Monday, July 28, 2008

When a Woman Ascends The Stairs

This review was originally posted here.

Released in 1960, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is one of the most appreciated and powerful films to surface from Japan’s golden era of cinema. Put out on DVD by Criterion earlier this year, this release possesses all the amenities one usually associates with this company, including an audio commentary by famed Japanese film historian Donald Richie and a variety of essays about the film.

Examining the lives of bar hostesses in Tokyo’s Ginza district, this film holds a common theme with much of the previous work of director Mikio Naruse; namely, the sympathetic portrayal of socially disenfranchised women in Japanese culture. And while common in this regard, this film was the first effort by Naruse to reveal the lives of these women in post-WWII Japan.

The film centers on, and is largely a character study of, Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a 29 year old mama-san (head hostess) of a Ginza bar. As is common with most female characters in Naruse films, her position is hardly one of choice. Widowed at an early age, she is forced into her current circumstance and position out of financial necessity. This necessity is made ever more demanding by a mother and brother who persistently pressure her for monetary assistance, while at the same time judging her for her occupation and the ostensible source of the money they are borrowing.

Closing in on the inauspicious age of thirty, Keiko is faced with the dilemma of having to depart from her current position and choose to either get married or purchase a bar of her own. Fraught with degrading elements, both choices potentially stand to further her dehumanization. By choosing to purchase a bar, she ultimately needs the financial backing of a patron who would then claim her as a mistress. On the other hand, the prospect of marriage is equally dim considering the stigma Japanese society has placed on her, and the distrust she possesses towards men who do show a “genuine” romantic interest in her.

As Keiko faces this quandary, she deals with the day to day life of being a bar hostess. And it is in this where one sees the humanistic inclinations of Naruse. In spite of her outcast status, Keiko is not depicted as a victim. Instead, her portrayal is one of strength, endurance, and a clear cognizance of her lot in life. Furthermore, she is not deluded by some tertiary pride for her profession; for it is a profession she resents, and acknowledges outright that she has been forced to engage in it due to financial hardship.

Specifically, the humanistic portrayal of Keiko is explored on two fronts. The first is her honest vision of the world conveyed as an internal narrative, most notably when she ascends the stairs to the Ginza bar (hence, the title of the film). The second centers on her actual interactions with customers in the bar, other hostesses, management of the bar, and members of her family. Where needed, she is very apt at creating a persona that allows her to favorably interact with others and earn the money she needs. However, a potent undercurrent of disdain runs through out all of these interactions and is expressed both subtly and directly, depending on the situation. And herein lays the genius of Naruse. He doesn’t use artificial plot devices to tell a story, he is able to adequately convey the emotions of all of his characters through the subtleties of interaction.

Added to this portrayal of Keiko is the haunted depth of her own flawed character. Although having remained chaste since her husband’s passing and during her time at this job (a trait for which she is hypocritically both praised and criticized), her primary attraction is for a married man and acknowledged womanizer, for as she admits at the end of the film, “this is the type of man every woman wants”. She presses for his affections at the expense of the bar manager who does genuinely love her in spite of her status, yet she fails to even realize the manager’s feelings towards her. And ultimately, this is a dualism present in all of the film’s characters. While Naruse did certainly engage in social commentary, it was never completely removed from the interactions, perspectives and flaws of his film’s characters. Like all people, they can never claim to wear a white or black cape; they are simply people with their own virtues and flaws, some in differing proportion to others.

Keiko’s infighting with her own demons and the circumstances in which she lives drives the plot to an end that is both heartbreaking yet enduring. However, the plot never completely resolves itself because, quite frankly, that would be a betrayal of the stark realism that Naruse was seeking to achieve. And it is in this departure from formula where this film achieves its power. His compassion for socially isolated members of society was contingent on the realization that all people are capable of leading to their own demise just as readily as they can lead to the demise of others; and, as such, the happiness they achieve is always constrained by their own limitations. By not abstracting out social ills beyond the individual, Naruse demonstrated the true beauty, power and consequence of individual action.


This is my second effort at putting together a blog for movie reviews. Specifically, I will review pieces of Japanese films that are not widely known to American audiences. I hope to do my little part to introduce folks to the cinematic works of directors like Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kinoshito Keisuke and many, many more. These directors have crafted a nuance of Japanese film that I find intriguing; namely, the failure of a society's culture and norms to provide adequate means to resolve the problems faced by its members. What's more, many of these social norms act to further exacerbate these problems.

These films are uncompromising in their reflection on the brutal nature of society; they remain faithful to the fact that the day-to-day ordeals faced by ordinary people are rarely ever resolved to any ideal level of satisfaction. People in adverse circumstances are heralded not so much for their ability to overcome what afflicts them, but rather for their ability to survive to the next day. As such, these films rarely have happy endings. There is no permanent resolution of conflict, only day-to-day survival. Additionally, much of Japanese literature reflects this same theme, so I'll be reviewing some books as well.

Basically, that's it, my reviews of depressing Japanese films and books. I hope to do as many as one a week, but more realistically I'll probably knock out a couple a month. Hopefully, I'll remain faithful to this endeavor.