I freely admit that I don’t know a lot about Japanese cinema. Get me outside Kurosawa, Ozu and Ishiro Honda, and I’m pretty much in blue-sky territory. That was certainly the case with Miko Naruse and his 1960 film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, since I’d never heard of either, and I was certainly surprised to see that Naruse has a huge filmography dating back to 1930. I won’t say that When a Woman Ascends the Stairs was a revelatory experience, but it was sufficiently rewarding that I’d like to see more. If nothing else, it’s striking to see a filmmaker of that vintage fixated on the topic of the oppression of women.
The film follows a period in the life of “Mama” (Hideko Takamine), the hostess of a bar in Tokyo. (The title refers to the fact that the bar—as most seem to be in the district—is upstairs.) She’s getting on into her 30s and wants more out of life, but what can “more” mean to a woman in her position? A good marriage is one option, but her options there are limited by her not entirely respectable profession. Moreover, she’s not interested in most of the patrons that might provide this answer. Opening her own bar is a possibility, but it would be just more of the same world that she detests—no matter how good she is at playing the part of the flirtatious hostess.
That’s really all the story there is, but the film is mostly a character study—not just of Mama, but of the whole range of the film’s characters, most of whom are not quite who they seem at first glance. It’s also a look at the new Westernized Japan—the only instance of a glimpse of the “old” Tokyo occurs in the scenes at her family’s house in an unfashionable section of the city. In many ways, this new Japan is at the center of the film—that and how it balances (and doesn’t) with the past.
Interestingly, while the balance between East and West is often outside the capabilities of the characters—with some tragically pretending otherwise—it is within the powers of the director, which is somewhat surprising when you consider that he’d spent 30 years in Japanese cinema at the time of making this film. That he has made one of the most Western-looking Japanese films I’ve ever seen—while telling a uniquely Japanese story—is remarkable. Stylistically, Naruse has achieved the balance his characters are denied.