WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki)

(director: Mikio Naruse; screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima; cinematographer: Masao Tamai; music: Toshirô Mayuzumi; cast: Hideko Takamine (Keiko Yashiro), Masayuki Mori (Nobuhiko Fujisaki), Daisuke Katoh (Matsukichi Sekine), Tatsuya Nakadai (Kenichi Komatsu), Reiko Dan (Junko Ichihashi), Keiko Awazl (Yuri), Ganjiro Nakamura (Goda), Eitarô Ozawa (Minobe); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ryuzo Kikushima; World Artists Home Video; 1960-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

“Naruse creates an affecting scenario of modern Japanese society and the pitfalls a woman in such a patriarchal society must face.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mikio Naruse (“Late Chrysanthemums”/”The Wiser Age”) is one of Tokyo’s leading filmmakers but has not drawn much attention outside of Japan. Using the feminist driven script by Ryuzo Kikushima, Naruse tells a seemingly soap opera melodrama about a geisha girl that explodes in a most subtle way as it gets underneath all the glitter and becomes an involving character study about holding one’s dignity in the face of mounting anguish. Naruse sympathizes with his put upon protagonist Keiko, affectionately called in the trade Mama (Hideko Takamine), who is faced with overcoming almost daily betrayals by her men clients and with meeting severe economic pressures to stay afloat in her highly competitive world. The hard-working beautiful thirty-year-old bar hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district is a charming and demure widow who placed a letter with her beloved hubby’s ashes that stated she would love no one else, and to avoid poverty began her bar career with the hopes of earning big money. Every evening she ascends the stairs to work in the bar while dressed in the traditional kimono. Mama says “After it gets dark, I have to climb the stairs, and that’s what I hate. But once I’m up, I can take whatever happens.” Mama’s ambition is to own her own bar in the exclusive area; but, she’s saddled with supporting a money-grubbing and nagging elderly mother and a useless divorced brother in debt whose young son has polio and needs a further expensive operation. Unlike the other geishas Mama has not indulged in the usual vices associated with the Ginza gals and has earned the deep affection of the other geishas for sticking to her high ideals. This has earned her the respect of her platonic loyal wealthy businessmen clients such as Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori), Goda (Ganjiro Nakamura) and Sekine (Daisuke Katoh). It has also earned her the deep respect of her lovestruck handsome young bartender/manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai), who would do anything for her love. Mama realizes that at 30 she must get a place of her own or marry, as she’s getting too old to depend on the whims of her owner to be kept on as head hostess. When she recruits money from her wealthy clients for her business venture, she finds it distasteful and in the end disappointing; and, furthermore when she’s most vulnerable she receives a dubious marriage proposal from one of her clients and later finds herself compromised by a married client who rejects her love. This brings about a heated confrontation with her frustrated jealous manager who tells her how much he now reviles her, but still asks for her hand in marriage. In the end faced with illness and an alcohol problem, Keiko remains undaunted and independent as she ascends the stairs to the bar once again and in a close-up puts on her game face to show she’s happy to be with her customers.

Naruse creates an affecting scenario of modern Japanese society and the pitfalls a woman in such a patriarchal society must face who tries to hold her head up while working in a traditionally accepted but disreputable profession. The daily climb up the stairs becomes like a religious ritual whereas Keiko can put aside her personal tragedies and find courage to endure in the hedonistic world she is courageously trying to walk such a fine line in. It’s a dark and emotionally drawn out film that sublimely brings to light the pain underneath all the smiles of the heroine.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs Poster

REVIEWED ON 7/18/2006 GRADE: A-     https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/