Running time: 117 mins.
Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
Mikio Naruse's 1956 film "Flowing" may very well be the definition of a "women's" picture. Naruse is, of course, known for his films that dealt with women's issues of the times and that contained strong and sympathetic female leads, but "Flowing" tackles a broader set of problems faced by women in the post war environment. While focusing on the lives of several women who live and work in a geisha house, the film examines each of its characters in greater and greater detail while shunting any male presence to the side (there are several male characters in the film, but each is relatively minor). But can these women survive without men as companions and providers? The geisha business is starting to dry up (the story is set right around the time that prostitution was being made illegal in Japan), each woman is without a man for different reasons and their options seem few and far between. If the film posits that there existence will be far more difficult without a man in their lives, it certainly isn't happy about that state of affairs.
Otsuta is the caretaker of Tsuta, a well-known and respectable geisha house that is falling on hard times. She owes a large sum of money to her elder sister, is being pursued by a former geisha's father for additional money he believes she owes his daughter and business is slowing. The story begins as a new maid named Oharu (renamed from Rika by Otsuta since her real name was too hard to pronounce) arrives at the house and, even though she may be somewhat older than typical candidates, immediately ingratiates herself and brings a sweetness and humanity to the premises. She's recently lost her husband and son and is simply trying to find her own life outside of her husband's relatives. Otsuta's daughter Katsuyo (played by the radiant Hideko Takamine) also lives in the house, but even though she was initially trained as a geisha, she never quite made it into the business - her personality refuses to allow her to pretend to like someone she can't stand (a necessary evil in their line of business). She's protective of her mother and seeks to figure out a way to help out with money (money is a major source of conflict throughout the film). Otsuta's younger sister Yoneko also lives there (after a failed relationship) and her young daughter is slowly being trained in the ways of a geisha. The other geishas have their troubles too (Someka owes money to Otsuta's older sister as well and is in a difficult relationship with a younger man while Nanako is being taken advantage of by an old boyfriend) and all seem quite self-centered and searching for some pity.
Except for Oharu and Katsuyo that is. Much of the story is told through their eyes as they glance at and watch the other women. They both help out when Yoneko's daughter is sick with a fever - more than Yoneko does herself (she seems completely disengaged with her and life in general) - and don't offer up their problems to others. The main plot is centered around Otsuta's need to pay back her sister and the eventual help she receives from a former employer and member of the geisha guild, but in between those scenes is an assortment of other moments in all their lives - visits from former lovers, requests for their geisha services (though never anything showing them performing their duties for their customers), moments with their cat, etc. Life seems to go on whether or not these women have their issues and the frequent shots of the river nearby emphasize that theme. Katsuyo knows that she can't simply remain a guest in the house without contributing some money to the cause and has begun looking for work. While she worries about her mother's capacity to keep the business afloat, her mother worries about her working a menial job. No one seems to be concerned with Oharu working as a maid though.
What makes the film work is the interactions between these characters - more information about their lives comes across and each has additional bits added to their personalities as the individual stories progress. As well, each actress is wonderful with a special nod going to Isuzu Yamada as Otsuta. She has the greatest range of emotions (concerned mother, calm business woman, younger sister showing deference, etc.) and plays each in a very subtle manner. To play the geishas, the actresses actually spent time with some of the real women on which writer Aya Koda based her novel and gathered up particular mannerisms for use during the typical geisha activities they would practice in the house (dancing, singing or shamisen playing). Naruse seems to deftly handle the mix of characters and scenes to pull together a picture of the opportunities that women faced a decade after the war had ended. With the art of the geisha receding as a high volume service, these women faced few opportunities going forward and it's a genuinely moving moment when they wonder if they can actually make it on their own or whether they must become dependent on a man. The flow of life continues onward, though, and it seems fairly oblivious to their personal problems.
Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.