When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a careful character study of Keiko, a widowed bar hostess in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza neighbourhood. At age 30, Keiko faces three life choices: to remarry before her society regards her as too old to do so, to become a kept woman of a wealthy business owner, or to open her own bar, for which she will need financial assistance from men. She realises the dangers of all three options and fears losing her independence and dignity.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a poignant portrait of Keiko, a widowed 30-year-old bar hostess whom everyone respectfully calls ‘Mama’, as she works in Tokyo’s Ginza, the entertainment district associated with high fashion and luxury. Played by the glamorous Takamine Hideko (1924– 2010), Keiko is older and wiser than her peers and is most desired by male customers. In her adherence to dignity above all, Keiko contrasts with the characters around her, including her former rival Yuri who commits suicide, the young hostess Junko who tries to turn difficulties of the job to her advantage, her male manager Komatsu who is in love with her but exploits other women, and her mother and brother in the countryside who scorn her profession yet need her financial support. Keiko suffers from debts, customers’ demands, stress ulcers, internal dilemmas, and betrayals by the people she had trusted, all of which she expresses to the film audience through voiceovers.
Although dark, this elegant film is an enlightening view into the lives of bar hostesses, who rarely wrote or filmed their own stories, and the poverty behind Ginza’s opulent image. Director Naruse Mikio (1905–1969), famous for his pessimism toward human nature and Tokyo society, uses an all-star cast, elaborate stage sets, and simple camerawork to offer a parable of survival.
Naruse, who produced around 89 films in his career that spanned 1930 to 1967, has been praised for his empathetic portrayals of the daily lives of working women from the lower middle classes. Naruse’s films feature female protagonists who are more honourable and determined than their peers and family members, with whom they often fight, and are constricted by their economic situations, domestic responsibilities, and by their inabilities to advance in the larger patriarchal society around them. Keiko is a prime example of how Naruse’s women strive to improve their lives by taking the initiative in their families or in the service industries where they work, while realising they are most likely doomed to fail. As Naruse said of his characters, ‘If they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall’. 1 Film critic Donald Richie observed, ‘Tragedy is constantly hanging over Naruse’s characters, and they are never more vulnerable than when they for once decide upon a personal choice of action’. 2 Naruse often cast Hideko Takamine as his female lead, especially after he divorced actress Chiba Sachiko who had starred in his Wife! Be Like a Rose (Tsuma yo bara no yo ni, 1935). The collaboration between Naruse and Takamine began with Hideko the Bus Conductress (Hideko no shasho–san, 1941), which he had named after her. Takamine designed the costumes for When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Naruse adapted literature, including Nobel Laureate Kawabata Yasunari’s novel Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, 1954) and six stories by Hayashi Fumiko, known for her depictions of women who persevere in the face of hardship, including Lightning (Inazuma, 1952), Late Chrysanthemum (Bangiku, 1954), and Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955).3 When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, however, is based on an original script by Kikushima Ryu-zo- who also wrote for Kurosawa Akira.
Naruse uses Ginza, Tokyo’s most affluent commercial district, to convey the importance of money, a theme of the film. Ginza was constructed as a showpiece of Japanese urban modernisation in the late nineteenth century and became known for lavish cafés, bars, and department stores in the 1920s. The 1950s Ginza was the site of expensive hostess bars, where women served and flirted with men as café waitresses had in the 1920s. Scenes of Ginza streets frame the beginning and end of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. In her opening voiceover, Keiko explains that Ginza bars during the day are like ‘women without makeup’, indicating to the film audience that she will reveal what these places of labour are truly like beneath their veneer. Naruse set most scenes inside bars and other spaces considered modern at the time, including high-rent Western-style apartments where most people could not afford to live. The jazzy xylophone film score by Mayuzumi Toshiro furthers this stylish atmosphere, inspired by American fashions. The destruction of Tokyo during the Second World War and its recovery and growth after is alluded to in other ways. Ginza hostesses joke about foreigners (implied Americans) who kiss and drink cocktails mixed with juice. Bars are stocked with supplies obtained from middlemen who go to the black markets, although not directly referred to as such. Strategically placed daytime scenes of Keiko’s hometown in an outlying province and of Tokyo suburban streets where children play form visual contrasts to Ginza.
Through voiceovers and conversations with other characters, Keiko explains the business of running a bar in Ginza and aspects of her job that the film audience presumably does not know. Bar hostesses differ from geisha, who were paid entertainers trained in classical Japanese arts, and from the various kinds of sex workers in immediate post-war Tokyo. Although Keiko is visually distinguished from the other bar hostesses by wearing kimono instead of dresses and by plainly tying her hair, she does not symbolise a woman of a past era. Instead, she is grounded in the circumstances of 1950s Tokyo. Keiko represents the large number of women who came to Tokyo from the countryside seeking employment in the rapidly developing city – part of the ‘urban poor’, as the bar hostesses remark. Hostesses know that the ability to handle men is the key to their survival. Keiko finds ways to subtly refuse the advances of the men she serves, but she is not immune to falling in love with them. In a voiceover, she comments that Ginza’s 16,000 hostesses head home between 11:30 pm and 1:00 am, the best leaving by taxi, the middle tier by train, and the worst going home with their customers. Keiko explains that if hostesses did not wear expensive clothing and perfume, take taxies, and live in apartments, male customers would lose interest in them. She is shown performing degrading tasks, such as visiting her customers’ offices to try to collect the money to pay their tabs. During a fight with her mother, Keiko most ardently states her disgust with her lifestyle of drinking too much, being the plaything of men, and going into debt in order to maintain a fashionable appearance in Tokyo and send an allowance to her family. In reality, there would have been other choices, albeit few, for a woman like Keiko. Most female office workers quit while in their twenties or after they had married, and factory labour was arduous and with low pay. Keiko’s family did not own a farm or business. The film implies that Keiko and her peers chose to be hostesses because of the glamorous image and potential for higher salaries than other occupations. None of the hostesses in the film quits and finds a different profession; instead the hostesses reiterate their goal of opening their own bars. Keiko does not want to return to the tedium of countryside life and enjoys living apart from her mother and brother and the financial problems they face.
