I don’t know much about the position of women in Japan 50 years ago. I’m sure it wasn’t much better than here in the eastern part (I’m Greek) of the western world though give or take a few cultural differences. But one can learn a lot from a country’s old ass movies, especially if they’re as fresh and universally relevant as Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, one of his long overlooked works of cinematic excellence.
Naruse’s focus falls on a female character named Keiko, but mainly called “Mama” by her colleagues and clients at the Ginza men’s night clubs of Tokyo. Early on we learn that “she hates ascending the stairs at the club she works, but once she’s up there she takes each day as it comes”. The stairs become a symbol of a woman struggling to get up only to find herself in the bottom of the staircase again and again. Mama became a bar hostess after her husband died, and having vowed to his grave that she will never love another man she handles herself and her clients with dignity, pride and self-containment. That makes her an exception around her working environment and earns her the respect she needs to stay strong and keep on with her survival tour up and down those stairs.
Her life is expensive, because certain luxuries are expected of a woman in that profession: a nice apartment, flashy and well made kimonos or usual trips to the beauty salon. On top of that her mother and her screw-up brother count on her for financial aid. She manages though without a patron or even a companion sending away the fever of loneliness with “some brandy before sleep”. Mama stands out in the Ginza female crowd, she has a good reputation and a lot of fans, but her ways and looks are traditional as opposed to the westernized floozies that slowly become a majority in the area. But even a strong principled woman like her needs a shoulder to lean on, especially in a society where women rarely win. It’s hard to be an exception to the rule and Mama has to find out the hard way before deciding what her future will be like…
In the first scene we watch Mama’s colleagues at the club, having a fair well party for a girl that got married. It means she got away from the everyday struggle of the escort business. Mama comes later with some bad news. A woman from the neighborhood had just committed suicide. She was 43 and still working at the Ginza bars. Mama is 30 and has to face the decisions that come with her age. She can either marry and make a family again or stay in a profession she seems to excel at, even open her own bar and make a better living. But each one of her options involves depending on men: lenders, clients or suitors. And everybody wants something from her, more than the pleasant company she can offer.
We have here a heroine that stands alone against a cruel man’s world, where even family “preys on her” and men are waiting for the opportunity to make her break her celibacy vows. From the christian bipolar worldview that still possesses western cinema, this is a typical Virgin Mary figure ready to be lifted by the writer and the director to regular holiness or get thrown to the gutter of sin with the only way of getting back up being her confessed remorse. Lucky us, this is a Japanese movie. When a younger girl mumbles about how romantic she found the story she heard that Mama left a love letter in her husband’s grave promising never to love another man, the latter bursts her bubble with a white lie. She claims she took it from a novel. Even if it’s the truth, it’s a burden she has to carry and romanticizing it would only make it worse, if not cheap.
Later on Komatsu, the club’s manager and a secret admirer of Mama’s, admits he had loved her from afar because he didn’t want her to break the vow. He didn’t want his heroine to fall and the very reason of his admiration to expire. Mama was different than the girls he managed, a proud, self-sufficient woman, but how could she know she’d be a captive of that image and denied the privilege of her weaknesses. Mikio Naruse and his writer Ryuzo Kikushima honestly love their character. They don’t judge or romanticize her, they just allow her to make human mistakes without any cliched fatalism lurking around the corner, and let her rise up again, ascending those stairs as the strong woman that we’ve come to know all along.
Naruse creates a beautiful atmosphere in the heart of a gradually westernized Tokyo, where the tradition of women providing professional entertainment for men remains intact, except for the dresses, the hairdos, the music and the alcohol. His direction is faultless and discreet, complemented by noir-like photography and a catchy jazz score. Hideko Takamine, Naruse’s muse, is excellent as Mama, as plausible and engaging in her undignified moments as in her dignified ones while the rest of the cast never falls behind.
As much as it’s stylized like one, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is not the average cinematic melodrama for women (or sensitive men) to cry at. It’s not a feminist fable either. It’s a real, timeless story still relevant after 48 years.