The posthumous international triumph of Mikio Naruse is one of the most unique corrections in film history. During his lifetime (1905–69), Naruse toiled away at his craft largely unsung, though respected by his peers, making more than eighty pictures. After he died, retrospectives of his work began to tour Europe and America; they excited the enthusiasm of knowledgeable cinephiles and were repeated in periodic cycles; a body of criticism grew around him, and now his films are issued worldwide on DVD. What is it about Naruse’s films that touches this belated responsive chord? They are not flashy, but they ring true, they appeal to our demanding intelligence, our sense of the rigor of daily life; and, seen in bulk, they draw us into an astonishingly consistent, psychologically resonant universe. His work, almost all of which is set in the contemporary era, is about people (very often women) of limited means trying to keep their heads above water, escape domestic quagmires, and realize their dreams in a world rife with betrayals and self-betrayals. As he famously said about his characters: “If they move even a little they quickly hit the wall.” That this rather grim vision should prove delightful in the viewing remains an enigma. Perhaps Naruse’s refusal to employ cheap, feel-good shortcuts (or, for that matter, facile apocalyptic bleakness) comes as such a relief in contrast to the usual box office fare.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, made in 1959, is the culmination of a run of masterpieces Naruse reeled off in the 1950s. After Mother (1952), Late Chrysanthemums (1954), Floating Clouds (1955), and Flowing (1956), he was ready to tackle the newly prosperous, go-getter Japan. And though he had been making films starting from the silent era, Naruse had no trouble adjusting his objective style to a cooler, sixties mode. The crisp black-and-white CinemaScope, xylophone-inflected jazz score, and modernist bar interiors give When a Woman Ascends the Stairs a glamorous, International Style sheen; its taste of gin and bitters goes down like a dry martini. A departure of sorts from the usually drab, lower-middle-class, scarcity environments, but the preference for enlightened stoicism over glib redemption is pure Naruse.
At the film’s center is Hideko Takamine, one of Naruse’s favorite actresses and indeed one of the most striking, gifted, and charismatic stars in Japanese cinema. She plays Keiko, a widow who supports herself as a bar madam, the chief attraction in whatever bar she works, by virtue of her beauty and superior refinement (hence the honorific Mama). In some ways mismatched to the job, since she does not like liquor, refuses to sleep around, and has a proud, choosy character, she stands out from the stereotypical bar girl, which is why so many of the male characters find her a challenge and want to seduce her. In a sense, she represents a more traditional Japanese set of values, in contrast to the mod, pecuniary libertinism sprouting up around her. The dilemma is that she is approaching an age when her looks might be expected to fade, and so she is encouraged either to start her own bar or to get married. Either path seems to involve a sacrifice of independence. To start her own bar, she is advised that she will need a patron (i.e., to become some businessman’s mistress); Keiko tries to circumvent this distasteful compromise by attempting to raise the capital through subscription from her wealthiest customers.
The stairs in the title are both literal and symbolic, conveying the idea that Keiko is on a Sisyphean vertical treadmill, trying to get somewhere in this life as a woman on her own. Her voice-overs, on the steps or during documentary-style cutaways of Tokyo, tend to describe in general terms the daily life of the Ginza district and the bar hostess’s lot. The film’s time structure thus runs on dual tracks: first, the forward linear narrative, packed with incident (suicide, illness, marriage proposals, deceptions, one-night stands, abandonment); and second, the repeated figure of the stairs, with its philosophical musings, when the film catches its breath and loops back, making you understand that in a sense Keiko is getting nowhere, except in her awareness of what she is up against.
What keeps the film entertaining—even dryly comic—is the tension between the essentially futile struggle of Keiko and the colorful, rapacious types who surround her. Naruse fills the canvas with sharp characterizations: the sexpot Junko (Reiko Dan), who snatches Keiko’s would-be patron for herself; the mother and brother who leech off of her; the long-suffering bartender-manager (played by rising star Tatsuya Nakadai) who unrequitedly loves Keiko but is not above a roll in the hay with Junko; the shrewd, right-to-the-point lady owner of the Carton Bar; the chubby, gentle-mannered suitor Sekine (Daisuke Kato). When Keiko decides to accept Sekine’s marriage proposal, we cheer her willingness to compromise by accepting this homely but essentially good-hearted man—only to discover he is not what he appears. The scene where Sekine’s real wife tells Keiko that her husband keeps getting into trouble by chasing women and believing his own lies, while children circle the empty lot on a beat-up bike trailing a tin can, with power-plant stacks in the distance, is classic forlorn Naruse. Another door has closed in Keiko’s face.
