The late 1950s and early 60s hold, for most people, a representation of free love and civil action, unless you’re a veteran of Japan’s post-war economic polarity of flaunted wealth and struggling poverty.
Mikio Naruse’s interpretation of this duality is When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, a poignant look at 30 year old Keiko (frequently called Mama), trapped as a hostess to rich businessmen in
For Americans, the film is easily prone to misinterpretation as a simple vignette on the life of a struggling barmaid, which it isn’t. Instead, through the scope of Keiko’s actions and situation, Naruse offers an idea of existence and life’s expectations, and what happens when we answer or refuse its call. The film also suggests a reconsideration of what it means to commit suicide to escape debt (via Keiko’s friend, Yuri), and examines the cause and effect of marrying before falling in love, and vice versa.
The Criterion Collection of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs offers an insightful commentary by noted Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, which proves itself vital for a full understanding of the film’s cultural references, explanations and clarifications, and important biographical details of Naruse that pertain to his slow-paced, subtle style.
Richie proposes that every Japanese director struggles with the Japanese-ness of himself and his art, “The essence of the Japanese tradition…that connotes a contented resignation, and a sort of observation of the way things are, and a willingness to go along with them, identifies experiencing the basic nature of existence,” he said.
“Savoring the comforts of being at harmony with the cycles of the universe, and an acceptance of adversity, and the idea of accepting what’s on your plate, and eating it… this is exactly what’s supposed to happen, therefore it is good.”
Almost all of the dramatically tense moments in the film come at times when Keiko makes decisions between doing what is considered right, doing what she believes is logically feasible, and doing something irresponsible in the harrowing moments of emotional reaction. Every decision she makes turns out to be the wrong none and her life cannot be escaped, and so all of Keiko’s peaks are flattened again.
The absence of hostess bars in
“That’s one of the things the geisha did, was to act as a social oil between males boasting their egos on one hand and toning them down on the other. It’s easier to do a business deal if there’s some girl snuggled up on the side- it lent a kind of normality to the closeness that the men were experiencing as they attempted to drive deals with each other. So the main effect was economic, and that was what the guys who paid the bills were paying for.”
“One of the themes that occurs in this film, and other Naruse films is the possibility of suicide, “ Richie explains, “Suicide is not treated in Japan as it’s treated in other, Christian countries… there’s no religious prescription or social prohibition against it, and so it’s one of the known alternatives to general wretchedness of existence.”
To be in debt in postwar Japanese society is to lose face, and Yuri’s attempt at faking suicide to avoid her lenders ultimately proves fatal when she overdoses on sleeping medication. The many layers of the film and actions of Keiko’s friends represent the multiple options she can attempt, and highlight exactly where she would’ve failed.
Experiencing the walls run into by the people she associates with, and the walls she runs into, she is eventually rendered immobile- left without options to progress- and reaches her standstill. Keiko never gets anything she wants.
The Criterion release also comes with a short interview with actor Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko’s manager, who offers a lot of insight to Naruse’s directorial style and personal demeanor. The included 36 page booklet provides critical essays by Phillip Lopate, Catharine Russell. Audie Bock, collection of memories about Naruse by Hideko Takamine, the actress who played Keiko in the film.