Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 28 November 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Categories Flowing: The Films of Mikio Naruse
I hated climbing those stairs more than anything. But once I was up, I would take each day as it came.
Few directors have captured the major theme of their work so succinctly as Mikio Naruse does in the image suggested by the title of his late masterpiece, When a Women Ascends the Stairs. On its surface, the title denotes Keiko’s daily climb up the stairs to the cocktail bar in the Ginza where she works, a place of casual entertainment for wealthy (often married) businessmen. But it also suggests something of the habituation of this activity, its endless repetition, and the way in which this action of going to work becomes, for Keiko, a ritual, even though she tells us she hates it. Furthermore, and perhaps most characteristic of Naruse, the title is also open-ended and seemingly unresolved — we do not know exactly what happens when this woman ascends these stairs or what will become of her.
What usually becomes of such women is neatly sketched in the first scene of the film. After a brief series of shots establishing what the Ginza — Tokyo’s shopping and entertainment district — looks like by day, the camera follows the sound of laughter into the Lilac Bar, where a group of hostesses are having a little farewell get-together for one of their former co-workers. Miyuki has just married, and her new husband is taking her away from Tokyo to live the quieter, more protected life of the housewife, and her friends at the bar are throwing her a small party, complete with a little gentle teasing. “You got married in a church, so kiss like foreigners do,” orders the ebullient, westernized Junko, embarrassing the new groom, while Tomoko, an older, kimono’d woman notes, “Marriage is what every woman wants.” But Junko objects: “Not me. I’m going to save some money and open my own place.” Such are the options for the women of the Ginza — marriage or owning one’s own cocktail bar — and it will be the lot of all the female characters in this film, but most especially for the protagonist Keiko, to vacillate (or else be batted) between these extremes of security, domesticity, and possible doldrums on the one hand and independence and potential moral and financial disaster on the other.
One of the great strengths of Naruse’s film — and doubtless a contributing factor to its popularity in the West — is how fully it renders the world of the Ginza and its place in the increasingly modern society of Tokyo in the early 1960s. Indeed, the film almost presages the work of Shohei Imamura in its near-ethnographic interest, drawing us into the backrooms of the cocktail bars and the intimate, chaotic secrets of the hostesses through the confidential, expository tone of Keiko’s voiceover. With the help of an artfully built screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima (who scripted many of Kurosawa’s most expertly crafted mid-period films, like Stray Dog, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low), Naruse evokes a subculture that would likely be almost as new to his original audience as it is to us, while grounding it in many of the familiar tropes of his other “women’s pictures.”
Naruse’s Ginza is not the serpentine heterocosm that is Mizoguchi’s Yoshiwara in Street of Shame. For one thing, the woman’s role in each is utterly different — businessman’s entertainer in the former, prostitute in the latter. But Naruse naturally depicts his setting in far less garish and assaulting ways than Mizoguchi does his. For the Ginza is not, like Mizoguchi’s Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s dark side. Rather it is a mere extension of Tokyo’s system of commerce. It is a professional playground for businessmen, their colleagues, and their clients, and as such is integrated into the corporate culture and, by extension, into the free economic life of the city. The women to be found up those stairways - their beauty, their cordiality, and their entertainment - are all commodities for exchange in this social marketplace—they are merely one such commodity to be located and purchased in a bustling shopping district.
Naruse, in his approach to this culture, is not as militant as younger directors (like Imamura, in those films he would make some years after this picture), nor even as horrified as Mizoguchi seems to be in the final, close-up shot of Street of Shame, in which a young prostitute, a mixture of timidity and performed salaciousness on her face, solicits her first customer. For Naruse, and in the person of his favorite actress, Hideko Takamine, Keiko is another resilient woman, enduring in her required social role while facing economic collapse and humiliation at every turn, attempting to negotiate these pitfalls to achieve ends that, for most of the film, we can only guess at. Indeed, Keiko refers to herself and every aspect of her life as a performance, a kind of advertisement to her clients that broadcasts an imagined life of luxury, class, and even moral probity. “My rent is 30,000 yen, a lot for one person,” she admits. “But for us Ginza hostesses, an apartment’s a fashionable accessory, just like expensive clothes and perfume.” The Ginza hostess’ life is totally penetrated by the commercial life and aspirations of the city and it requires a thorough and convincing performance of this occupation at all times. (This is tersely summarized in a still-life shot from Keiko’s glamorous bachelorette pad, featuring an abacus, a pile of bills, and a fuzzy mink handbag. Keiko herself is most frequently symbolized by her much-discussed plain, but expensive kimonos, for which the actress Hideko Takamine herself is credited.) But the image the hostess presents of herself also requires a degree of emotional and sexual restraint, lest the hostess lose her well-cultivated sense of poise and charm. “Between 11:30 and midnight, the Ginza’s 16,000 hostesses head home in droves,” Keiko at one point narrates. “The best go by cab, the second-rate take the train, and the worst go off with their customers.”
The resident “Mama” of this and one subsequent cocktail bar in the film, Keiko falls somewhere in between the extremes represented by Junko and Tomoko: she is neither as mercenary and single-minded as the former, and lacks the fallback home-life of the older, latter woman. Just where Keiko’s fortunes lie (or may lie) is succinctly illustrated in an early scene at the club in which Naruse provides for us a kind of who’s who of Mama’s affections: Sekine (played by the jolly, near-ubiquitous character actor Daisuke Katô), a kindly fat man whose offer of tempura the next day she makes up a flimsy excuse to avoid; Goda (another veteran Japanese actor, Ganjiro Nakamura, of Ozu’s second Floating Weeds film, among others), a wealthy old man from Osaka whose offer of dinner she tentatively accepts; and Fujisaki, (the great Masayuki Mori, looking even more refined and dapper than usual) the handsome banker whose invitation she accepts with wide-eyed, girlish affection. Lurking in the background at all times, however is Komatsu (yet another Japanese acting heavyweight, much later Kurosawa’s lead actor in both Kagemusha and Ran), the suave, all-business cocktail bar manager who observes all of this from a professional distance — but with a personal interest that’s not difficult to detect.
