May 26, 2008
Adapted from the novel by postwar author Aya Koda (the daughter of Meiji-era novelist Koda Rohan) and filmed in the same year as the banning of prostitution in Japan, Mikio Naruse's Flowing is something of a corollary to Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame, a complex and richly textured panorama capturing a transforming way of life within a community of women whose increasingly uncertain livelihood depended on the patronage of men. This idea of place as transitional station is suggested in the establishing shots of a river, then a pedestrian bridge that is subsequently reinforced in the intersecting image of disgruntled junior geisha, Namie leaving her place of employment, the Tsuta House in Tokyo's geisha district (for what would turn out to be a permanent departure), as a middle-aged widow, Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka) arrives at the same location to apply for the job as a housemaid - the sense of a changing, but steady dynamic created by their coincidental role reversal as resident and outsider. Despite running a highly respected establishment, owner and senior geisha Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada) is facing hard times, having fallen into debt to her older sister, Otoyo (Natsuko Kahara), a money lender who took on the mortgage of the house in order to settle the debt of Otsuta's wayward lover. With fewer and fewer geishas under her management (including a fellow middle-aged geisha and neighbor, Someka (Haruko Sugimura) who has turned to her to arrange bookings), her daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine) choosing not to follow in her mother's footstep in favor of finding employment outside of the industry, her younger sister Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita) moving back home with her daughter Fujiko after being spurned by her lover (Daisuke Katô), Namie's boorish uncle (Seiji Miyaguchi) threatening to sully the house's reputation when she refuses to pay him Namie's disputed back wages, and Otoya increasingly interfering in her affairs by arranging meetings with prospective clients without her consent, Otoyo is forced to turn to her former colleague, now a society matron, Mizuno, for assistance in restructuring the business that would allow Tsuta House to continue its operation (and perhaps, leave a legacy for young Fujiko) - an alliance that would also have wide-reaching consequences for the household. Similar to Late Chrysanthemums, transactions serve as a surrogate for the women's emotional interdependency: Mizuno's brokered financial assistance from Otsuta's former patron; the medical expense money offered by Yoneko's former lover when Fujiko falls ill; Someka's dispute over earnings that surfaces after separating from her younger lover. Like the assorted treats that Rika buys on a whim for her surrogate family, the enduring parting image of Otsuta and Someka's shamisen performance before their respectful apprentices - and the entire household - becomes a delicate savoring of the present, a bittersweet taste of transitory bliss.