Leisurely in its development of a multi-branched narrative, FLOWING gradually becomes deeply impressive through an accumulation of observations and perspectives. The film depicts a declining geisha house whose mistress Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada) tries to fend off the onslaught of modernity; the arrival of a supernaturally efficient middle-aged maid named Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka, superb) is used by Naruse and writers Toshiro Ide and Sumie Tanaka (adapting from a novel by Aya Koda, who also provided the material for Ichikawa’s BROTHER) less to advance the action than to inflect the film with a detached viewpoint.
The star-studded ensemble is organized around four characters – in addition to the two already mentioned, Otsuta’s discontent daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine), who keeps the house’s books, and the aging Someka (Haruko Sugimura), the most vulnerable of the geisha – whose inner lives are set into vibration by story events. And at the end they’re all vibrating hard, so that every corner of the geisha house seems to be leaking mystery. All these characters react to crises, but the reaction is not transformative: it simply reveals an underlying despair, and Naruse’s main interest is in observing the characters as they reassemble themselves. In the enigmatic case of Oharu, we see just enough of the human being beneath the persona that we are forced to reinterpret her flawless demeanor as an effective and somewhat detached performance, to cover what we presume are the effects of an unhappy earlier life. Ultimately she will seem to have made no strong human connection to the people she has helped so much. Of the more psychologically accessible characters, Katsuyo is especially unusual: hardened to the point of criminality (she almost certainly is intentionally shortchanging the employees, causing much of the house’s trouble), but ashamed of her hardness because she identifies with the geisha tradition she rejected, and therefore paralyzed in her life decisions.
Outside this circle of dissolution and rehabilitation are a number of supporting characters who, though they basically remain integral and never lose a layer of psychic protection like the primary roles, are vividly drawn. Chieko Nakahita turns in a striking gestural performance as Otsuta’s idle younger sister Yoneko, giving the impression of impersonating a cat. And Sumiko Kurishima, the star of EVERY NIGHT DREAMS and Ozu’s WHAT DID THE LADY FORGET?, is wonderful as Otsuta’s sensible business friend whose sympathy is finally mitigated by hard economics. Kurishima had become the head of a dance school during her nearly twenty-year absence from the screen, and the film gives her an excellent and convincing scene as a dance teacher. According to the IMDb, FLOWING is her last credit; her scaled-down, precise performance gives no indication that she learned her craft as a star of Japanese silent cinema.
One of the film’s best scenes, in which Yoneko’s little daughter Fujiko (Natsuko Matsuyama) must get an injection, shows off Naruse’s skill at using decoupage to shift emphasis. The move to closeups when Oharu takes over the job of calming the girl does the thematic work of giving proof of the maid’s credentials; the final closeup of the ineffectual Yoneko recoiling from the needle, a reaction set up a few seconds earlier, has the completely different effect of unbalancing the scene, giving an ominous spin to content that could have been seen as comforting. But FLOWING’s most powerful interlude, a beautifully lit afternoon shamisen jam, is saved for the ending. A new generation of geisha is in the wings, and Otsuya, so often in denial throughout the movie, gives a calm, masterful musical performance before her young and rapt audience, reaffirming the traditions that give her life meaning. And yet the scene is suffused with the sad certainty that the trend of dissolution cannot be reversed.