When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
1960Director: Mikio Naruse
Cast: Reiko Dan, Masayuki Mori, Hideko Takamine
ikio Naruse was a prolific Japanese director throughout the middle of the twentieth century, responsible for 89 features spread over 38 years. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, one of four films he completed in 1960, is the first of these to see a DVD release in the United States. I was lucky enough to catch the film in a theater last year, where it looked exquisite, but as this is a Criterion disc, the video looks terrific as well.
Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine), known as Mama-san, is an ambitious hostess in a Tokyo bar—not exactly a madame, but more of a teasing caretaker, making sure her girls take good care of the clientele. As referred to in the title, her bar is on the second floor of the building where she works, and thus part of her daily routine is to gaze toward the top of the stairs as she musters the strength to once again face the degradation of serving lustful, drunken boors. She fulfills her work duties well, but would rather not be in thrall to the bar owner and lecherous businessmen. The film focuses on her struggle for independence as she attempts to scrounge the necessary funds from acquaintances and friendly clients to open her own bar.
The story is not far from the generic conventions of what have often been referred to as "women's pictures" or "weepies," but Naruse's directorial intent is more restrained. From the very start, Toshirô Mayuzumi's music sets a rather cool mood via a delightful xylophone score, not dissimilar to that featured in The Odd Couple, which takes on a similar dark yet resilient tone. That isn't to suggest When a Woman Ascends the Stairs lacks drama or climax, but rather that Naruse seems to be favoring individualistic perseverance over deeply emotional sacrifice. Romance tends to be more destructive than rewarding.
Fittingly for a movie that largely steers clear of emotive extremes, Mama-san is most frequently betrayed by those she trusts most. While a congenial co-worker or a friendly client may have the best of intentions, appearing ready to assist her in her struggle for dignity, selfishness wins out and Mama is repeatedly left to fend for herself if she won't go back into the service of one man or another, either financially or through marriage. Mama clings ferociously to what dignity she has left and, in the end, we must hope that alone will be enough to sustain her.
We might also hope that more of the several dozen of Mikio Naruse's films that toured the US last year, as part of his first major retrospective in this country, will make their way to DVD as well.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is now available on DVD.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-03-20