Although Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) was a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, he never received the same kind of international recognition. His subject matter, dramas about women, are perhaps not as flashy or as noble as the masterworks of Kurosawa; nor are they as stylistically pure as the work of Ozu; but When a Woman Ascends the Stairs clearly reveals just how great a humanist Naruse was. For Naruse the essential nature of cinema lay in its ability to illuminate the interior life of humankind, and Naruse’s prime candidates for this interior life (not unlike Pedro AlmodíÂ³var) were those women forced, for one reason or another, to make fundamental ethical choices in life.
The film is set in Japan’s post-war Ginza district, where unmarried women had few choices: either work in a bar, getting paid to flirt with drunken men, or open a bar of their own. While the issue of outright prostitution is never overtly signaled it remains a potential undercurrent in what effectively is a complete and seemingly successful commodification of a particular kind of erotic femininity; a vision of womanhood where every gesture is studied, where the color of one kimono may affect a night’s turnover. Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a popular hostess at one bar, watches as her younger colleagues leave for other jobs, drawing all the customers away. Keiko is still beautiful, but the suggestion is that it’s time for her to open her own bar before she gets outmaneuvered by a younger, more giggly set of hostesses. The trouble is, to raise money, she has to suck up to her wealthy male patrons. As the film opens, she ascends the stairs to the bar, explaining in voiceover how much she loathes it. Naruse paints Keiko as the remnant of a traditional Japan in which honour and dignity carry their own erotic charge; the problem, the narrative seems to indicate, is that such ideals are rapidly vanishing in an increasingly modernized and commercialized Japan. Surrounded by booze, the lights of the red light district, and vacuous men – who seek to be flattered above all – Keiko remains sober and business-like in her dealings with both patrons and working girls.
While Naruse’s style is not dissimilar to that of Ozu – straight on, long shots – Naruse focuses more overtly on the visual dichotomy between the stifling decorum of the interiors and the hustle and bustle of exterior Japan. In one of the rare moments when Keiko is allowed outside the bar (in an attempt to solicit payment from overdue customers) we see her crossing a bridge, the promise of travel, modernity and perhaps even freedom lurking somewhere in an otherwise gray and industrialized distance. The psychological realism that Hideko Takamine brings to the role is done with such self-assurance that, paradoxically, the viewer tends to forget that she is acting. The paradox is that Keiko is ‘acting’, not only in cinematic but also in gender terms. Her faí§ade of subservient femininity is such that she cannot even admit to a vow of chastity made to her late husband; it has to be implied rather than spoken of. Femininity, Naruse seems to indicate, is always a carefully elicited performance for Japanese women and ultimately something which they must maintain a constant awareness of through emotional checks and balances. Keiko – we soon realize – is alone, with all odds stacked against her; but she keeps trying, she keeps retaking the scene, she keeps ascending the stairs.
In this sense, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs qualifies above all as a modest, graceful masterpiece. Considering it is from 1959 Hideko Takamine’s performance is remarkably fresh and modern. A veteran of 17 Naruse films, Takamine seems to perfectly capture the melancholy sense of a postwar Japan unsure about its path from imperialist traditionalist society to something ambiguously modern. The film follows this ambiguity through its overall design; the cool jazz music both roots the film in an arena of Americanized 1950s capitalism (as do the beehives and dresses of many of the working girls) and yet Keiko remains modestly dressed in kimonos. The black-and-white widescreen photography, with its slanting signs, screens, and the repeated motif of the steps that she has to ascend, fit Naruse’s appreciation for life’s quiet disappointments and hardships. In metaphorical terms, Naruse not only stresses the importance of taking one step at a time but the fact that the visualization of this process is crucial for an understanding of his characters’ psychology.
Similarly, although the film is shot in ‘Scope widescreen, Naruse’s compositions are far from luxurious; the extended horizontal framing emphasizes the congested interiors and enclosed spaces of the film and Keiko is rarely alone as she constantly attempts to placate both her male patrons and her female superiors and employees. The only singular element, in this respect, is the spare voiceover of Keiko, astonishingly in control whilst also wistful and evocative; it is – in other words – the voice of a woman who understands the inevitability of her situation even though it appears partly self-created.
It would appear obvious in this respect, to compare the roughly contemporaneous ‘women’s pictures’ directed by Douglas Sirk in America and Rainer W. Fassbinder later in Germany with Naruse’s work. Their similarities and differences are intriguing: both focus on social pressures and domestic disillusionment but Naruse’s focus is distinctly quiet vis-íÂ -vis Sirk’s melodrama, and internally painful where Fassbinder would probably externalize.
The plight of Keiko in Stairs dramatizes the fact that we are probably all to some extent stuck in the roles both given to and adopted by us, but such a statement belies the courage Naruse endows Keiko with. When asked if she’s lonely sometimes, she says, ‘Sure, but I have a brandy and go to sleep. That kind of fever soon passes.’ In public she glides as if on a conveyor of endless evenings and flattery, and yet she is also allowed to become painfully drunk in one sequence with disastrous and yet predictable results. A shot of Keiko (distraught and at her absolute lowest) vomiting blood at her club moves to a lazy tugboat pulling into a rural harbor, to Keiko seemingly safe and snug in her mother’s home, recovering. The stairs motif is similarly subtle and yet very obviously signals the painful attempt to ascend as a woman in postwar Japan. The final frames show a persevering Keiko. She may be slowly retracing the very steps that bind her to a life of misery, but in Naruse’s vision she is also the closest we have to an authentic heroine.