For Reel

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
September 12, 2012, 5:35 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Mikio Naruse

Shot in crisp black-and-white CinemaScope and accompanied with a jazz score, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs should come as a surprise to anyone who has seen any of Mikio Naruse’s earlier, more staid features. Although Keiko, the protagonist played by Naruse’s muse, Hideko Takamine, is hard-working, her immediate setting sets her drastically apart from Repast‘s’ Michiyo, whose drab, middle-class life was characterized by a lack of communication. The two women, though, are both at the mercy of an intensely patriarchal society, quite literally in the latter picture in which Keiko’s disappointing encounters with three potential suitors leads her to a dead end. Western audiences will be forgiven if they assume that Keiko is a prostitute in the early-goings, but she is far from it – though sleeping with customers is part of the job for some of her co-workers, as a hostess she specializes in flattery and companionship, scoffing at the idea of taking the relationships any further. While Naruse maintains her integrity in that respect, however, the film’s most unfortunate scene involves her manager, a romantic interest played by Tatsuya Nakadai, brutally chastising her for sleeping with someone else – watching such an already disheartened woman endure such vitriol is unpleasant both intellectually and morally, as one questions whether or not the picture is excessively sadomasochistic in its treatment of her. Regardless, Takamine is magnificent as the protagonist, and the way that Naruse details the bar and its inhabitants is most satisfying, establishing an unforgettable setting that one can imagine still bustles with life all of these years later.