The scene presents a lot to take in, but Naruse deftly constructs it out of what passes as mere chatter among the other hostesses, as they set a wager on who will win Mama’s heart. Their money, like ours, is on the dashing Fujisaki, and in some ways, they will be right, although not in a way that’s expected. As this is a film that so explicitly deals with the maintenance of one’s appearance, even under great strain, none of these characters is quite what he seems, and it is Keiko’s unenviable task throughout the film to learn of their weaknesses, their dissimulations, and their varying unsuitability. The old man, Goda, proves the easiest to discard: he offers Keiko money to open her own bar with the rather crass proviso that she stays with him whenever he visits Tokyo. It’s an offer that Keiko cannot ignore (nor one that she ever gets the chance to firmly turn down), but it’s certainly unappealing to her rectitude. Nonetheless, it inspires her to find alternate means of financing for her own establishment (based on a series of “subscriptions” from select clients), which she very nearly carries out.
But just as she becomes beset by various economic troubles of her family at home which are now bubbling to the surface, there appears a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a marriage proposal from the benevolent, if slightly dull Sekine. For better or worse, Keiko sees in Sekine an opportunity to return to the security of married life — a state of comfort she hasn’t known since her much-missed former husband died in an accident some years before. As is inadvertently suggested by at least one character, Sekine is not unlike her dead husband — like him, he is chubby and therefore also presumably a nice man. But there is a sense from the beginning that this man and his affability are not enough for Mama — maybe even that her husband, if he were still alive, might not be enough. As it turns out, however, all of this is moot: Sekine is not as benign (nor as available) as he seems, and their brief engagement comes to a rather dispiriting end.
With the prospect of marriage once again quashed, Keiko returns to her idea of starting up her own business, but even these ambitions are derailed by the news of the suicide of her former employee and recent club owner Yuri. Weighted down by debts incurred in the opening of her cocktail bar, Yuri professes to Keiko that she will feign a suicide attempt, but this feigned attempt - accidentally or no - becomes a successful one. Devastated by this, Keiko becomes more than a little doubtful of her prospects as a bar owner and equivocates on her new idea. Now seemingly without the chance of marriage or the courage to venture out financially on her own, Keiko is stuck—still floating between the two unachievable goals of marriage and entrepreneurship presented by Tomoko and Junko at the beginning of the film.
And even Mr. Fujisaki - the film’s Prince (Deceptively) Charming - proves too weak to save her. Following a night of heavy drinking, Fujisaki takes Keiko home and (rather coercively) seduces her. She claims not to regret it in the morning (she’s still quite in love with him), but she tearfully relates a dream she has just had of her husband returning home, bearing gifts: “potatoes, onions, and radishes.” The simplicity of the gesture - a far cry from the Black Narcissus perfume that Sekine plied her with - touches her and reminds her of a life of more modest pleasures, vegetables which seemed like luxuries in the postwar years, and not the burdensome extravagances that make up her hostesses’ uniform. “I love you,” she tells Fujisaki. “But I’d prefer a husband.” But naturally, Fujisaki cannot be one to her. He claims to love her as well, but by his own admission he lacks the courage to break up his home for her. And in any case, he’s being transferred to Osaka, and although he didn’t tell her this before, this night of passion was his rather craven and selfish farewell.
This leaves Keiko utterly bereft, with no means of financial or romantic escape. Furthermore, her indiscretion with Fujisaki - easily sussed out by the jealous and vindictive Komatsu - has caused her to break her own rules: she has renounced her polished moral and professional standing for a cheap night of sex and an unseemly display of emotion. Komatsu now castigates the broken Keiko, pettily chastising her for degrading his beatific vision of her as a symbol of sublime womanhood, but she throws this back at him. She could never love him, she tells him, and though Komatsu may seem to us Keiko’s only hope against destitution and misery, we sense that this is true. For all his faults and hypocrisy, Komatsu is a good man, but he represents nothing to Keiko so much as the Ginza itself and suggests nothing of the escape from it that she so ardently longs for.
And so, with each of the men in her life deserting or disappointing her, Keiko seems to be just where she started, putting on a brave face for her clients, while secretly longing for something more than evenings of drunken manhandling by selfish, unsympathetic businessmen. It is a devastatingly equivocal denouement even for Naruse, and once again we sense that it is desire alone - always unfulfilled, always for something just out of reach - that propels his protagonist forward, even as it consistently disappoints them. Throughout When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Naruse is constantly cutting into closeups of Hideko Takamine’s face, persistently seeking out the layers of emotion, hurt, and ambiguity that lie beneath her refined, composed exterior. But his final closeup finds something else: a Keiko with the expertly beautiful and welcoming smile of a Ginza hostess fixed upon her face. Once again, she has ascended the stairs and is back at the cocktail bar, and her smile is fixed and unwavering. As at the beginning of the film, she will take each day as it comes and will wear this same impenetrable smile, her most essential professional accessory.
Wife! Be Like a Rose!1935
Older Brother, Younger Sister1953
The Sound of the Mountain1954
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs1960