Amongst film directors from Japan, there are three that are the most internationally recognized: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. Each of them has a certain claim to fame. Kurosawa, for his sweeping epics of samurai and sword play. Ozu, for his immaculte depictions of every day life for the common family, and the delights and dissapointments that are brought on with the passage of time. Mizoguchi, both for his vivid period films and stirring contemporary films focused on the difficulties of women in society.
Outside of Japan, Mikio Naruse is relatively unknown compared to these three, although he is often considered as just below them in prestige. Naruse was a contemporary of them, and directed around 80 films in his lifetime. Naruse even was trained at the same studio along with Ozu, and the two are often compared together for their thematic focus on the Japanese family in transition as the culture was rapidly becoming urbanized. Yet Naruse's films have a much bleaker viewpoint, with none of the transcendence or light comedy of Ozu's. His filming is less stylized and not as recognizably "Japanese" as his contemporaries, although the content and heart of his films were completely relevant to the society. These features may be why Naruse has been long overlooked in international film studies. Naruse's storytelling, however, is just as finely crafted as those of his contemporaries. With films centering
around strong female characters, Naruse's stories are rich with emotional depth and clarity. The strengths that lie at the heart of his films are exemplified in his 1960 film, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs follows the story of Keiko Yashiro, played by Hideko Takamine, an aging widow working as a bar hostess in the glittering nightlife district of Ginza in Tokyo. She was married at a very young age to her true love - who died in a truck accident, leaving her with nothing. Now, after turning to hostessing to support herself, Keiko is too old for her line of work and finds her future prospects closing in around her.
In the first ten minutes of the film the audience is shown how Keiko can escape her life as a hostess. In the opening scene, the other hostesses from her bar are celebrating the marriage of one of their former co-workers. Marriage is one way out. After being scolded for poor sales by the owner of the bar, Keiko wishes she could open up her own bar and be her own boss. Investing and becoming a self-employed entrepreneur is another way out. Naruse then presents the darkest, and most extreme alternative - as Keiko returns to the bar, a crowd of hostesses gather around a stretcher being rushed into an ambulance. A hostess from another bar has committed suicide. Death is another way out. These are the options available to Keiko, each confining in a different way. Marriage would permanently make her dependant on a man, and owning a bar would commit her to a business that she despises. Death would be completely giving up, proving that she was unable to handle the difficulties forced upon her.
Keiko's obstinence, and her absolute refusal to humiliate herself for anyone else's gain, demonstrates Naruse's attention to the emotional realities of women. The entire world of the Ginza bar is not seen from the customer's perspective - an entitled male perspective - but from the worker's behind-the-scenes viewpoint. The film shows how they approach their work, and is not the narrow portrait of the giggling and charming hostess only there to serve her patron. Even if the other hostesses are not as emotionally burdened as Keiko, they each have their own emotional core and physical reality that their actions stem from. For each of them lies the struggle of earning a profit, maintaining self respect, and preserving the outward image of a woman who is self-reliant. Yuki, the owner of Keiko's rival bar, buys a car even as she struggles to cover her dept. Keiko struggles with debt as well, as she can barely
afford her appartment and a new kimono. For these women, the physical demands of reality are
innescapable. The glitz and glam of Ginza nightlife is not the reality for them, it is the image they are bound to uphold for their customers. Keiko's reality is one of dissapointments, debts, and self compromise.
Naruse's outlook is bleak, but the attention he gives to telling the lives of his characters is absolute. His insight to the struggles of women is as illuminating as it is grim. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is an excellent introduction to the richness of Naruse's storytelling, and a film that can hopefully draw more viewers into Naruse's world of strong female characters.