Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mikio Naruse's Flowing (AKA A House of Geisha)

Peeking through the wooden screens into a building 
located in one of Kanazawa's geisha districts
- Mikio Naruse, dir.
- Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Hideko Takamine, Haruko Sugimura
In 1956, the Japanese Diet passed a law outlawing prostitution in the country. That same year, Mikio Naruse adapted Aya Koda's autobiographical novel, published the year before, about the females -- all adults, including a couple of middle-aged women, bar for one child -- who reside in a high-ranking Tokyo geisha house that, nonetheless, is obviously in decline and financial straits.
There are hints dropped that at least two of the geisha in the house have slept with men -- but it's hard to tell if they did so because they thought they were in love with the men or for purely professional reasons.  In any case, as with the majority of Naruse's films that I've seen thus far, there's not a single sex scene, nude scene or even kissing scene in Flowing.  
It's worth noting that this drama's primary setting is a house in which geisha live (okiya) rather than one where they entertain their clients (ochaya).  Furthermore, especially after one disgruntled junior geisha permanently departs from it around the same time that a widow named Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka) is hired by the mistress of the household, Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada), to be its maid, there are more non-geisha than active geisha living at there for much of the film.    
Flowing mainly focuses on the trials and travails of senior geisha Otsuta as seen from the sympathetic perspective of Rika, whose name the house's other inhabitants deem too difficult to pronounce and decide instead to call Oharu. (When this is announced, there were gasps from those members of the audience who know that Kinuya Tanaka's best known internationally for portraying the titular character in Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu!) 
A gentle woman with immaculate manners, Rika/Oharu often seems the classiest as well as nicest person in the whole film -- pretty surprising and amazing given her being a domestic servant role and status in a world whose denizens include experienced and trained geishas!  Above everything, she comes across as selfless in a world where many people often are too selfish or, at minimum, self-absorbed (and it's to Kinuyo Tanaka's credit that her character still comes across as big-hearted human rather than unbelievable saint).
It's never mentioned what station in life Rika/Oharu previously held prior to the death of her husband and, sadly, also her son.  If I were to hazard a guess, I'd have thought she was an aristocrat -- except that she also seems very able at doing the household chores that she's tasked with carrying out.  
In contrast, the other women's characters are more straightforward.  Otsuta is a geisha whose talent for doing such as playing the shamisen is not matched by an ability to stand men she doesn't find attractive and also be astute with regards to judging characters and in financial matters, including the operation of the geisha house.  Given geisha training some years earlier, Otsuta's daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine) is like her mother in not being good at flattering men and keeping her opinions to herself -- so had decided that the geisha's life was not for her, only to be unable to find a position in life for herself besides trying to be her mother's defender against those who go against the older woman.

Although she worries about being a financial burden on her mother, at least Katsuyo does more to (try to) help Otsuta than the latter's younger sister Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita), who also lives in the house and spends the bulk of her time looking after young daughter Fujiko or trying in vain to get Fujiko's father (Daisuke Kato) to love them.  And while junior geisha Nanako (Mariko Okada) and the middle-aged Someko (Haruko Sugimura) do go out to entertain clients from time to time, it's not like they're wildly successful at raking in the cash -- with Nanako coming across as on the flighty side and Someko as being on the second-rate side, even if that's not the case in her own mind.

Considering how un-winning many of these personalities are, and it being clear that fortune is not favoring them, time could have dragged by rather than flow smoothly while one viewed the film.  But aided by a stellar cast (many of whom will be familiar faces to those who've seen their share of classic Ozu, etc. as well as Naruse works), the director has fashioned an offering that's actually watchable.  What's more, Flowing turns out to be a thoroughly sensitive look at a female-centric world, one in which women may have lamented their being dependent on men but showed that maybe they'd be better off without the involvement in their lives of some of them!
My rating for this film: 8.0

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