When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (女が階段を上る時 )

女が階段を上る時 (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)

2 March 2008

I didn’t know much about this film, but when I went to the Naruse section for more of his recent re-releases (see 放浪記 above), the title caught my eye. Also, the star was again Takamine Hideko, who’s been fantastic in the movies I’ve seen so far. So I grabbed it.

Takamine plays Keiko, the mama-san of a Ginza hostess bar in the late 1950s. In an image repeated many times throughout the film, we first see her climbing the narrow stairs to her establishment, a dreary ritual that she says in an overdub that she hates. Nevertheless, she notes that, once she’s up, she can handle anything. She was widowed quite young and at age 30 is standing dangerously on the brink of her sell-date. But she has pledged chastity to her late husband and is intent on maintaining respectability, adamantly refusing to mix sexually with the wealthy businessmen who patronize the bar. She stands up for the old values, for example continuing to wear a kimono unlike the Western dress of other hostesses. Her dream is to open her own place in Ginza, which would give her independence. But for that she would need a patron – and such patrons would be hard to come by without sexual favors. Meanwhile, her boss is complaining that she is losing business, and indeed several of her hostesses quit and steal her customers. Pressured by the expenses of keeping up a good front (perfumes, kimonos and such), falling revenues, the day-to-day grind of the business and family medical needs, she gradually allows her high morals to slip away. She agrees to marry an unattractive but seemingly wealthy customer, only to find (after sleeping with him) that he is already married and not wealthy at all. In despair, she gets drunk and sleeps with another customer, a bank executive who actually is well-off and does love her but reveals (after the fact) that he is being transferred to Osaka and cannot break up with his family. Then her young manager, who has silently always loved her, slaps her and criticizes her sharply for abandoning her self-respect. He finally admits his feelings for her and begs her to marry him, but she refuses. Presumably, she was willing to give up her chastity vows for money but not love. In the film’s final scene, we see Keiko, now compromised, not any younger and still without either a husband or her own bar, climbing the stairs once again and entering the bar with chin up, clearly determined to push on somehow.

The film is unsentimental in its portrayal of its characters but not entirely unsympathetic. Keiko in particular is prone to making the worst possible decisions, but her choices are always understandable. Her desire to retain her dignity against all odds is impressive even though we sense at all times the futility of it all. In the balance between respectability and the practical needs of the post-war world, especially for a woman of a certain age, she is at least fighting a noble if doomed battle. The recurring image of the footsteps going up the stairs may be a symbol either of futility or perseverance. At the end, I think the film leans towards the latter. This is a much more encouraging ending than 放浪記, where the writer was slumped over her desk exhausted as if she is simply going to be carried along. Keiko seems more determined, and there is a sense that somehow she’ll get by.

Takamine turns in another flawless performance. She’s always seems to me something of a skeptic in Naruse films, but she conveys an appealing inner strength in the face of her (generally self-inflicted) woes, very much in tune with Naruse’s apparent view of the world. Innocence and naiveté wouldn’t work here, but we still need to sympathize with the character, and she does it just right. One rare moment of her losing control is the drunk scene after her betrayal by the married guy, a scene that is exceptionally well handled. This could have easily lapsed into sentimentality, but she and the director kept an ideal balance. The surrounding performances were again superb, with the standouts this time being the men, especially her young manager and the bank executive who’s transferred to Osaka. The former (Nakadai Tatsuya) had a mumbling way of speaking that was irritating, but maybe that’s the way foreigners feel about Marlon Brando. In any case, he was utterly convincing in his big scene towards the end when he berates Keiko, then confesses his feelings for her. He had been the silent watchful type up to that point, and the explosion here was justified. Also memorable was the married guy who bags Keiko and disappears, a bumbling boob role that initially recalled his part in 放浪記 but proved startling different.

Naruse’s cynicism and focus on the downtrodden have become pretty obvious to me by now, but somehow his films aren’t depressing. There’s always a feeling that his characters will make it in the end, which is at least a testament to the human spirit. Having seen the recent film of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, I’d have to say that Naruse seems a more tolerant misanthrope. Sondheim’s shows in general end with a period, whereas Naruse ends with an ellipsis. Positive person that I am, I prefer the latter. When I’m in the right mood, I’d definitely like to see more of his work.

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