When A Woman Ascends The Stairs Review
The subject matter of Mikio Naruse’s 1960 film is a familiar one. Like many of his films, the perspective of modern Japanese society is seen through the eyes of a woman - their trials, disappointments and betrayals that are their inevitable lot in a patriarchal society. Typically in Naruse’s films, but particularly in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs - the title referring to the continuing, unending and uphill struggle that the lead character has to endure every single day whether she wants to or not - the women never bemoan their fate, but struggle to deal with it the best they can.
The central figure who makes this daily journey to the top of the stairs where she works at a hostess bar in the Ginza district is Keiko. She is known to all as mama-san, as she is the head hostess in the bar. She’s proud of her position and the profession manner in which she deals with her clients, all prestigious and successful business men, refusing to let one person monopolise her time, but treating them all with equal attention. There are many pitfalls for a woman in her position, particularly for one who is unwilling to take on an exclusive wealthy patron, and Keiko’s business is declining in favour of others who are willing to place themselves in the hands of others, and be more intimate in their relations with the men who frequent their establishments.
There are however only two routes open to a woman in Keiko’s position – either to marry a wealthy man, or open her own hostess bar. Running one’s own business might sound like the ideal arrangement, but in order to finance such an enterprise Keiko would still be forced to rely on the patronage of one of the clients in love with her and agree to be a mistress or kept woman. Keiko is unwilling to take this route – she has seen what happens to other women who have attempted to advance themselves through this route, and it has ended in ruin and suicide. Applying her best professional stance and treating them all equally – as much to keep her own independence – she attempts to build up a partnership of clients, hoping they will agree to finance a hostess bar between them. But there are further setbacks for Keiko along the way.
The circumstances of Keiko and her hostess bar are not unlike those of the geisha house in Naruse’s 1957 film, Flowing. Already in that film, modern values had already eroded the position and respect that women in the profession of providing entertainment for men could traditionally command. The change in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, made only three years later, is even greater, the profession even more of a business, the women ever more reliant on the patronage of men and their struggle to meet the day-to-day challenges is ever greater. Nonetheless, we are told that in 1960, 16,000 women still work in the profession of hostesses in the Ginza district, all seeking to improve their situation and consequently categorised or judged by how far they are willing to go to achieve it.
Keiko, making the daily climb up the stairs, would appear to have a clear head on her shoulders and be under no such illusions about her position. But illusions are a necessary part of her profession, and keeping up appearances, expensive kimonos and a luxurious apartment, costs money – money not for the first time being the main issue underlying a Mikio Naruse film. At the age of 30 however, Keiko knows that her options are limited and when she is temporarily forced to stay with her mother in a poor district due to illness, the necessity of having stability and sufficient income to deal with the troubles in life becomes even more urgent. Perhaps for those reasons, she allows herself to take risks and become closer to clients than she normally would, and inevitably, the result is betrayal and disillusionment.
Surprisingly for Naruse, I find these issues made rather overly explicit in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the characters openly explaining their condition and their intentions, while the betrayals and disappointments follow much too schematically and calculatedly, rather than flowing naturally from the situations – and often not just once but twice, as in the case of a female bar owner being driven to suicide - hammering the point home rather too emphatically and melodramatically. There is however a certain degree of complexity to the characters, none of them – not even Keiko – being depicted in black and white. All of them are forced to keep up appearances, and the unhappiness in their lives would seem to stem from this. There are also some moments of poetic reflection in Keiko’s narration and in the metaphor of the stairs, but too few of them and despite the fine performance by Naruse’s regular actress Hideko Takamine, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs never has that feel of authenticity seen in his earlier films. It isn’t surprising then to find that this particular script is written by a man rather than the more common Naruse adaptations of women’s writing, and I believe it shows - the stoicism of the lead character and the overly melodramatic situation bringing the treatment of the film closer to Mizoguchi than the lightness and understatement of Ozu.
When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is released in the United States as part of the Criterion Collection. The dual-layer disc is in NTSC format and it is encoded for Region 1.
The transfer of this edition has been praised elsewhere with a characteristic over-reverence towards Criterion Collection releases, but in this case it is not fully merited. There are significant flaws with the transfer of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, and it is certainly not on a par with the quality we can normally expect from Criterion. The black-and-white tones are reasonably good, but lacking depth and tone. Part of this is due to the softness of the print, more evident in the early part of the film, with skin tones in particular appearing rather flat and smeary and the image lacking detail elsewhere in shadows and textures. This improves as the movie progresses, but remains less than perfect. The image is further compromised by frequent fluctuations and wavering throughout, the marks taking the appearance of soft water damage. It’s not overly troublesome, but frequent enough to be very distracting. It’s clear that Criterion have done the best they can with the source materials – the 2.35:1 image, transferred anamorphically can occasionally look very good indeed with good stability and nice tones – but it’s a pity that the problems are so frequent.
The audio tracks are similarly problematic. The viewer has the choice of the original mono track, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0, or the original Japanese Perspecta mix, presented in Dolby Digital 3.0, which simulates a wider stereo mix. In practice, there is little difference between the choices – though the Perspecta mix does indeed spread the sound a little better. Both mixes however suffer from considerable noise on the tracks. The analogue noise has clearly been dampened in the spaces between dialogue, but the hiss comes back in waves whenever the characters speak. Voices consequently can appear rather harsh and muffled. The problems are doubtlessly managed as well as can be done with noise reduction, but the waves of noise can be quite noticeable and distracting.
Optional English subtitles are in a clear white font.
Commentary by Donald Ritchie
You don’t get commentary tracks on Japanese films from this period from a more authoritative source than Donald Ritchie. He is excellent at providing details and customs of geishas and hostesses of the period, additionally providing good insights into Naruse’s wider work and the actors he worked with. Interesting though this is, you really shouldn’t need anyone to guide you through the film.
Interview with Tatsuya Nakadai (13:26)
The actor, playing here in an early film role, while he was still learning the craft, explains what he learned working on the film with Naruse and Takamine, providing some information on the director’s filmmaking methods.
The Theatrical Trailer (3:07) sets up the film well enough, though perhaps lets you know a little too much of what transpires.
A booklet is also included, with essays by the usual Naruse commentators, Philip Lopate, Catherne Russell and Audie Bock, but the best piece comes from a beautiful and moving testimony to Naruse by his lead actress Hideko Takamine.
Naruse’s When A Woman Ascends The Stairs has certainly come in for high praise from critics, notably Donald Ritchie in his commentary track, who regards it as being at the peak of the director’s career. The familiar Naruse themes are certainly there – the circumstances of women, their need to keep up appearances, the necessity of money to do that, a consequent reliance on the patronage of men, with the resultant life of suffering that must nonetheless be endured without complaint – and there are some moments of brilliance in the flow of events that is also characteristic of the director. Personally however, I find them a little too schematically laid-out here, their intention overstated and the situation – for all the brilliant underplaying of the actors – rather too melodramatic. Similar situations are handled with considerably more delicacy and ambiguity in earlier Naruse films, particularly those collected in the Eureka/Masters of Cinema Naruse: Volume 1 collection last year. I’d recommend that set as a much better introduction to Naruse than Criterion’s initial choice of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, and I’d suggest that the source materials of the Masters of Cinema releases are also much better than those used here by Criterion. Still, any new releases of Mikio Naruse films on DVD are most welcome and certainly worthy of your time.