When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) movie poster

(1960) dir. Mikio Naruse
viewed: 05/30/07

I have a friend who is a passionate afficianado of Mikio Naruse after having seen a series of his films played locally at the Pacific Film Archives and has been particuarly rapturous in her love for his films.  Naurse is obscure in the West, particularly in the US, where other Japanese filmmakers of his period have been distributed and screened, but for some reason, his work never was given much access.  When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is one of his few films to have seen release here, apparantly via Janus films, and assumingly, with the re-release on Criterion of major Janus films, celebrating their 50th anniversary, is why this film is now available on DVD.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s the first of Naruse’s films that I have seen, and with my friend’s description and what I have read, is all I had to really go on as far as knowledge and expectation.  Naruse is noted for working in the “working-class drama” genre, which is definitely different from their closest American peer, the family melodrama, but at the same time seems to have some parallels.  His films are often compared to Yasujiro Ozu (Early Spring (1956)), who also worked within this similar cultural landscape, but maybe that is just because Ozu is better known here.  I do not claim to know.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is an urban story, that of a bar hostess, a job that for a Western audience needs definition (a woman’s profession of entertaining men at specific bars, having patrons, but typcially are non-sexual, neither geishas or prostitutes) because it’s not something widely known about here, but is apparantly still a staple of Japanese culture.  The film is critical of a woman’s chances and opportunities, not so much of the role of a bar hostess itself, but of the fact that there are not many other options for an intelligent, single woman to do to earn a living in the Tokyo of the time, in the paternalistic culture of Japan.  As far as social criticism goes, it’s poignant, though sometimes a bit obvious.

There is a beauty about the film, both in the cinematography and in the style of the performances.  I liked very much seeing a glimpse of 1960 Tokyo, literally, with the several location shots of the city.  Hideko Takamine is lovely in her role as the “good” bar hostess, above most of the petty shortcomings of her peers and also chaste.  The film does seek and achieve a realism that is both literal and emotional.

I am again drawn to the comparison between the American melodrama and the “working-class drama” of Japan.  I am thinking of several films that I saw in a class that I had that spent some time focusing on this period in American film.  There are distinct differences, for sure, but seem like there are many interesting comparison points, especially in their social critiques and pessimism, hidden beneath a surface of simple emotional drama and storytelling.

I’d hardly judge Naruse by a single film, but this was different than I had anticipated.  I certainly hope for the opportunity to see others of his films and hope that I don’t have to wait for another PFA exhibit to get such an opportunity.

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