Naruse’s FLOWING (1956): The Fall of a Geisha Household

5 Oct

The more films by Mikio Naruse I see, the more I feel he belongs in the pantheon of great Japanese directors alongside the three I have long considered the best: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. While all three have made films about contemporary life on the ground as lived by ordinary Japanese, whether in Tokyo or the provinces, Naruse seems to have visited this theme most frequently and, in my opinion, most effectively, especially in his 39 postwar films. I’ve seen 17 of his films, 14 of them in the past three years. I was especially moved by the one I’ve most recently seen, FLOWING (NAGARERU, 1956), which follows a group of women in Tsuta House, a once-renowned geisha company in Tokyo going through serious decline as it faces bankruptcy after some bad decisions by its owner and head geisha, Otsuta. We see the off-duty day-to-day life of these women chiefly through the eyes of a new maid, a housewife and widow sent by an employment agency. The maid turns out to be very resourceful and eager to fill various unmet needs and she soon becomes indispensable.

The cast is filled with high-powered Japanese actresses, led by Kinuyo Tanaka, above, who plays the maid and is blithely dubbed “Oharu” by the Madame, who doesn’t like her real name (Rika Yamanaka), so Oharu is what she’s called throughout the film.

This is no doubt a reference to one of Ms. Tanaka’s most famous roles, the title character in Mizoguchi’s THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952), in which she played a former lady-in-waiting at the imperial court who is exiled and falls on hard times, as seen here:

Isuzu Yamada, who plays Otsuta, had a long career in Japanese movies and was most active from 1930 to 1970, playing the female lead in several films for Kurosawa, including THRONE OF BLOOD, and also working for Ozu, Mizoguchi and Masaki Kobayashi, among many others.

Hideko Takamine, the actress most associated with Naruse and star of a dozen films for him over a period of 24 years, plays Otsuta’s daughter, Katsuyo, who worked briefly as a geisha but found herself unsuited to it. She now settles for training for a sewing machinist’s job.

Mariko Okada, a busy actress at Toho Pictures in the 1950s and noted for playing the duplicitous Akemi, one of Toshiro Mifune’s leading ladies in the SAMURAI trilogy, plays Nanako, the pretty young geisha most in demand from Tsuta House. As of this writing, she’s also the only living actress from this group.

Haruko Sugimura, one of Ozu’s repertory company and one of Japan’s busiest character actresses in the postwar era, plays Someka, an aging geisha who owes money to everyone and sometimes drinks too much.

Chieko Nakakita plays Yoneko, another member of the household and mother of a young geisha trainee, Fujiko, although I’m not entirely sure how she’s related to Otsuta. (IMDB says she’s Otsuta’s sister, but that didn’t seem clear to me, since characters in such settings often refer to each other as “onee-san” or “big sister.”) Nakakita worked frequently for Naruse, but also with Kurosawa a number of times. She was the female lead in the latter’s ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY (1947).

Sumiko Kurishima, the oldest female member of the cast, plays Ohama Mizuno, an official with the geisha guild and former mentor to Otsuta and, at times, possibly a rival, although this is only hinted at. Kurishima, born in 1902, was active in films from 1921 to 1938 and, according to IMDB, made only this film after that. I was previously unfamiliar with her, but IMDB describes her as “the first female Japanese film star.” She evidently brought some historical significance to the role.

Natsuko Kahara plays Otoyo, who is clearly identified as Otsuta’s older sibling and laments many of Otsuta’s decisions.  A busy character actress in the postwar era, she also worked for Ozu and Kurosawa.

There are only three significant male supporting characters. Two of them cause major problems for the women. The worst is the unnamed uncle of Namie, a geisha who walks out on Tsuta House early in the film after complaining of being cheated out of wages. (There is no actress credited with the role of Namie on IMDB.) This uncle, played by venerable character actor Seiji Miyaguchi, below, keeps showing up to demand Namie’s back pay and is so insistent that they have to call the police on him.

Then there’s Daisuke Kato, another great Japanese character actor, who plays the father of Yoneko’s child, a man who refuses to take responsibility and won’t even enter the house during his one meeting with Yoneko to see his own child when she’s sick.

(Interestingly, both Kato and Miyaguchi played members of the heroic title band in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI, 1954.)

Finally, there’s the one nice guy in the film, Mr. Seiki, who is the single nephew of Ms. Mizuno. Seiki helps the women negotiate with the uncle to get him off their backs and at one point shows an interest in Katsuyo and she in him. Ultimately, however, other than Seiki’s interventions at two key points, there are no male saviors or benefactors to effect a permanent rescue of Tsuta House from its worsening situation. IMDB doesn’t identify the actor who plays Seiki.

Naruse doesn’t make social statements like Mizoguchi, nor does he set his characters against clearly defined social traditions the way Ozu does. Nor is he interested in creating grand dramas of life and death and bold action in the face of crisis like Kurosawa. He just shows us characters on the margins and lets their stress-filled lives unfold, moment by moment, before our eyes. He parcels out clues to the women’s characters and backgrounds as the film progresses, but only gives us pieces of the picture, never the whole thing. Many of them have clearly made bad choices and are suffering the consequences when we first meet them. Otsuta, for instance, was taken in by a lover who swindled her and ran out, forcing her to mortgage the place to Otoyo, all of which happened before the events of the film. We do see Otoyo try to persuade Otsuta to take up with a rich industrialist who shows interest in her and is seen only briefly, but Otsuta refuses.

