Isuzu Yamada gives the performance of a lifetime as Otsuta (best actress, Kinema Junpo, Blue Ribbon, Mainichi Film Concours Awards), who runs a financially struggling, heavily in-debt geisha house in Tokyo, as the custom fades into history, in Mikio Naruse’s Nagareru, based on Aya Koda’s novel. Yamada is highly particular, delicately nuanced, complex, forceful, sad and moving as Otsuta perseveres, becoming a figure of dramatic irony, like Garbo’s searing Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), insofar as we know her fate when she does not.
Nearly as wonderful as Yamada, Kinuyo Tanaka, indeed a greater actress, plays Rika, who, mourning the loss of spouse and child, and fleeing the provincial strictures of her in-laws, becomes Otsuta’s loyal maid. As such she is called Oharu—for us, Tanaka’s greatest role (The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952): beyond a postmodernist flourish, a distancing device by which Mika becomes the observant, caring outsider who flows in and (as Katsuyo anticipates) will flow out of Tsuta House, an embodiment of Japanese continuity.
Indeed, Naruse begins and ends this beautiful film with shots of a flowing river, boats upon it, in long-shot, moving. Inside this narrative frame there’s little movement, however; rather, static shots from a variety of camera positions accumulate into the suggestion of characters in a boxed-in domain, insulated from the tide of time working against them. Movement comes in dance: Otsuta’s little granddaughter, practicing so that one day she can be a geisha; drunk, having just been jilted by her lover, a geisha brandishing bravado. And movement comes hauntingly: Tsuta House’s former pet cat, on its own, walking a ledge at night.
Hideko Takamine plays Katsuyo, Otsuto’s elder daughter, who practices using a sewing machine. One day she will have to support her mother and herself.
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