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).


Tanaka, Yamada and Takamine are three of the greatest actresses in the history of Japanese cinema. Alone, they are frequently extraordinary. Together, they form--with the rest of the cast--a brilliant ensemble.

But it is Naruse’s quiet, understated compassion and surgically precise craft that make “Flowing” a masterpiece. This film, so seemingly unassertive, apparently rambling and plotless, has a devastating impact and aftershock. At the end, in a series of wordless tableaux of the fallen house, we feel we have penetrated to the heart and soul of these women--straight to their dreams, lies, griefs and fates. We are face to face with humanity in extremis: a serenely tragic unveiling that would make “Flowing” a treasure in any era.

‘FLOWING’ An East-West Classics presentation of a Toho Company Ltd. production. Director Mikio Naruse. Script Sumie Tanaka, Toshiro Ide. Camera Masao Tamai. Music Ichiro Saito. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Hideko Takamine, Haruko Sugimara, Seiji Miyagachi, Daisuke Kato.

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.