The film keeps dwelling on that face, Keiko/Takamine’s exquisite instrument, registering revulsion or censure. Certainly Keiko has more of a conscience than the sleazy businessman Minobe, who wastes no time collecting his debts when his mistress Yuri commits suicide, or the opportunistic bar girl who swoops in to resell the suicide’s kimonos. But it would be too simple to see Keiko as the saint in a den of sinners. She has her own wayward needs, is in fact in love with a married businessman, Fujisaki (the wonderful actor Masayuki Mori, who played the potter in Ugetsu, and who subtly communicates here the burden of being “the type women go for”). After the marriage plan with Sekine blows up, she gets drunk and throws herself at Fujisaki. They sleep together, and she awakes happy and fulfilled, only to learn that he has been transferred to a post in Osaka. When the long-suffering manager discovers she has slept with Fujisaki, he throws the evidence in her face: “I used to respect you,” he says. “Sorry. I’m not that good,” she mutters. No one is that good—or that evil—in a Naruse movie; he neither ennobles nor demeans, but shows realistically the ways that we are all mixed, contradictory creatures.
Though we cannot but sympathize with Keiko, we are also allowed to judge her dispassionately. She comes across at times as self-righteous, at other times as hard. For instance, when she flings the words “I hate you” at her admirer-manager, the balance in sympathy shifts to him for the moment: he has done nothing to deserve such scorn. When her mother begs her for the necessary funds to keep her brother out of jail, Keiko’s first response is a haughty refusal; only later does she come around. Asked to help pay for an operation that would correct her nephew’s polio, she discards the plea as too expensive, and we never do find out if she springs for the loan. In short, she is a very human mixture of generous and self-protective. She weeps for herself, but do we weep for and with her? We respect her stubbornness and resilience, yes, but what keeps this quintessential woman’s picture from descending to weepy melodrama is the objectivity brought to bear. Part of it comes from the detached point of view in Keiko’s own voice-overs, part from the careful plotting that makes each successive outcome seem plausible rather than operatic, and most of it from the visual style, which records the drama in evenhanded, worldly fashion.
Naruse’s filming style, never ostentatious, shows exquisite tact. Like Roberto Rossellini, another filmmaker of unfailing intelligence, Naruse directs facts; he constructs the image only enough to get its essential meaning across. There are no bravura 360-degree camera movements, but there are subtle little tracking shots of Keiko walking through Tokyo, with or without company; and when Keiko goes up the stairs to her bar, the camera delicately ascends with her for just two seconds. Kurosawa admiringly singled out Naruse’s skill as an editor, and we see plenty of evidence here. In dialogue scenes (such as the one near the beginning where Keiko enters the party for a bar girl getting married), he employs a highly complex, yet for the most part invisible, cutting style of close-ups, two-shots, and ensembles, with characters shifting from foreground to background. Every cut conveys the solitary partiality of each character’s viewpoint, even the most minor. (Often, the cutting underscores the cruelty, selfishness, and indifference of modern life, every man for himself, but not always.) Expressive lighting touches, like the sudden luminosity of Takamine’s face in the fortune-telling scene, or after she sleeps with Fujisaki, are made more effective by their rarity.
Naruse’s gift here is being able to keep alive surprise and the fresh possibility of hope, even as you know deep down that he’s going to snatch most of that hope away. Endurance is the final antidote to despair, and that he does not extinguish. For a director whose vision is so frequently called pessimistic, what continuously engages and enthralls in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a lightness of touch, deft and coolly understated, like its cocktail jazz score.
A collection of Phillip Lopate’s film criticism was published as Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. He also edited American Movie Criticism for the Library of America.