanese life. Most striking of these was the plight of the Japanese woman, painting the particulars of Japanese daily rituals and providing the keenest portraits of working and domestic life.
In approaching Mikio Naruse’s 1956 film Flowing, it is enriching to encourage another connection to his directorial peer group by invoking Kenji Mizoguchi’s film of the same year, Street of Shame. Both movies were hot topical products of that year’s debate burning in Japanese society, released in the same year the country’s Prostitution Prevention bill was passed. Mizoguchi presented a seedy view at street level, a parade of scenes with modern courtesans frolicking in communal baths with clients punctuate the tragic and almost shocking story arc of each of the damaged working girls. Flowing on the other hand is a de-eroticized image of prostitution that follows a more culturally traditional Geisha house (opposed to Mizoguchi’s ‘Dreamland’ bar). While an ensemble piece like Street of Shame (1956), it still manages to capture the trapped desperation of the impoverished Geishas without that film’s melodrama and pointed tragedy. With Flowing, Naruse has created the binary opposition of Mizoguchi’s mediation on prostitution with an almost neutral perspective, placing two ‘passive’ observers (Katsuyo the housemistress’s daughter and the newly employed maid Oharu) as a contrast to the Geisha characters. Naruse bought this essay like restrain and naturalism to traditionally melodramatic and emotional narrative material throughout his career, and this was noted on the release of Flowing when some critics described the film as ‘zuihitsu-like’ (a genre of thesis writing without conclusion) (2). Comparing the two films contrasting approaches allows us to isolate the particular subtlety and potency of Naruse’s art. As Catherine Russell observes, “All of Naruses’ female characters are real, sympathetic, fully fledged characters, rather than icons of grief” (3).
As a director who made his name creating ‘women’s films’ around a working class milieu, Flowing serves as an excellent example of a Naruse film par excellence, straddling the full gamut of his usual preoccupations. Flowing opens on a meditative tableaux of the river that surrounds its Tokyo pleasure district setting, beginning the punctuation of a series of sparing external or location images that break up the Ozu-like ‘Home Drama’ that unfolds mostly within the confines of the failing Geisha house. As mentioned, Flowing departs from Mizoguchian mysticism and melodrama and instead focuses on the two prime Narusian motifs of Post War economic poverty and the representation of Japanese women.
From the first moment we enter the film’s central location. The female ensemble cast is presented as a domestic family, more than the blood relations of the housemistress Otsuta and her daughter (played powerfully by Isuzu Yamada and Naruse regular Hideko Takamine in a film where performance is central). Naruse creates an image of opposing tension as well as harmony from the separate female entities living under the strain of a failing business, reminiscent of Ozu’s mature period. An Ozu-like ideology is garnered particularly in the virtuous and hard-working character of the maid Oharu. And again like Ozu, Naruse fills Flowing with allusions to tensions between Japanese tradition and the modern world. This often manifests in difficult family relationships, as well as meditating on the ritual and tradition of Geisha music and dance. Throughout the film we are shown one of the Geisha’s daughter’s in constant lessons preparing to follow her mother’s footsteps, giving further richness to the familial motif of the Tsuta House as well as signposting further pressure on the fact that Otsuta’s own daughter has not followed her mother into the family tradition.
At points Flowing resonates as a Home Drama, as well as aligning itself in the tradition of Geisha films like the director’s own Late Chrysanthemums (1954). But Flowing is essentially a crowing example of Naruse’s ‘women’s films’. The voice and texture is purely feminine, and unlike many of the director’s classic films of the period focussing on doomed relationships like Floating Clouds (1955), the male characters in Flowing barely register. The brief male characterisations depict an ugly or corrupt picture of masculinity – the dirty, crooked smile of the steel company magnate Otsuta is introduced to by her sister to garner as a valuable client testify to the flawed masculinity within Naruse’s world. After fleeing this meeting, Otsuta tells her sister how she feels foolish pursuing this avenue of income at her age.
Naruse constantly interrogates the position of Japanese women and the status of the geisha, both as others see them and as they see themselves. The narrative salvation of sorts comes eventually from Mrs Mizuno (a madam in her own house and former colleague of Otsuta), who agrees to rescue the failing business. Mrs Mizuno initially proposes to save the house with income from a male benefactor, but in typical Narusian fashion this is later re-proposed by the ruthless Madam as a contractual agreement where she takes ownership of the house. As a female representation of male economic power, Mrs Mizuno is afforded an authority perhaps unknown before in Japanese cinema (4), and as is typical of Naruse, the desperate realities of economic poverty are laid bare.
But again, there is no real resolutions or traditional happy endings in Naruse’s world. The final shots of the film return us to the house and the various perspectives of the different women for whom there is no escape from the routine of hard work. Closing the film with shots we have seen previously in the film’s opening, the calm surface of the river now implies the eternal and unshakable flowing of currents – analogous to the irrepressible perpetuity of daily life for Japanese women.
1. Pedro Costa, ‘A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing’, Rogue. 2004 http://www.rouge.com.au/10/costa_seminar.html
2. Catherine Russell, ‘Flowing: A House of Women’. Naruse: Masters of Cinema series (book accompanying the dvd). London: Eureka, 2005. p.166
3. Catherine Russell, Classical Japanese Cinema Revisited (London: Continuum, 2011) p. 105
4. Catherine Russell, ‘Flowing: A House of Women’. Naruse: Masters of Cinema series (book accompanying the DVD). London: Eureka, 2005. p.151
Flowing (Nagareru 1956 Japan 117 mins)
Prod Co: Toho Co. ltd Prod: Sanezumi Fujimoto Dir: Mikio Naruse Scr: Toshiro Ide & Sumie Tanaka (based on the novel by Aya Koda) Phot: Masao Tamai Music: Ichiro Saito
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Hideko Takamine, Mariko Okada, Haruko Sugimura, Sumiko Kurishima.