The wealthy men who frequent the bars where Keiko works represent jobs profitable and powerful at the time, especially owners of the large factories that were propelling Japan’s economy premised on manufacturing. Most are middle-aged and married. The theme of married men chasing other women is present in other Naruse films, including Wife! Be Like a Rose about a man with two wives. Arguably, the trio of main male characters who pursue Keiko represent her three general choices: the manager who is in love with her and would like to marry her, Sekine who proposes marriage but has a wife, Fujisawa who offers money to help her establish her own bar.
A very short sequence of Keiko’s lower legs, clad in kimono, and feet in elegant geta sandals ascending the stairs to the bars where she works is used as a visual motif and plot device and is accompanied by Keiko’s voiceovers. In the beginning of the film, Keiko tells the film audience that climbing these stairs is what she hates most in life, but once she had ascended them, she ‘took everyday as it came’. As she left one bar to work in another, the staircase changed. Importantly, Keiko is only shown ascending and not descending stairs. Her struggle to elevate her financial position and find a sense of security is an upward climb; the steps symbolise the series of disappointments, disillusionments, and bad decisions she endures. Yet she does not submit to any kind of downfall. In the beginning of the film, this sequence is followed by a close-up of Keiko’s face as she feigns a smile at her male customers, which fades after they leave. In general, Naruse shows his characters in continual motion, walking Tokyo streets, riding in buses and cars, and working while on their feet. This action can be read allegorically as their quest for social and economic mobility.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs does not idealise the bar hostess, moralise about her, or provide her with a sense of redemption. The final image of Ginza is associated with strength and perseverance but not with hope. Naruse provides his female characters with more agency to determine their life courses than his contemporary Mizoguchi Kenji (1898–1956) did in his films of women who had fallen into compromising positions, such as his 1936 Osaka Elegy (Naniwa erejı – ) and 1956 Street of Shame (Akasen chitai) set in a Tokyo brothel. A more optimistic portrait of hostesses is presented in author Ariyoshi Sawako’s 1961 ‘The Tomoshibi’, a charming story about women who find confidence through the positive atmosphere at the Ginza bar where they work. As remarked by film critic Phillip Lopate, ‘One of the charms of Naruse’s art is its earned pessimism. It takes for granted that life is unhappy; therefore, we can relax in the possession of sadness, acquiesce from the start to a fated disenchantment, the only suspense being how he will bring it about this time’. 4 When a Woman Ascends the Stairs was adapted into a six-episode television drama, starring Ogawa Mayumi, which aired on the Nihon Terebi commercial network from January 5 to February 9, 1970.
1. Lopate, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
2. Richie, One Hundred Years of Japanese Film, p. 127.
3. See Russell, ‘From Women’s Writing to Women’s Films in 1950s Japan’.
4. Lopate, ‘A Taste for Naruse’, p. 12.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Toho Company. Director: Mikio Naruse. Screenwriter: Ryu-zoKikushima, Cinematographer: Masao Tamai. Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi. Cast: Hideko Takamine (Keiko Yahiro), Masayuki Mori (Nobuhiko Fujjasaki), Reiko Dan (Junko Inchihashi), Tatsuya Nakadai (Kenichi Komatsu), Ganjiro- Nakamura (Goda), Daisuke Kato- (Matsukichi Sekine), Eitaro- Ozawa (Minobe), Keiko Awaji (Yuri).]
Sawako Ariyoshi, ‘The Tomoshibi’, trans. Keiko Nakamura, in Makoto Ueda (ed.), The Mother of Dreams and Other Stories: Portraits of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction, Tokyo, Kodansha International, 1986, pp. 240–57.
Phillip Lopate, ‘A Taste for Naruse’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1986, pp. 11–21.
Phillip Lopate, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs: They Endure, The Criterion Collection, February 19, 2007. Available at www.criterion.com/current/ posts/471-when-a-woman-ascendsthe-stairs-theyendure (accessed 27 August 2012).
Donald Richie, One Hundred Years Of Japanese Film, Tokyo, Kodansha International, 2001.
Catherine Russell, Catherine, ‘From Women’s Writing to Women’s Films in 1950s Japan: Hayashi Fumiko and Naruse Mikio’, Asian Journal of Communication, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2009, pp. 101–20.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.