Saturday, March 9, 2013
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
‘Mama’ is only 30-years old. But in Mama’s line of work, that’s old indeed. She’s a hostess in a nightclub in the Ginza, a wealthy section of Tokyo, and over the five years she’s worked there she’s built a reputation as one of the loveliest, most engaging members of her profession around. The trouble is, no one wants to be a hostess for five years.
What Mama, real name Keiko, really wants is the central question in When A Woman Ascends the Stairs: a fine film, directed with sympathy and restraint by Mikio Naruse. Starring legendary actress Hideko Takamine, it examines the life of a woman who desires control of her destiny within an industry that makes such things very, very difficult. That someone as beautiful and as smart as Keiko can be drawn to this life is puzzling; and, because the film is so good, it’s intriguing too.
Mama’s male admirers are legion. Most of them are old and rich, and before long, drunk. They are shockingly direct in their proposals. “I’m leaving for Izu tonight to go golfing. Come along,” says one regular, early in the film. “I can’t golf,” Mama replies. “I’ll play the golf,” he says. These men are revolting, venal, yet they continue to seek her out, and that is remarkable, because she refuses to sleep with any of them. She wants to make her own money, to open her own bar; and she will not be kept to get it.
There is a calm maturity to A Woman Ascends the Stairs, at odds with its subject matter; just as Mama seems at odds with her own lifestyle. The film doesn’t urge you to judge its characters so much as assess them; you sort of settle into it, then into them. They’re adults, and flawed, and you are one too, so you understand. That’s not the same as approving. The character Naruse and Takamine deliver us here could stroll unaltered into a Billy Wilder film of the same era, and be at home.
If she did that, she’d find her surroundings familiar too. One of the most striking elements of this film, at least for a Westerner new to Naruse’s work, is how utterly Western Mama’s environment is. I don’t simply mean the suits the men wear. I mean arbitrary things. At one point, a character complains about losing work due to illness. “I missed Christmas and New Years!” she says. In a setting like this, the kimonos Mama and her hostess colleagues wear don’t seem traditional, they seem exotic. If they didn’t, the hostesses would wear something else.
The relations between hostess and patron are well-acted and smartly scripted. I particularly liked one exchange between an inexperienced hostess and a shy, overweight businessman (Daisuke Katō). She flatters him, calling him handsome, but it doesn’t work; the man knows he is not handsome, and doesn’t believe a woman as beautiful as her could truly find him attractive. Mama, wiser, is simply kind to him. He finds her genuine, and far more appealing because of it. Their relationship is a complex and interesting one for much of the film.
Mama’s continued refusal to prostitute herself becomes more and more of a problem for her as the film goes on and more pressures, financial and otherwise, reveal themselves. Afterward, I found myself thinking about how remarkable a woman Mama must have been to be as well-liked as she was—not just by patrons, but by other hostesses, many of whom, it is clear, do hook. One might think they’d resent her. But they don’t. It may be that, at 30, she appears to them a woman from a different era. Some of them are ten years younger than her, or more.
Most of these hostesses are supporting players, but we do get to know a couple of them well. One, Yuri (Keiko Awaji), is Mama’s former protégé, now running a club of her own. Things aren’t going well for her, though outwardly, she’s the picture of confidence. We also meet Junko (Reiko Dan), an even flightier character with zero moral hang-ups and a positive attitude. Junko seems determined to follow in Yuri’s footsteps, though the two have probably never met. She and Yuri occupy two points on a continuum, sharing the same blithe nihilism that makes work such as theirs tolerable and their friendships with Mama temporary, at best. Mama, we realize, was not like them when she was their age. If she was, she’d probably be dead by now.
Junko’s a gold-digger, and none too bright, but she’s very funny. I liked her. I liked Yuri too. In fact I liked almost all the female characters in the film, and almost none of the men. While they varied in age, and assets (financial and otherwise), the men were alike in their willingness to reduce women to objects. This went beyond the objectification you’d expect from men in a bar full of pretty girls. It was, at times, as though the women had to argue for their personhood. Mama points out, more than once, and ruefully, that one has to slip only a little to become something else altogether in the eyes of the opposite sex. Hence, her policy about favours. She recognizes that men want two kinds of women in their lives: those who live up to a standard, and those who don’t, and that in this society, one can only move only down.
I wonder if the world survives because of people like Keiko ‘Mama’ Yoshiro? Those who press on, through dull misery, for reasons of their own? Those who live up to their own sense of self-respect, despite all pressures and temptations to ditch it? Those who gain respect by their example. I wish I knew more people like Mama. But I’m glad I got to know this one, for awhile.
Where to see When a Woman Ascends the Stairs:
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki) will screen at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday, March 24, 2013; part of the retrospective Japanese Divas: The Great Actresses of Japanese Cinema’s Golden Age.