Mikio Naruse’s great 1960 film presents a compassionate view of the life of bar hostesses in a disreputable section of Tokyo.
I find it puzzling that Japanese director Mikio Naruse didn’t become more well-known in the West. His films are honest, complex, and mature, done in a very modern, forward-looking style. In his great 1960 film called When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, he introduces us to an unusual realm: Tokyo’s Ginza district, with its many nightclubs and bars.
Keiko is a widowed bar hostess in Tokyo, a job that involves providing company to the bar’s male clients, many of them married, yet lonely. She supervises all the younger hostesses and is thus nicknamed “Mama.” As she approaches the age of thirty, her options are to either buy her own bar or try to get married. A younger former employee has purchased her own place with apparent success, and that’s what Mama is inclined to do, but her troubled family is constantly pressuring her for money, and there are a few customers whom she hopes might release her through marriage from what seems to be an increasingly dead-end occupation.
The director takes an elliptical approach to his story through several characters and situations before we finally get to know the main character, played with remarkable grace and intelligence by Hideko Takamine, Naruse’s favorite actress, who had already done nine films with him and would do seven more. The marvelous screenplay, with its careful interweaving of multiple characters around a central theme, was by Ryuzo Kikushima, who scripted many of Kurosawa’s best films. The widescreen black-and-white photography by Masao Tamai is exquisite. This is an exemplary production in every way, not a tearjerker but a multi-layered drama, measured in tone and covering a wide range of feeling and insight as embodied in its lead character, and reflecting the restricted choices faced by Japanese women.
Mama, like all the hostesses, is required to navigate the numerous and conflicting desires of men in order to survive. When the wealthier ones start frequenting her younger rival’s establishment, it’s a warning that her charm may be diminishing and her time running out. One rich man wants her as his mistress; she prefers another one as a possible spouse, but she feels conflicted because of loyalty to the memory of her late husband. Another prospect, shy and homely, seems intent on a proposal. Add to the mix the bar manager who is secretly in love with Mama, and a saucy younger hostess who finds her own way to get ahead, and you have an intriguing story presented with subtle artistry. In one brilliant and decisive scene, Naruse uses a child circling around aimlessly on a tricycle to underline a moment of shock and the collapse of hope. Our main character, however, does not collapse, but continues her life with quiet courage and resilience.