Movies We Like
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Regardless of the decade, there aren't many Japanese films that I've seen that approach the human experience on a more common level. The Japanese directors who've upheld great popularity abroad usually deal more with the folklore and customs of ancient Japan, while directors such as Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) deal more with ultra-violence and action. Perhaps the most popular, Akira Kurosawa, has made an impact on the western world because American cinema, particularly Westerns, were of great influence.
While in Ginza, Naruse and his close acquaintances were gathered in a bar and noticed something special about the matrons. The complexity of their relationship with their customers, vastly different than the relationship of a geisha or bartender, had never been breached in cinema. Fueled by intentions to bring something new to the screen and introduce the world to the life of a high-end hostess, Naruse crafted this film. Its emphasis on the common man and his relation to the world was not exactly something that made it popular, and this, along with the director's other works, has left many bored, if not unsatisfied. Ozu's popularity with similar themes of the common man have done well, so what makes them different? Could it be because Naruse shot something in 1960 about people in 1960? Is it the lack of action in his films, or the fact that he cast based on a person's resemblance to the character in terms of personality? Whatever the reason, this film, while praised by cinefiles, has failed to impress or be understood by the masses; many have yet to realize that the film is full of feminist theory, breathtaking cinematography, and an example of the hardships that come with middle age.
Mama-san (Hideko Takamine) is a 30-year old bar hostess in Ginza. As a widow, she's vowed never to love another man again. Her profession requires a certain lifestyle to be upheld in order to make her customers feel as though they're surrounded by luxury. The women are required to stay in posh apartments, wear expensive kimonos and perfumes, and dote on their male patrons as if they were lovers. The objective in her line of work is to charm customers well enough to gain their loyalty and respect. If one accomplishes this, then when the time comes for a her to start her own bar, contributions and patronage from certain customers can be expected. But unlike most women, Mama-san is sought after by men because of her dignity and refusal to sleep with any of them. The nighttime ritual of being waited on by a beautiful woman has become a mass courtship on behalf of the men who wish to either sleep with her or make her an honest woman in marriage.
There are the many men who try to win her heart, in both charming and obnoxious ways. She's in love with a handsome banker, and her young manager is in love with her. A porky factory owner wants to marry her and proposes to get her out of the business while others throw thousands her way in attempts to have ownership over her body. Yet Mama-san ignores their ploys and struggles through life not knowing what she should do with her future. Since she's not as young as most marriageable women and is a widow, she feels as though her only options are marrying an undesirable man or being an owner of her own bar. In reality, she doesn't want to do either. This, paired with the responsibility of caring for her mother and her leech of a brother and his son, doesn't give her the chance to save money or relax. The climax of the film is a slow struggle for her to realize what she has to do. She ends up trusting the wrong people and spiraling out of control. Other women around her have either tried to improve their lives by selling their soul, or have committed suicide when debts and responsibilities became too much to handle. Faced with her own debts and constant worry, she makes a decision that was truly unexpected and a little anticlimactic.
Despite the fact that one might not understand or empathize with her character, the film does paint an interesting picture. The characters are a mixture of married, wealthy men, and high to medium-class bar maids. Since the women are all single and independent, it was an interesting dynamic. There really is no romance, nor is there a dazzling ending of great pathos. Some of the girls even shun marriage and only want to never have to work for someone else. Mama-san is then struggling with the mind of a woman who used to appreciate a kind husband and her life as an independent woman surrounded by drunks and debt. The fact that the action is so simple was really pleasing. The black and white cinematography and being introduced to a world that doesn't exist in Japan anymore are the film's best features. It was both a learning experience and a chance to follow a group of middle-aged women who either plot their demise or escape simply because those are their only options. Your own age and what you've accomplished comes to the surface and the film does make you think about where you want to end up and how to avoid certain traps within your profession. As stated before, many find the film to be nothing special in a cinematic sense. I wouldn't go as far as to agree with them, but what you gain from it will certainly depend on how you relate to the characters and whether or not you find the story interesting.