WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (Mikio Naruse, 1960)

Mikio Naruse makes fine, sensible films; Mother (Okaasan, 1952) and Late Chrysanthemums (Bangiku, 1954) are lovely achievements. (Regrettably, I haven’t seen what is generally considered Naruse’s masterpiece: Floating CloudsUkigumo, 1955.) When a Woman Ascends the StairsOnna ga kaidan wo agaru toki—is the most interesting and finely realized of these three works, although (because of Kinuyo Tanaka’s superb acting) Mother may be the most deeply affecting.

Keiko Yashiro is the hostess at a Tokyo bar bordering the Ginza district, Bar Carton, where she is called “Mama” by the geishas and other workers. Scenarist Ryuzo Kikushima and Naruse have given their kind, gracious thirty-year-old protagonist a delayed entrance—at least as a visible presence. The film opens with Keiko, but only as voiceover accompanying a shot of commercial streets: “On late autumn afternoons, bars near the Ginza are like girls without makeup.” The beaming face of the nighttime come-on hasn’t been put on yet. Inside Bar Carton, staff members discuss marriage. “Mama” hasn’t arrived yet, but she is expected. Once again, because she telephones to say she will be a bit late, however, she is there in a sense, but only as a voice—and in this case, as a voice we do not hear. Twice now, Keiko has been abstracted, kept out of our view. The next cut reverses the scene of the telephone conversation that has just ended. We are with Keiko in her flat, and the sequence of shots implies that each domain, bar and home, is the other’s extension. Two men are present: the owner of the bar, and Kenichi Komatsu, the twentysomething business manager. The owner is threatening to replace Keiko as hostess because, as the manager later puts it, “business is bad.” The owner blames this on Keiko’s unwillingness to “put out” or “go all-out.” Keiko, this implies, doesn’t make herself sexually available to bar patrons, too many of whom, as a result, take their business elsewhere. Naruse use of irony is poignant and pointed; before she materializes in order to be berated (rendered speechless, as it were), she is merely a voice, to underscore the fact that she has so little voice in her own life. (There is something especially galling, even obscene, about the fact that the bar owner addresses Keiko as “Mama” even as he threatens to fire her.) To be sure, Keiko denies customers sex because she isn’t inclined to be promiscuous and hopes to retain some measure of dignity. Her principal motive, though, is to exercise at least this much self-determination in a life that is so overwhelmingly determined by others and by circumstances beyond her control. “Not go all out?” she tells Kenichi on her way to work. “I can’t stand liquor, and I drink a lot!”

Periodically Keiko’s voiceover subjectively interrupts Naruse’s otherwise objective film. Her disembodied voice, however, has its own kind of objectivity, not only expressing her world-weariness—this is the subjective component—but also providing an overview of the lives of the women and girls who work in bars: “Around midnight, Tokyo’s 16,000 bar women go home. The best go home by car. Second-rate ones by streetcar. The worst go home with their customers.”

Keiko’s most memorable utterance in the film’s voiceover introduces an image that becomes a recurrent motif, punctuating the difficult process by which Keiko earns a living: “After it gets dark, I have to climb the stairs [to the bar], and that’s what I hate. But once I’m up, I can take whatever happens.” The image shows Keiko’s feet as they ascend the stairs, her first steps hesitant; once Keiko has arrived at work, there is a cut to her sociable smile. Before the film is over, one of the shots of this woman ascending the stairs will prove devastating. The image ultimately translates perseverance into defeat.

In some ways Naruse’s film recalls Federico Fellini’s then-recent Nights of Cabiria (1956), about a prostitute, Cabiria, who dreams of marriage as a way out of her work predicament, a certification of her being loved, and an advance into some form of respectability. (The name of one of the other bars in Naruse’s film is Cabiria.) The possibility of marriage is introduced in the opening scene inside the bar, and Keiko herself feels she is at a crossroads where she must choose between marriage and the upgrading of her current, unfulfilling lifestyle by somehow becoming the owner of a bar. Twice in the course of the film the prospect of marriage looms, but the reality proves for her as elusive and illusory as it does for Fellini’s Cabiria. It turns out that one of her suitors is already married and not the factory owner that he has pretended to impress her; and, adding insult to injury, his wife informs Keiko that he has proposed marriage in this way to many women! These revelations lead Keiko to a binge, in the course of which she makes love with a banker—a client she actually loves and who loves her. Alas, he is married and too whatever to leave wife and family for her, and the bank has transferred him out of Tokyo as well. I find these two woeful occurrences, one leading to the next, farfetched; but it doesn’t damage the film because I do not take them literally. Rather, I see them combinately as an indication of the remoteness of the possibility of marriage for women in Keiko’s line of work. Compounding the injury that Keiko suffers is Kenichi’s adolescent response. Having long been secretly in love with her (by which I mean he hasn’t even let her in on the secret), Kenichi goes ballistic after Keiko has had sex with the banker, telling her he has lost all respect for her. There is something powerfully absurd about the spectacle of this boy assaulting Keiko with this loss of feeling for her when he never declared his love for her in the first place. Perhaps he had imagined himself her lover and thus now feels betrayed, having confused his fantasies with reality. Kenichi’s outpouring of disaffection is an (intentionally, intriguingly) infuriating moment. Men, generally, are galling in this film!

Meanwhile, Keiko’s efforts to secure funding in order to buy a local bar that’s for sale likewise end in failure when one of the “barmaids” at Bar Carton, either in her teens or twenties, buys the property herself. By pursuing marriage, Keiko has ended up with neither of the choices that might have improved her lot in life.

For me, what is most remarkable about When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is its sense that Keiko cannot simply live her life but must painstakingly craft it every bit of the way. It is close to exhausting watching her put so much effort into getting by, and on top of that being variously misunderstood and overrelied-upon by mother, ne’er-do-well brother, would-be lovers and others. Unlike Fellini, Naruse somehow escapes portraying his protagonist as a victim. His precise film is all about the coping, and about how women in Japanese society—for I do think that Naruse is reaching for a wider reference than bar hostesses and geishas—must negotiate the hard, limited choices at their disposal.

Certainly it is not a perfect film. Except for the shots that correlate to the film’s title, the mise-en-scène is fairly prosaic. Hideko Takamine is adequate in the lead role, but no more than that. (Tatsuya Nakadai, however, is excellent as Kenichi.) A whiff of sentimentality seeps into the film’s last movement. The black-and-white cinematography by Masao Tamai isn’t particularly compelling. But all this weighs little against the film’s discipline, restraint, intelligence and thematic purpose. This is that rare movie that provides a view of a person’s life from the inside out.

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