The international acclaim Mikio Naruse’s films received after the director’s death are an unique phenomenon in film history. Following the cinematic tradition of gendai geki (modern drama) with semblance to soshimin eiga (a genre with thematic approach focused on family dynamics of the working class people), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o noboru toki, 1960) has gained attention and admiration from cinephiles in the West. Considered as Naruse’s magnum opus, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a culmination of a run of masterpieces; Mother (1952), Late Chrysanthemums (1954), Floating Clouds (1955), and Flowing (1956) (1). Naruse is recognized for his work in women’s pictures, and artfully tackles themes of “social injustice, material hardship and emotional turbulence” cognizant to the diurnal experiences of women in modern Japanese society (2).
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is centered on the character of Keiko, played by the striking Hideko Takamine who also appeared in Floating Clouds. She is a middle- aged widow who works as a bar hostess (mamasan) in Post-War Ginza nightclubs. Known as the honorable “Mama”, Keiko has earned the respect and admiration of other bar hostess and customers for her unadulterated beauty. Her character is unlike the typical bar girl, who gets drunk and sleeps with customers. Along with pressures relating to her age and her ongoing viability to this particular kind of work are concerns about her aging mother, her brother who has a pending case in court, and her nephew who stricken with polio and needs an operation in order to walk again. Becoming a mistress to a rich man could be the quickest resolution to her financial concerns, but her contempt to this solution leaves her with two options: to marry a rich man, or to open her own bar. She incessantly lobbies her wealthiest customers to support her bar proposal with resolve.
It is revealed in the first sequence of the film that Keiko despises going up the stairs that lead to the bar each night: the stairs operate symbolically as passage to the male order that dominates the diegesis. It leads her to a place where she can only be co- opted by the hegemonising nature of the bar itself, where women are sexualised, objectified and seen as a commodity by men. This recalls Laura Mulvey’s argument that in patriarchal society,“pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (3). However, if we look at the sex from Mulvey’s perspective, although not explicit here, that men dress immediately after sex and leave certainly appeals to a masculine perspective that sees women as disposable commodities. On the other hand, women (Keiko and Junko) are left with an unresolved yearning for deeper relationships after satisfying the libidinal urges of their male clients (Fujisaki and Komatsu respectively).
The visual aspects of the film are defined by qualities of harmony, restraint and refinement, and hinge around Keiko. The predominant use of medium shots, lighting techniques, Naruse’s “invisible” and “rhythmic” editing style (which attaches importance to the timing of scenes and flow of the narrative (4), and evocation of Film Noir caters to a masculine form of visual pleasure which the narrative itself suggests. Naruse’s flair for complex mise en scene combined with his skillful editing is second to none; a most perfect concoction of film style and narrative complexity.
There are binary aspects to Keiko. She is an independent, petty bourgeois woman, with a feminist fervor for self-preservation in response to setbacks symptomatic to Post-War Japanese society. These include Yuri’s suicide, Keiko’s discreet illness, deception and a failed marriage proposal. That this action is set in a male- dominated environment (the Ginza bar district in Post-War Japan) yields a ‘differance’ within the identity of the woman-image.
As a social construct, marriage is polarized: between emancipation and repression, and in relation to women surviving economically and/or being an economic burden. Keiko sees marriage as means of economic survival. During her discovery of Minobe’s deception, we see the wife as a disempowered, repressed and financially- burdened woman, despite being married. On the other hand, Junko manages to find equilibrium by being a mistress. She is financially supported by a patron, without having the bad part of the relationship apple that is marriage. Women’s emancipation through marriage however, is imaginary: for instance, Keiko refuses Komatsu’s marriage proposal by saying, “We’ve known each other so well”.
The women in the film have not been emancipated. Though women present a threat to male order (as seen in the last sequences of the film where Keiko appears by the train station and returned the stocks to Fujisaki in the presence of his wife and children), women in the film have the agency to disturb the male ego by destroying marriage. But in the film’s final sequence, we see Keiko once again ascending the stairs, with an untarnished smile and a heavy heart.
When a Woman Ascend the Stairs is a gem from Naruse, unmatched in his virtuosity for tackling themes about women and society. Keiko’s ritualistic ascending of the stairs is now a classic cinematic allusion of the social rigors faced by modern women in materialist and pacifist Japan, for whom the means of economic survival are limited.
1. Philip Lopate, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs: They Endure, 2007. CriterionCollection. USA
- Catherine Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity (Durham: DukeUniversity Press, 2008).
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism, 6th edition. Ed. LeoBraudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): pp. 837-848.
- Russell, p.6
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o noboru toki 1960 Japan 111 mins)
Prod Co: Toho Company Ltd. Prod: Ryuzo Kikushima Dir: Mikio Naruse Scr: Ryuzo Kikushima Ed: Eiji Ooi DOP: Masao Tamai
Cast: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Daisuke Kato