When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

An early scene in Mikio Naruse’s film, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), shows the beautiful bar hostess Keiko (Hideko Takamine) diligently walking to her place of employment. She pauses in front of the staircase, and then the camera cuts to a close up of her quick, measured steps. Her inner monologue provides insight into her daily ritual: “After it gets dark, I have to climb the stairs, and that’s what I hate. But once I’m up, I can take whatever happens.” It is a scene that recalls the final image of the indomitable Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) in Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954), as Oharu glances sideways to a Buddhist temple in the distance, stops to bow in reverence, and then resumes her walk down the street. However, Naruse is not a derivative imitator of Mizoguchi or classic Japanese cinema, but one of its original though sadly neglected filmmakers. It is this graceful image of Keiko – her objective chronicle of the seedy Ginza district bar trade and her resilience against adversity – that initiated my own quest for Mikio Naruse’s cinema. Regrettably, it proves to be a frustrating and unrequited endeavor.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a remarkably insightful commentary on the societal pressures on women “of a certain age”. Keiko, a young, childless widow affectionately called “mama” by her junior barmaids, is faced with the limited opportunities afforded her gender and class in post-war Japan: to get married or open her own bar in the competitive Ginza district. Yet, despite her failed attempts at both, she perseveres with great courage and tenacity. Naruse’s use of dispassionate inner monologue and sultry, contemporary music create a noirish atmosphere that sharply contrasts with the demure, conservative demeanor of Keiko. The incongruity, in turn, exemplifies Keiko’s inner struggle between holding on to traditional customs, or resigning to the pressures of modern, and increasingly Western, influences.

By portraying the loss of cultural tradition, Naruse touches on similar themes of his contemporary, Yasujiro Ozu. In An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962), the loss of cultural identity is bemoaned with humor and lighthearted nostalgia by the military veterans, Hirayama (Chishyu Ryu) and Sakamoto (Daisuke Kato), during a reunion at the local bar. In contrast, in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Keiko’s resistance to adapt to the reality of her increasingly disreputable profession is a dire reflection of her own personal struggle to retain her dignity. For Keiko, increasing pressure to abandon traditional customs is not merely the inevitable influence of Western culture, but a mandate for financial survival. Moreover, it is interesting to note that, unlike Ozu’s depiction of the local bar as a familiar, reassuring sanctuary from the chaos of the outside world, the Ginza bars in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs serve as a self-propagating, inescapable dystopia marked by chaos and uncertainty.

Naruse’s approach to the subject of marriage is also different from that of Ozu. While the marriage pressures of Ozu’s heroines result from the selfless devotion of a parent to a child (or a surrogate child, as in Tokyo Story [1953]), Keiko’s motivation is purely economic. Despite Keiko’s attempts to separate her personal life from her professional work, the demarcation is blurred when financial survival hinges on the dubious “assistance” of her patrons. In this unsentimental regard, Naruse significantly diverges from the humanist cinema of Ozu and emerges as a social realist.

In an earlier film, Late Chrysanthemums (1954), Naruse further explores aging and loneliness through the everyday (and decidedly unglamorous) lives of retired geisha. Forced into retirement by age and financially struggling in their meager second careers, these proud but flawed women persevere through economic hardship, alienation from their adult children, and personal heartbreak. In one scene, the embittered Kin (Haruko Sugimura), an unmarried moneylender, dismisses the news of a former patron’s arrest, rationalizing that the cruel reality of existence causes everyone to “eat or be eaten”. It is a resigned disaffection that would be similarly echoed by the prostitute Mickey (Machiko Kyo) in Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (1956).

The recurring references to the films of Naruse contemporary, Kenji Mizoguchi, are not incidental. Like Mizoguchi, Naruse belonged to the poor working class, and his films reflect the hopelessness and despair of the underprivileged. Moreover, Naruse shares Mizoguchi’s propensity for “feminist direction” in the compassionate portrayal of courageous women faced with great adversity. Naruse evokes resilience in his parting images in the same manner as Mizoguchi, who concluded his films with a final, reassuring shot of courage and human dignity. Similar to the recurring image of the staircase in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, the final images of Late Chrysanthemums show the disillusioned women traversing the stairs of a train station, accepting a new and unfamiliar chapter in their lives with renewed determination.

However, while Mizoguchi often explored universal themes through period films, Naruse’s cinema is contemporary. By forsaking the exoticism of traditional cinema in favor of the mundane, Naruse creates a distinct mise en scène to reveal the innate personality of his protagonists. In Late Chrysanthemums, Kin’s sparsely furnished house serves, not only as a physical manifestation of her frugality despite her accumulated wealth but also as a reflection of her profound loneliness. Figuratively, by capturing the common, silent despair of the human soul, Naruse provides a relevant, objective chronicle of the social reality of his times.

For nearly forty years (1930-1969), Mikio Naruse directed an impressive 87 feature films. Yet, despite the success and recognition bestowed upon his contemporaries Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa, the public availability of Naruse’s films remains elusive. In experiencing the poignant grace of Late Chrysanthemums and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, I feel that I have taken a quantum leap of understanding into Mikio Naruse’s bittersweet world of crushed hopes and failed dreams. Naruse does not search for sympathy through his dispassionate and unsentimental gaze, but rather, seeks validation for the human struggle through emotional honesty and perseverance. Sadly, like the exploited lives of his resilient, imperfect heroines, Naruse’s cinema is also a quiet, unrecognized triumph.

About The Author

Acquarello is a NASA Design Engineer and author of the Strictly Film School website.