1933 could be argued as Naruse’s best year. He only made two films, this one, and Apart From You (Kimi to wakarete) but they’re both masterpieces and the first really big steps for one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers. While he is doing something that is stylistically different from his work in the 40s, let alone his more acclaimed films of the 50s and 60s he is still working in primary Naruse territory. While this ends up being one of his darkest portraits, but even with such a dark tone, Naruse doesn’t sacrifice any of his trademark grace. At only 66 minutes, some might, on the surface, see this as not enough time to fully flesh out the characters, but in practice, this is one of Naruse’s richest films.
Sumiko Kurishima stars here and her presence is indicative of Naruse’s progress as a filmmaker. At the time, Kurishima was one of Japan’s biggest stars, billed as the “Queen of Katama” in reference to Shochiku Katama Studios. Her star status would fade with the years and she retired from acting in 1938 but returned in 1956 to appear in Naruse’s Flowing. Here she plays a bar hostess named Omitsu, we’re introduced to her as she returns to her cities. She’s been looking for more “honest” work but has yet to find anything and she’s immediately greeted by the patrons who frequent the bars. The camera followers her (not literally) back to her home life with her son. She gets help raising him from her neighbors.
Omitsu is blindsided by the return of her husband, Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito of I Was Born But… and Japanese Girls at the Harbor fame) who despite the couple’s split wants to make things work for the benefit of her son. Omitsu resists this idea at first, but as she’s in the process of throwing Mizuhara out, she has a change of heart and welcomes him back into her life. This doesn’t make things any easier, though. He helps with their son, but he struggles to find a job, with every opportunity ends up being another dead end. As Omitsu remains the only person earning money, he tries to persuade her into a new profession.
I read a review complaining that Naruse is covering old territory here, which from that argument even takes into account how early it was in his career. This is the dumbest reason to dismiss a film ever. Naruse frequently used women who were sex-workers because they all had individual stories to tell. They’re not all the same and saying so implies both a complete lack of interest from the viewer (which I think might have been the case with this reviewer) and casual misogyny. I say this as someone who spends probably too much time watching Naruse, but to see this film as just a retread of familiar territory is gross and wrong.
Omitsu’s story ends up being the most tragic of all of Naruse’s protagonist, bordering on Mizoguchi’s “feminisuto” with its tragic elements. The difference would be the tragedy is never in Omitsu herself. There is still hope for her, although the film does not provide an uplifting moment of realization for her. Such a sentiment would be cheap, unearned, and go against the grain of what Naruse works towards for the entire film. As many have observed about most of Naruse’s work, we’re confronted here with an oppressive life that isn’t simplistic: it’s reoccurring and mundane. It’s living from day to day.
There’s a little deviation from the aforementioned attitude here since Naruse provides a bit more drama than usual. It comes off as a bit more intense in this scenario because Naruse’s technique is far off from the relaxed and professional manner one associates with him. Here, he is quite experimental and there is plenty of “technical vitality” in the camera’s movements. The average shot is four seconds long and those four seconds are usually pseudo-tracking zooming shots that recreate the sensation of receiving unbelievable news. This is certainly applicable here, where Omitsu is caught off guard by both her husband’s return and a violent accident involving her son towards the film’s conclusion. This could be seen as just sensationalistic on Naruse’s part, especially when it’s followed up with Mizuhara committing robbery and then suicide. In the film’s crazy final minutes, Omitsu comes to the relations, that she’s all alone again taking care of her son.
This film feels differently than the other films I would put on a Naruse “best of” short list (this film goes on such a list, for the record) mostly because of the hyperactive camera. It seems to mesh well with the film’s short running time, perhaps a result of a more kinetic cinematic style. It makes for a truly unique experience, one that anticipates the characters and emotions Naruse would continue to deal with, but presented in a manner that is far different from his best-remembered period of work.