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When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

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Nearly at the end of it (Nakadai’s big scene), I felt that I had seen Naruse’s 1960 “Onna ga kaidan o noboru toki?”/“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (to a Ginza bar over which she presides) before. I found the movie slow, though not excruciatingly slow, and not because I remembered the plot. I shared the frustrations of the woman, the widow Yashiro Keiko (Takamine Hideko), who dreaded having to go up those stairs and make men happy and drunk. “But once I was up, I would take each day as it came,” she resignedly said.— even with fresh obstacles to surmount in order to get by, affronts from clients and kin, and younger women striking out on their own after she trained them.

Takamine was great, nearly impassive though not opaque to viewers (whether that is due to her acting, Naruse’s direction, or Kikushima Ryuzo’s writing). Nakadai Tatsuya plays Komatsu Kenichi, a manager who admires her and, in particular, her not selling her body over the course of five years in the business. He is pretty bland until his penultimate scene. I don’t know why the client whom Yashiro loves is the chilly Fujisaki (Mori Masayuki), but making good decisions is incompatible with the soap-opera genre (and Naruse refused to provide a romantic happy ending).

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Pudgy Katô Daisuku delivers a performance to Yashiro that doesn’t quite break her heart, but breaks the heart of the viewer on her behalf. In showing the impossible lot of women without husbands, the film brings Mizoguchi (Street of Shame in particular) to mind, though Yashiro is not ground to dust like a Mizoguchi victim (surviving with a mouthful of ashes more like a Douglas Sirk protagonist, though the visuals are very different). With splendid b&w cinematography by Tamai Masao albeit with few camera movement (though more variety of camera placement than in Ozu movies).

The Japanese re-release trailer gives away far too much plot. The Criterion Collection bonus feature interview with Nakadai is excellent. He says that he learned a lot about screen-acting from Takamine, though he was scared of her. He says she was kind but not at all warm. And that he received very little direction from Naruse (Takamine, who was in 17 of his movies, said the same thing).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray