Flowing (Nagareru, Japan 1956)

A music lesson in the geisha house. The maid standing in the background is played by the marvelous Tanaka Kinuyo

Flowing is a Naruse Mikio film – a Toho melodrama from the mid-1950s set in the world of the geisha houses of Tokyo. It’s an ensemble piece with many familiar faces amongst the women including Tanaka Kinuyo, Takamine Hideko and Sugimura Haruko. The title at first appears to refer to the river which flows through the Tokyo district in which the geisha house is located, but quickly we realise that the river shots are just one of Naruse’s equivalents of those cutaways to views of the city or the streets that Ozu was so fond of. Instead, ‘flowing’ probably refers to the ‘flow’ of daily life in the geisha house.

Although the narratives are different, this film has a similar setting to Mizoguchi’s Uwasa no onna (1954). I wondered in reviewing that film who the audience was for these ‘quality pictures’ that are in essence similar to modern soaps or drama series. I wish there had been a ‘Reception Studies’ culture in Japanese universities in the 1950s. I can only assume that a female and possibly middle-class and middle-aged audience was the target. Because this is Naruse rather than Mizoguchi, the story does not have the same melodrama overdrive and is much closer to that sense of “accepting the problems that life brings”. So, although there are small triumphs along the way, we leave the geisha house at the end much as we found it at the beginning – but in between we learn plenty about the daily life of the house, something about the lives of the women and their relationships and an awful lot about the economics of the business and why it is failing. 1956 saw changes in the laws on prostitution in Japan which changed the position of the geisha house profoundly. The likely fate of the house in the film is to become a ‘hotel’ or a restaurant – it is a respectable house, but perhaps it will eventually become a brothel.

In no way is this hard work as the direction is masterly and the performances are superb. This is a Masters of Cinema DVD so it includes is a useful separate discussion of the film by two American critic-fans.

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