Mikio Naruse's "Flowing" (at the Fox International, Venice) is another classic by one of Japan's greatest film makers, an evocation of the disintegrating world of a group of Tokyo geishas. It transports us effortlessly to their special world, imbues us with their private sorrows and public radiance.
"Flowing" was released in Japan in 1956, the year prostitution first became illegal there. It charts--with all of Naruse's seamless skill and bitter clarity--the slow degeneration of the house of an old, proud woman, Isuzu Yamada (of Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood") as Tsutayakko. Tsutayakko--majestically composed on the surface, somewhat silly and self-deluding underneath--was a great geisha; now she has to scramble for a living. Her house, named Tsuya after her, is in jeopardy, mortgaged to her mercenary older sister. And some of her geishas are lazy, rebellious, or even corrupt, like the young country girl whose account cheating triggers Tsuya's final collapse.
Slowly, delicately, we watch the decay of the house of Tsuya. We see it through the eyes of two other women: daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine of "Floating Clouds") and a lower-class maid, Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka of "Ugetsu"). Katsuyo is modern, impatient, even a little intolerant of her mother's foibles and delusions. Oharu is far more benevolent and self-abnegating. She observes everything quietly--the only character who sees all sides. In this world of fragile beauty and deteriorating grace, her omniscience seems both ironic (because of her lowly station) and inevitable (because of her masters' illusions).