Katsuyo also avoids taking an easy way out, chiefly out of loyalty to her mother. She seems the most tragic figure in all of this, because she’s young, beautiful, intelligent and straightforward, but nurses no ambitions for herself other than getting a menial sewing job so she can support herself and her mother when her mother retires. Resigned to her fate, she doesn’t see marriage as an option. Is this a failure of confidence or an honest acceptance of reality and a sincere desire not to burden anyone else with her and her mother’s problems? Personally, I think Seiki would have been a good match for her since he’s fully aware of her background and the world of Tsuta House and is similarly honest and straightforward in his dealings with all of them, as well as being essentially a decent man who would see that everyone was taken care of. But it’s Katsuyo’s choice and she has her reasons, articulated in a long conversation with Seiki during a walk along the river. In a Naruse movie, that’s what matters.

Nanako, the one with the most potential, gets the best bookings but wastes an evening with an ex-lover who turns out to be “stingy” and “down on his luck,” and comes back with nothing to show for it. She soon leaves Tsuta House for greener pastures, the one member of the group most likely to find them.

Someka, well past her prime, keeps sponging off Tsuta House and contines to angle for bookings, until she lashes out at Tsuta in a drunken tirade only to apologize a day or so later and return to the fold.

Overall, the women of Tsuta House, while not oblivious to their impending plunge into bankruptcy, remain willful and impulsive to the end. Nor does Naruse seem to mind. He seems to like women like this.

Interestingly, we never see any actual geisha activity with clients, only its preparation and sometimes drunken aftermath.

They set quite an example for Fujiko.

Oharu, as played by Tanaka, is the most intriguing character because she seems to live for something outside of herself. She consistently puts others’ needs before her own–or at least seems to. For me, the big question of the film is why she stays at Tsuta House. We see her arrive early on, sent by an employment agency to take the maid’s job. They put her to work right away and she happily complies, leading Otsuta to offer her room and board and 3000 yen a month. It soon becomes obvious to Oharu that the house is deeply in debt. On her first trip to the neighborhood grocer, she is confronted by a demand that the outstanding bill be paid before they send any more food supplies. As a new employee, she begs ignorance and the grocer gives her a portion of her order as a courtesy. But it must clearly dawn on Oharu that they have no money to pay her if they can’t even pay the grocery bill.

Yet she plunges ahead, eager to please and always so formal that the family members start to complain about it. However, when certain kinds of help are needed, she inserts herself to save the day, deftly deflecting Namie’s uncle, for instance, when he first appears at the house.

When the little girl, Fujiko, gets sick, Oharu is the only one who knows how to gently cajole her into allowing the doctor to give her a shot. She eventually proves to be the only member of the household who fully engages with Fujiko.

We gradually get intriguing glimpses of Oharu’s back story. She tells Katsuyo at one point that she was just “an ordinary housewife.” Her husband and child are now dead, although we are told no more than that. Late in the film, she reveals that she left her husband’s hometown to get away from the constraints of his family.

Why does she stay at Tsuta House even though it’s clear by the end that only she recognizes that it will all come to an end? My guess is that she feels needed and that gives her some comfort that she might not have had in her life since the deaths of her husband and child. She also gradually becomes one of the family and can give some of them moral support and sustenance when they need it, particularly Katsuyo. She may also be fascinated by their lifestyle. A plain woman in her forties, she marvels at the women’s beauty and their lovely kimonos. This is something she would not have experienced in her small town. In some way, perhaps, her own self-interest is served by working for this geisha house.

Finally, I found an interesting descriptive passage of the concluding scene from this film in The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Expanded Edition), by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (Princeton University Press, 1982). I’m not so sure of the thoughts that the authors put inside the heads of two of the characters, and I’d balk at referrring to Oharu (played by then-45-year-old Tanaka) as “elderly,” but the final paragraph offers a brilliant sum-up of what makes Naruse a master filmmaker:

In the extremely fine conclusion to Flowing, only the elderly maid knows what will happen in the geisha house where she works. The others continue as they always have. The daughter, who will never again try to escape, happily works her sewing machine. The mother, filled with hopes for the future, practices her samisen. And in a long, unfolding final sequence, a kind of coda completely without dialogue, Naruse shows that their ignorance of approaching doom, their fortunate innocence, constitute a kind of beauty, a kind of strength. Happiness is impossible but contentment may yet be achieved.

It is the honesty with which Naruse treats his theme that commands our respect; it is his faithfulness to this theme which creates his style; and it is our suspicion that, painful though it be, he is telling the truth, that creates his greatness.

[ADDENDUM: Since posting this, I’ve discovered an excellent essay on Naruse called “A Taste for Naruse,” by Phillip Lopate and originally published in Film Quarterly in its Summer 1986 issue and later included in a collection of Lopate’s essays on cinema, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies (1998).]

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