Tuesday Editor’s Pick: “Flowing” (1956)

by on April 11, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

2:00, 4:30, 7:00, 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Phillip Lopate in the essay “A Taste of Naruse,”  from Totally, Tragically, Tenderly:

“A delicate, absorbing chamber work about the decline of a geisha house. For the last several minutes the film goes completely without dialogue, alternating shots of the daughter practicing her sewing machine upstairs, the geisha mother supervising her samisen pupils, the elderly maid going about her business … as modern, as contrapuntally abstract, as Resnais’s Muriel or the finale of Antonioni’s The Passenger.”


Keith Uhlich for Slant:

“The drama of Flowing depends heavily on a viewer’s identification with this cinema surrogate; it is Rika’s entrance that permits us a brief glimpse and insight into the geishas’ downward-spiraling existence and it is her implied exit from that world at film’s end that brings down the curtain on what is, finally, a non-narrative slice of life that feels profoundly equivalent to the blink of an eye. In its own way, Flowing is an end-of-days film, a silent apocalypse (charting the last gasps of the old-world geisha class) along the slate-cleansing lines of the Dardenne brothers’ recent work. Yet where a Dardenne film such as The Son is heavily suffused with a sense of the Western Catholic—the movie’s protagonists consistently fearful of speaking the holy, purifying Word of God—Flowing, in its generally muted and mellow tone, feels supremely indebted and connected to Eastern Buddhism’s karmic path toward enlightenment. The key word in any definition of karma is behavior: how we behave in this life (as well as in our previous ones) determines the quality of our future lives.


It is this very sense of the importance of the everyday with which Flowing is primarily concerned (indeed, the examination of behavior via cinema might be posited as the primary thematic obsession of Naruse’s filmography). The geishas drink and fight, obsess over a lack of clients, put off hounding creditors with false promises, and pursue dreams that never come to fruition. Yet above all, they persevere, and the director allows their efforts to build, oftentimes at the pace of life itself, to an unsurprisingly outstanding conclusion. It is here, in Flowing‘s final, nearly silent last passage, where the film’s many mundane actions coalesce and play out as transcendent ritual, while the final lap dissolve to an ever-flowing river suggests a heavenly, hopeful merging of the tragic with the triumphant.”


Pat Graham for the Chicago Reader:

“Brimful and elusive, like the Heraclitean river that forever moves while standing still, Mikio Naruse’s 1956 masterpiece, about a geisha house come on hard times (and not incidentally running athwart modernizing currents in Japanese culture), poises at the indefinable edge of variation and stasis, between evanescent incident and immutable form. Unlike his more famous contemporaries—the traditionalist Ozu, the insular Mizoguchi, the too easily co-opted Kurosawa—Naruse sustained an open-ended relation to contemporary Japanese life, mercilessly clearsighted, and his matter-of-fact juxtapositions of new and old, modern and traditional, tend inevitably toward unsettlement. The largely female cast, including Kinuyo Tanaka, Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, and Haruko Sugimura, comprises an extraordinary ensemble, and Tanaka especially, as the self-effacing housemaid, is remarkable (all the more so since her performance runs strongly against the Western emotional grain). A great film, not to be missed.”


Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

“In both Late Chrysanthemums and Flowing, Naruse favors medium shots and close-ups, thus observing the performers in such minute detail, and sometimes for such extended periods of time, that all awareness of acting disappears. Characters, who seem to be operating autonomously without script or director, are always in process of being discovered by the curious but impassive camera. This extraordinary intimacy makes possible a rare kind of cinema-of-character, comparable only to the films of his contemporary, Yasujiro Ozu, though Naruse’s films are far less gentle and benign.


This intimacy also successfully protects Naruse from being classified as a director of what might be called ‘women’s films.’ Men play subsidiary roles in Flowing. Their absenses – as well as their infidelities and self-interest – are essential to Naruse’s concerns, but the world of his films is so completely realized that they cannot be confined to a gender ghetto.


…Unlike Tennessee Williams, Naruse doesn’t indulge himself in metaphysical poetry. Flowing looks and sounds mundane. The drama grows out of specific, day-to-day problems relating to money, property, lawsuits, bill collectors and family squabbles. The film contains no ‘big’ scenes, no villains, no heroines. It moves effortlessly from one small encounter (usually a disappointing one) to the next to create an immensely moving portrait of anti-heroic endurance.”


Ian Johnston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

“Naruse’s tone is very different from Mizoguchi’s. With Mizoguchi you get the sense, for all his feeling for and empathy with his female characters, that this is the vision of a male director looking in from the outside, and I think that this is an impression reinforced through his style: the long takes with moving camera, the staggered planes of action he creates through his utilisation of the layout of the traditional Japanese house. In Flowing Naruse, in great contrast, refuses to assert an authorial hand; the overt presence of the male director’s eye is withdrawn from the film as much as that of the male characters in general.


For this is the great distinction of Flowing. Male characters, and in particular the geisha’s male clients, have absolutely no role, and the latter make no appearance in the film. Even our entry into the world of the geisha comes through a female character. She is Rika, a widow fallen on hard times who takes on the job of maid in the geisha house. There is surely a hint of the harsher realities of the geisha life here, the interchangeability of the women and their fundamental function as tradable commodities, in the way Rika’s name is casually, for the sake of easier pronunciation, changed to “Oharu”. You can easily come across reviews that point to the fact that this Oharu is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi’s Oharu, and how this must be a referencing on Naruse’s part, but it’s an assumption I’d be very wary of making—especially as the characters and story of Flowing all come from a novel by Aya Koda, who wrote it based on her own experiences in a role similar to that of Rika/Oharu.


The geisha house of Flowing is, then, a house of women, one where no one woman’s story (or one great actress playing her) predominates.”


In commemoration of their 2005 restropective of the director, Film Forum supplies links to Chuck Stephen’s career overview in The Village Voice, and Phillip Lopate’s discussion of  Naruse on the Leonard Lopate Show.


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