When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Japan 1960)

Takamine Hideko as Keiko, the Mama-san in a Ginza bar.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Japan 1960, dir. Naruse Mikio) has just about everything I could wish for in a movie – a beautiful heroine presented in a B+W ‘Scope melodrama in which she must make almost impossible decisions about how to gain her independence in patriarchal Japan. Whilst the story reminded me very much of Mizoguchi Kenji’s suffering women, the milieu of early 1960s Tokyo was reminiscent of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (also 1960) and Masumura Yasuzo’s A Wife Confesses (1962). However, Naruse’s mise en scène seems less expressionist – or perhaps just more subtle than that of the other three directors. The compositions are careful and usually quite simple and the story is carried by the acting and the use of locations, costume and set design. What impressed me most about the film was the wealth of social detail.

Tokyo in 1960 seems on the cusp of the great leap forward towards the Japanese economic resurgence. The cars on the street are still American and in the bars the brands are British, French or American. Keiko’s apartment is ‘modern’, but her family home in the suburbs by the river could still be part of 1930s Tokyo. The mixing of traditional and modern/Western costume, decor and food tells us a great deal about the characters. Keiko is always dressed traditionally (‘conservatively’, as she tells her mother).

The central premise of the narrative is that the 30 year-old widow Keiko is facing the reality of her situation as a popular hostess (in fact the senior hostess or Mama-san) of a bar in Ginza, Tokyo’s entertainment district. Her options appear to be to set up her own bar or to marry one of her rich clients. She can’t really afford to stand still. Everyone is struggling to make their way in the new world of potential prosperity, so whatever she chooses she will have to face the unpalatable consequences of her actions (e.g. other hostesses who have set up in their own bars have been driven to suicide by the economic pressure involved in borrowing money and repaying the interest). The social context is economically summed up in Keiko’s voiceover in which she tells that at 11.30 each night, 15,000 women in Ginza leave the bars and other places of entertainment. The first-class women take taxis, the second-class take the train to the suburbs and the others go home with their clients.

There are two more Naruse films in the short season in Bradford. I can’t wait.

4 thoughts on “When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Japan 1960)

  1. I enjoyed ’When a Woman Ascends the Stairs’ a lot too.My favourite piece of film from that era, when Japan’s economy turned a corner and the ‘economic miracle’ became a reality, is the first ten minutes of Kon Ichikawa’s ‘Tokyo Olympiad’, from 1964. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYfjWgMjMkwI find the crowd fascinating. What must it have felt like for that generation, to have gone from devastation to this so quickly? Of course there’s a lot of nostalgia for those times in Japan now, just like there’s some nostalgia for the war in ‘When a Woman Ascends the Stairs’. Most of the salaryman ‘snack’ bars in Tokyo now still keep that modernist European ‘afficionado’ look, and play 50s jazz or nostalgic postwar enka music. Back to Naruse, I didn’t expect the voiceover, or the jazz score and titles from him. I’d only seen his 1950s films. Not sure what to make of this, but it seems to beckon some of Japan’s new wave, while looking back at the same time. Not bad for an unassuming studio guy.

  2. Thanks for this, TomI couldn’t get your YouTube link to work, but I did find what I think is the opening to Ichikawa’s film. It makes me want to see the whole thing (although I was momentarily shocked by the shot through the clouds that seemed to echo Triumph of the Will).Trying to remember 1960 and my childhood sense of the world ‘out there’, Japan did not really figure apart from the war stories. Hong Kong was the emergent economy. Everything new I had as a child was ‘Made in Hong Kong’. I think the first Japanese product I bought was probably a cassette recorder in the early 1970s.I’m tempted now to go back to Suzuki Seijun films like Branded to Kill to see how he depicts the cityscape and bars.

  3. Okay, boys – did you notice there was a WOMAN at the centre of this film. I kept thinking of ‘The Women’ whilst watching – but I’m not sure why. (Aside: Meg Ryan in the remake – who else is upset?) Instead of the ‘twisted sister’ play of the earlier Hollywood film (and subsequent) – I thought it delicately explored that combination of bonding and rivalry that women understand, especially in desperate economic circumstances. To live your live in such a compromised way – and still retain dignity. I felt that was her triumph. I agree, it evoked its era, for us now, brilliantly – and a real ability to use sillence and quiet that we all wish was more understood!

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