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Flowing: Architecture

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    Ugetsu

    One thing that makes Japanese films unique for me is the way Japanese film makers use the traditional Japanese house or temple as the basic framework for their films. Ozu in particular uses the geometry and angles of the traditional Japanese house incredibly well to frame his actors. And Ozu of course was famous for his use of buildings and structures as visual markers for his films – those smoking chimney stacks, chaotic electricity lines all hanging off a drooping pole, banal lines of post war suburban houses, etc. – all of which fix his films in a very specific period, even down to a few years. You could accurately trace the physical recovery of post war Tokyo just by looking at Ozu films, one at a time.

    Kurosawa of course had a great eye for a good setting. His immediate post war films made great use of the ruins of Japanese cities both as dramatic backgrounds, and also almost as living characters within his films. I love the way Stray Dog, Drunken Angel and One Wonderful Sunday in particular made fantastic use of the ruins and jerrybuilt housing after the war as sets. In his slightly later films, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low make great use of the rapidly growing industrial slums.

    But with Flowing, while the sets are very carefully constructed, and very ‘realistically’ so – the shabby furniture, the mix of nicely laid out formal rooms, but chaotic living quarters – what is noticeable I think is how timeless it is. By ‘timeless’ I mean that the Geisha House could as easily been from 1856 as 1956 – despite the fact that the story is clearly and unambiguously set in contemporary post war Japan. The streets are all lined with traditional timber framed houses, the only concrete buildings we see are in the far distance (when the daughter goes walking by the river, for example), or the faintly seen outlines of electric overhead apparatus for a train in the far background of the upper story of the geisha house. The only modern feature we really see are cars in the far background of the street – they never penetrate the street. Cabs are called, but we only see rickshaws. I don’t think it can be said to be an anti-technology thing, because so much of the film revolves around the telephone.

    Is there a possible reason for this? I know that Geisha houses would have been in the traditional old quarters of the city anyway, so maybe this is just a reflection on this. But in similar settings in other films, the old streets are often dwarfed by big concrete hulks of buildings in the background – this isn’t the case in Flowing. Is he making some sort of visual point about the characters being stuck in an old, disappearing world?

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    Vili Maunula

    Is he making some sort of visual point about the characters being stuck in an old, disappearing world?

    I see it a little differently. Rather that the characters stuck in an old world, I would say that their tradition-based world is actually being invaded by the modern world.

    In addition to the telephone, the camera in fact captures quite a few modern devices. I think I saw an electronic kitchen apparatus or two in the background, a fan, a television and a radio, and then of course there is the scene where one of the geisha is massaging herself with an electronic massager. No particular attention is drawn to these things, but they are there. The world around them is changing.

    Yet, this is not depicted as a bad thing, even if it may ultimately cost the geisha their livelihood. Rather, it seems something that is natural, with no point in trying to fight it any more than fighting the fact that each year comes with new trends in kimono fabrics that the girls need to adapt to. The film’s title appears to be absolutely packed with multiple meanings, and one interpretation could well be the “flowing” of time, history and traditions, the constant movement and change that they produce.

    Having said this, however, there is at least one instance in which the characters really seem to be stuck in an old world. At the end of the film the geisha of the house criticise the new type of geisha, which they deem cheap and unskilled. Yet, this may simply be an instance of the geisha trade as a whole changing, with our characters unable to keep up with those changes. This may well also be one reason for why the house is struggling financially.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    see it a little differently. Rather that the characters stuck in an old world, I would say that their tradition-based world is actually being invaded by the modern world.

    Yes, I’d forgotten how many modern devices there are in the house. I’d certainly forgotten about the electronic massager – or I wonder was this a sly reference the alternative uses of such a device, one that would have made the geisha even more independent from men?)

    I wonder if Naruse was seeking to show the modern devices as a sort of cancer, eating away at the world from within? While Ozu showed the modern world as something ‘outside’ his characters – electricity poles, smoking chimneys, ugly new blocks, and Kurosawa loved to show the contrasts – men in western gangster zoot suits kneeling, or kimono clad women grooving to jazz – Naruse seems to show an older Japanese world, with technology worming its way into it through its initial usefulness.

    I wonder if there is a significance to the scene where the policeman visits, and Oharu is urged to get noodles, but not to phone for them, instead to whisper the request over the back wall? Is he saying that the old fashioned way of personal request is somehow more discreet than a telephoned request? That somehow it shows more respect to the policeman that his noodles were ordered in person?

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I wonder if Naruse was seeking to show the modern devices as a sort of cancer, eating away at the world from within?

    For that, I think the devices would need to be shown to have some kind of a negative impact on the characters or their world, which I don’t think is the case in the film.

    Ugetsu: I wonder if there is a significance to the scene where the policeman visits, and Oharu is urged to get noodles, but not to phone for them, instead to whisper the request over the back wall? Is he saying that the old fashioned way of personal request is somehow more discreet than a telephoned request? That somehow it shows more respect to the policeman that his noodles were ordered in person?

    My impression is that Oharu was told not to use the phone because they wanted to trick the policeman into staying a little longer. The phone is placed in the hall where anyone could hear the conversation, and had the policeman heard that they were ordering noodles for him, he could have politely refused the noodles while they were being ordered, while it is far more difficult to say no if you are actually handed a cup of noodles. Having said that, I don’t remember now how that particular scene actually ends. Did the policeman actually get his noodles?

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    My impression is that Oharu was told not to use the phone because they wanted to trick the policeman into staying a little longer. The phone is placed in the hall where anyone could hear the conversation, and had the policeman heard that they were ordering noodles for him, he could have politely refused the noodles while they were being ordered, while it is far more difficult to say no if you are actually handed a cup of noodles. Having said that, I don’t remember now how that particular scene actually ends. Did the policeman actually get his noodles?

    In the end, he doesn’t get his noodles. I agree with you that the initial reason for not telephoning was to give the policeman was to butter him up by giving the impression that the noodles just magically appear despite the late hour. It just seems more logical that the scene stops at that – Oharu going off screen. But the (rather charming) little moment where she has to clamber up a back fence to whisper to the guys in the noodle shop behind the geisha house does seem an uncharacteristically long winded aside for Naruse. So I was wondering if he was trying to make a point over it.

    Again, perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it occurred to me that the characters often seemed ruder and more direct than is normal for Japanese when on the phone – I was thinking that Naruse was perhaps making a little point about how the phone undermines communication – if he was making a film today perhaps he’d have the characters ignoring other people while busy texting……

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said,

    ” In the end, he doesn’t get his noodles.”

    Just back from Asia, I head the following anecdote in Vietnam as relevant to the ordering of “Pho” (pronounced “fur”) -a kind of Vietnamese National Noodle Soup after dark.

    “A wife is like rice. Everyday. But sometimes, something more interesting may be noodle. A man who orders “noodles” after dark is asking for something other than his wife. A gentleman does not say “noodles” after dark.”

    `story told by our guide at the 17th parallel.

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