Eastern Premise #42 – Nagareru

This week Jason Julier takes a look at Mikio Naruse’s Nagareru (aka Falling).

Last week I finally ventured into the ‘golden age’ of Japanese cinema, where many of most revered directors co-existed, delivering some of their most memorable films. With Eastern Premise to date I’ve skirted around this era, which delivers ‘shock and awe’ when I reflect upon the fine films during this rich period.

Last week marked the debut of Kenji Mizoguchi with a geisha House as his focus in Uwasa No Onna and the female fight for recognition and survival. This week sees another director debuting in Eastern Premise with his own geisha film, a topic he tackled more than once across his vast and varied filmography.  A director that was active from the early 1930’s of Japanese silent cinema right through until the experimental and ground breaking 1960’s. Yes, finally, we’re talking about Mikio Naruse.

Nagareru, or Flowing in English, unfolds with a series of tranquil shots of river life. This opening sequence brings back memories of a quote from a fellow director, the great Akira Kurosawa, who suggested that the style of Naruse is ‘like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths’. Set around a traditional Tokyo geisha house and the interactions within, Flowing has many similarities with last week’s Uwasa No Onna. There is a sense of change and the traditional ways of the geisha making way for the more liberal services for hire. Their very existence is under threat and the offer of pleasant company, music, dance and food is no long enough in this developing world. The financial struggle to survive is evident from the first few moments with staff complaining about wages, local sellers demanding overdue payments and the message that everyone is finding the going tough in post-war Japan.

There is a wonderful sense of symmetry as the film opens and closes on the same note, even utilising an almost identical tranquil camera shot. As the title suggests there is a relentless dynamic at work and in Flowing the unstoppable force is daily life. We are invited through the claustrophobic city streets, following the widow Rika as she looks for work. In effect this feeling of being confined runs throughout the film, as Naruse avoids the outside world deliberately. Even when we are granted a brief respite to venture out into Tokyo, it is only onto the alleyways and maze-like warrens of these ancient streets. When inside the geisha house we are treated like a guest, able to explore the numerous rooms freely and granted a position at the head of the table. This signature approach from Naruse draws you into the storyline; you feel at one with the actors, who exploit their freedom to produce some notable performances.

With Rika finding employment in the traditional geisha house as a maid for a pittance, she is delighted and able to finally support herself. To find any form of work however meagre in a difficult economic period seems cause for celebration. This is the backdrop that we can all identify with today and the inhabitants of the house aren’t trying to better themselves, they are content merely to survive with the brief moment of happiness. Through Rika we are introduced to the various factions within the house and the fear of their imminent extinction. Filmed in 1956, Flowing was based upon a novel by Koda Aya, and the real-life backdrop of prostitution becoming illegal in Japan.

The middle-aged mistress Tsutayakko is a proud woman; a believer in the traditional geisha ways. Her daughter Katsuyo does not share her enthusiasm to follow her mother despite her beauty and having trained to be a geisha herself. Katsuyo shuns the logical career path even though you suspect she would prove immensely popular and could alone turn the business around. To her credit Katsuyo is a tireless worker, unafraid of manual work by attempting to become a seamstress. Tsutayakko continues to struggle on a daily basis, calling in favours or loans from former patrons and family. The house is extremely desirable and her key asset even if it is mortgaged to the hilt. Suitors are aware of the situation and their suggestions range from a hotel to restaurant or brothel as they circle relentlessly, waiting for the traditionalists to give in to the force of modern change.

Rika is the central character and she remains faithful to the house even when offered better employment elsewhere. She has not only lost her husband, but also carries the memories of her deceased offspring heavily on her consciousness. Through the course of the film the inhabitants of the house grow to become her new family; trusting her judgement and advice, appreciating her moments of kindness. Even the simplest actions such as the offering of delicious sweet rolls not only confirm her generosity but also how difficult times really are.

The temptation to proclaim about film ‘movements’ or which director trumps another is difficult and must be resisted; we should, after all, be grateful that such films exist today and still have the an emotional power within. This, the most visible of film genres outside of Japan, deals with the interactions of families and their daily lives, is one dominated by the work of Yasujiro Ozu. Yet I find myself preferring the efforts of Mikio Naruse as I venture further into his filmography. While the subject matter is often shared, Naruse displays more of an edge even though he was a salaried studio director throughout his career as well.

We have Masters of Cinema to thank for bringing the work of Naruse to the UK in the form of a wonderful three film DVD box set complete with an epic book. Sadly now out of print it is worth tracking down and comes with the usual informative introduction for each film. We will return again to Naruse during the Eastern Premise journey as his work deserves more of the spotlight.          

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