It’s 9 O’Clock On A Saturday, The Regular Crowd Shuffles In
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, the three big boys of Japanese cinema, but who is the fourth Beatle in this group of filmmakers? It would have to be one Mikio Naruse, a director in the genre of Shomin-geki – realist films which focus on the everyday lives of the lower to middle class. With this review, I will do what little I can to get this unsung master of cinema the attention he deserves.
Hideko Takamine is Keiko “Mama” Yashiro, the titular heroine of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the hostess with the mostest working in a bar within Tokyo’s Ginza district, one of the most expensive and luxurious districts in the world. The profession of bar hostess is very much a Japanese phenomenon, primarily female staff who cater to men seeking drinking and attentive conversations. Regardless of what exactly defines a bar vs. pub vs. nightclub, the establishments featured in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs are of the highest class with the bar deco seen throughout the film being to absolutely die for. When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is one of the best examples of a film to really capture the essence of the nocturnal urban jungle with this dark and brooding melodrama being shot in velvety black & white with stunning widescreen cinematography. This mood is also exemplified right from the opening credits with its Saul Bass-style minimalist illustrations of bar interiors accompanied by the music score courtesy of Toshiro Mayuzumi, comprised of very soothing, xylophone-infused, 60’s-style lounge music (sadly no soundtrack release or isolated score appears to exist). With this setting, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs has a Casablanca-like flavour with a cast (featuring many character actors) conducting conversations with sublime etiquette amongst a smoke-drenched atmosphere.
It is established in a subtle manner that there is an expectation for hostesses to sleep with their clients. Keiko outright says she is a conservative woman who doesn’t want to lower her standards as she battles to make a living while retaining her self-respect as well as staying faithful to her late husband. Keiko does not actually enjoy the job of being a bar hostess, hence the metaphor of the film’s title – ascending the stairs is an uphill battle to survive as she faces her job and life in general with a fake smile and glass in hand (at one point she is desperate enough to even visit a fortune teller to fork out a future path). Keiko is given the nickname of Mama-san, which I do find odd as she is only 30 years old but I guess that is still past the spring of her life. Due to this, she faces a crossroads in her life if she wants to maintain her standards – get married or open her own bar.
In one key scene, Keiko speaks to the bar’s owner after closing time whom she tells Keiko, “Isn’t your kimono rather subdued? A colourful one is better” (according to the film’s opening, Takamine herself designed the film’s costuming). A lot of implications come out of this one request and it is by another woman, enforcing a culture and expectation for hostesses to sleep with their clients. That brings to mind the other famous form of Japanese hostess, the geisha (of whom during the film one does appear in the bar Keiko works in much to her displeasure). There do exist a number of parallels between When A Woman Ascends The Stairs and Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Geisha (1953), both detailing women who are being forced to sleep with clients in order to stay afloat with such cultures being enforced by the female owners of the establishments – I do recommend both pictures for a double feature. Following the despair brought on by her failure to either get married or open her own bar, Keiko does eventually sleep with a client, Mr Fujisaki (Nobuhiko), or I should more accurately say is raped by him. Yet the morning after she expresses happiness to Fujisaki and expresses her love to him (make of that what you will). The closest the film has to a purveyor of morality is the bar manager Kenichi Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai), as he always refuses the advances of women in the bar and holds great admiration for Keiko for her conservative standards (“You can’t find many women like her in Ginza”).
When A Woman Ascends The Stairs features a lot of talk about money and the pursuit of it (we even see the use of the ancient abacus is still in effect as electronic calculators were not yet the norm) from unpaid bills from Keiko’s last bar to the investment of her own place to the money she has to send to her ungrateful family. Even in this heartless world, the talk of finance doesn’t even halt when Keiko is recovering from a stomach ulcer but more significantly, in the wake of a woman’s suicide over her own financial woes, creditors make an appearance at her funeral to ask the family for the money she owed them (debt cancellation after death doesn’t appear to exist). All this discussion of money does slightly work against the film’s favour to the western viewer unless you are an expert in Japanese currency as due to the nature of the Japanese yen and inflationary changes since 1960, it’s hard to quantify just how much money the character’s in the film are discussing. Nonetheless, I have done the research to quantify several key amounts mentioned throughout the picture. The 170,000 yen of Keiko’s unpaid bills from her last place is approximately 7,500 US dollars in 2023, her 30,000 yen apartment rent is 1,700 dollars and the 20,000 yen she gives to her family every month is 1,100 dollars.
By the conclusion of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, nothing is resolved, Keiko is back at square one and has resigned to her fate. Hideko Takamine has that balance of lovability but also a strong sense of perseverance and stoicism and with the universality of many films from Japan’s golden age of cinema and regardless of the specifics of Keiko’s story, being stuck in a vicious circle of which there is no easy escape is one many a viewer can relate to with the continued ascension of those stairs.