WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (1960) – The Dungeon Review!
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is my last review for Toho March. I would have liked to have reviewed more, but I think I highlighted a decent cross-section of genres with what I included. I have an unreasonable love of Toho monster movies. I really had no idea until recently of the non-monster masterpieces that came from the studio. I have discovered some amazing directors whose catalog I look forward to discovering. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs director Mikio Naruse is one of those aforementioned. After watching the beautiful and bittersweet When a Woman Ascends the Stairs I immediately added Naruse’s 1964 film Yearning and 1956 film Flowing to my library queue.
Keiko is head hostess of a Ginza Bar where appearances are everything. Keiko, known to the younger hostesses as Mama, is approaching the age where she will be forced to decide between marriage or owning her own hostess bar. Keiko struggles with her independence, aging, finances, love, morality, and a desire to honor her dead husband’s memory. Day after day she ascends that gloomy stairway and puts on her charming smile.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a straight up drama, no samurai’s no mystery, no monsters. This is a stark, heart-breaking film. While this is not my first exposure to the concept of “hostesses” it is certainly the most extensive. Hostesses are paid to keep business men charmed and entertained. The men visit these bars in Ginza and pay top dollar to have an attractive young woman fawn all over him. The transaction is generally platonic, although sexual favors are not unheard of. Keiko is quite traditional in her manner and seems out of place in this line of work. Finding herself widowed at a young age, Keiko took work hostessing to make ends meet. Now years later she finds herself aging in this profession. In order to maintain appearances she rents an expensive apartment, buys fancy kimonos and exotic perfumes. Keiko is living beyond her means and business has not been good. Keiko still wears a traditional kimono instead of the modern North American style of clothing her cohorts don. She is made offers by men but refuses to be a kept woman. She wants to come about her money as honestly as she can. Keiko is betrayed by family, friends and lovers (potential and otherwise). The deceptively easy confidence Keiko maintains for the world becomes increasingly difficult to watch. I had incredible empathy for Keiko.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs sets are practical and functional with the focus always squarely on Keiko. The loungy, smoky soundtrack was perfect. The lovely Hideko Takamine gives a stunning performance as Keiko. She absolutely broke my heart. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph I have added two other Naruse films to my queue. I specifically chose the first two I clicked on because I noticed that Takamine was in both. And than I clicked on a few more of Naruse’s titles and there she was again and again! It would seem the enchanting Takamine was a Naruse muse and is featured in several of his films. Just one more reason to check out this amazing director’s other work.
The Japanese cinema of the 1960s really is something very special. It is a cross-section of film I look forward to exploring more deeply. Anyone who can appreciate the type of performance that is nothing short of a revelation should definitely check out When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Naruse’s sad, beautiful and frank portrait of a hostess in Ginza is absolutely sublime. Highly recommended!
Dungeon Rating: 4.5/5
Directed By: Mikio Naruse
Starring: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Reiko Dan, Tatsuya Nakadai, Daisuke Katô, Ganjirô Nakamura, Eitarô Ozawa, Keiko Awaji