Friday, December 12, 2008

REVIEW: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

女が階段を上る時 (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki)

Released: 1960

Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine
Masayuki Mori
Reiko Dan
Tatsuya Nakadai
Daisuke Kato

Running time: 111 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

From the moment it begins, with the first taps of a xylophone on the score, there is no mistaking what kind of film "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" is: a calm, sobering work, crafted with a great degree of care and discipline. Director Mikio Naruse is known for this particular style that he maintained throughout his career: trim, subtle, attentive to human emotion and uninterested in anything that might seem unnatural or obtrusive. Through this specific approach and its impressive performances, "When a Woman…" makes for an intriguing viewing experience.

The film provides an in-depth profile of Ginza hostess Keiko “Mama” Yashiro, unforgettably brought to life by actress Hideko Takamine (Twenty-Four Eyes). This character deserves to be remembered as one of the great screen heroines simply for the way she is so clearly defined not just as a woman, but a complex, unique individual and for the strength and persistence with which she meets the challenges in her life. Most of these challenges come with the job of bar hostess that Mama and so many other women maintain, making their livings serving hordes of male customers and drinking their fill (and sometimes beyond) night after night. This is a story about people who are stuck at a certain place in their lives and all too painfully aware of the effort it will take to get them out of it, be it through marriage, opening their own bar or other, more desperate acts.

The plights of these hostesses are very much situated in the harsh, realistic world of capitalist society in which money, sales, debt and bills have an all-too tight hold on their lives. There are several suicide-related tragedies that occur throughout the film, most notably a shocking incident in which a hostess attempts to fake her own death in order to escape her debts only to fatally miscalculate the effect of the sleeping pills she takes with liquor. Later, during her funeral, a debt collector wastes no time in discussing what is owed to him with the girl’s mother, a scene that emphasizes both the weight money carries in this world and the insensitivity often wielded by those who control it.

After Mama falls ill, she convalesces at her mother’s house, where the reality of her hardships is more fully revealed. Her brother is a pathetic specimen who looks to her for money for a lawyer to keep him out of jail and a medical procedure for his polio-stricken son. Their mother is no better; she also looks to Mama for a monthly allowance with seemingly little gratitude or understanding of the life her daughter is trapped in in order to help her. Yet, despite their flaws, these characters aren’t painted as villains; like everyone else in the film, they only have their own problems and only so many resources they can rely upon to solve them.

Surrounding Takamine onscreen is a talented group of supporting actors, each one filling an important role in Mama’s life. Perhaps the next most recognizable actor after her is the prolific Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays a bar manager who acts as a friend to Mama, yet harbors stronger feelings of love and admiration for her that he keeps hidden beneath an air of professionalism. There is also Daisuke Kato (Yojimbo) as a friendly suitor, Reiko Dan as a spirited coworker and Masayuki Mori (Rashomon, Ugetsu) as the true object of Mama’s affection. These characters’ relationships with her and how they all change over the course of the film indicates how attentive the actors and writer Ryuzo Kikushima are to the complicated, unpredictable tendencies of human emotion and decisions in a material world.

Naruse’s film combines the sensibilities of neo-realism with themes that wouldn’t be out of place in a soap opera, weaved together through his calculated style to produce a moving, dramatically impressive work. Insightful, genuine and with a heartrending performance at its center, "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" comes highly recommended.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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