Flowing - Mikio Naruse - Toho
Credit: Letterboxd
by Patrick Preziosi Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Flowing — Mikio Naruse

August 19, 2022

The titles of Mikio Naruse’s films were once baroque mouthfuls (Three Sisters With Maiden Hearts, Wife Be Like a Rose!), but as his own filmmaking shed the vestiges of controlled, if extraneous, flourishes, his nomenclature adopted a similarly simplistic descriptiveness: Floating Clouds, Scattered Clouds, The Other Woman, Hit and Run, Wife, Yearning. Flowing (1956), however, may be the most summative, for both film and director. The oft-parroted quote from Akira Kurosawa about his peer’s capabilities speaks of a placid surface and a torrid underside, which, while true, does a disservice to the impossibly natural rhythm a Naruse film possesses. The more violent undercurrent doesn’t shatter these sparkling and unassuming exteriors; instead, various narrative tributaries run their course and pool within one another.

Anticipating the equally precarious and masterful multifacetedness of later films like Summer Clouds (1958) and Daughters, Wives and a Mother (1960), Flowing maintains a geisha house in shitamachi as a locus of activity, inhabitants, customers, relatives, competitors, and neighbors traipsing through in a lazily endless loop. The actual particulars of the plot are so inextricable from one another that an elevator-pitch style synopsis is mostly pointless, though Naruse’s perennial concern for the exigencies of intergenerational capital is the great unifier, even if it’s disarmingly inexpressive (as Dan Sallitt writes, “All these characters react to crises, but the reaction is not transformative.”) The geisha house of madame Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada) is on the decline as Japanese modernity continually asserts itself, and money, in its various guises, branches itself across her immediate family and staff (Hideo Takamine as her disaffected daughter, Kinuyo Tanaka as the new maid Oharu, Mariko Okada and Haruko Sugimura as the remaining geisha of this once sturdy enterprise), with Naruse abstaining from ensemble-wide resolution, cataloging instead variegated personal improvements and complications.

Much of Flowing builds from rippling one-on-one interactions, the crowdedness of the house often dispelling any notion of privacy as more participants are drawn into a conversation, Naruse’s staging often plucking a character from the background, nudging them into focus: typically, one conversant will occupy the foreground and the other the middle, the eavesdropper gradually materializing. The precision of the editing, isolating muted though loaded reaction shots, emphasizes the unsurety of the all too near future, as well as the necessity of preserving routine, the most tenable reminder of erstwhile comforts and stability.

More than a collection of vingette-like scenes, Naruse deceptively structures the film around the perspective of Oharu, which is perpetually familiarizing itself with the immediate environment — in fact, Tanaka is the first actor to grace the screen, and the geisha house only appears once she’s standing in front of it; we as viewers follow her inside. An arbiter of detachment, Oharu anchors us to the clientele-bereft house, her own efficiency running contrary to the distended air of sloth that pervades. Otsuta’s sister, Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita), is a self-professed “freeloader” who also claims that she’s treated like a maid, a ludicrous statement that momentarily and visibly dents Oharu’s unassuming visage, now colored with emotions bordering on anger.

In keeping with this general permeability of personal boundaries, the soundtrack wends its way through and around the house, exhibiting even more kinetic movement than the almost entirely static camera does. An interstitial exterior shot of children playing with sparklers in the alleyway (as ported over from 1941’s Hideko the Bus Conductor) sustains itself with just perceptible crackling once Naruse moves back indoors; Otsuta’s first-floor shamisen classes can be heard from the second floor, and her daughter’s upstairs sewing machine can be heard from below; then, when the daughter explains that she’s taken on work as a subcontract sewer, Otsuta shushes her, for fear of the neighbors hearing. This embarrassment is imaginary, however, yet another fossilized habit of more lucrative times. The house belongs to a distinctly working-class milieu, subsisting more off contact with surrounding businesses than actual clients. At one point, the restaurant next door passes over a bowl of soba noodles, so that the women can placate a pigheaded police officer.

The existentialism of aging in an industry hinged on beauty registers subtly, in redirected attentions toward business acumen (if you yourself are seeing clients no longer, than you must guarantee the flow of money), and most notably in Sugimara’s performance. Her character cleverly never remarks on her age, even as her compatriots are comparatively obsessed; she is, however, almost always perched at her mirror, running straight to it after arriving home, eating tempura as she gazes at herself. A wonderful “drunk” actor, Sugimara delivers a shattering confluence of Flowing’s various undercurrents of age, money, class, gender: arriving home after an anomalously successful business night, she wavers between inebriated celebration and near-sickness. One of the only discernible camera movements across the entire film comes in this scene, following Sugimara’s dancing, before promptly settling itself as she approaches vomiting. Every modest accomplishment is tailed by a disruption; “disappointment” is too subjective a term, considering how much the outside world naturally intercedes in Naruse’s cinema.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.