Mikio Naruse was a Japanese film director who was often thought of as the Fourth Wheel of Japanese Cinema during the mid-20th Century, safely ensconced behind the Trinity of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirô Ozu. Of course, there were other directors, like Masayaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa, who could also claim that Fourth Wheel status, but of the three non-trinity directors, Naruse’s work has probably been the least seen in America. Thus, popping in The Criterion Collection DVD of his 1960 film, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Onna Ga Kaidan Wo Agaru Toki), I had no preset expectations of what the film would bring, and whose style (if any, of the five other named directors, Naruse’s style would most be near.
The 111 minute black and white film is remarkably unsentimental in its portrait of the individuals who make a living working in the sex clubs along Tokyo’s business district, The Ginza. The film follows a thirtyish widow named Keiko (Hideko Takamine), known to all as Mama. When her husband died, she got into the hostess biz, which is basically the role of madam, who sells drinks and waitresses to the businessmen who frequent her bar. The role of the hostess is seemingly powerful, in that she builds brand loyalty for her sex outfit. She, herself stays above the sex game, but, at her age, she is at a crux- does she do one of the two things expected of her? Take a wealthy lover/patron and open up her own bar? Or, get married and lead the life. The film shows us other women who’ve done both, and two women who choose a third option- suicide to avoid debt. Yet, the film does not sentimentalize Mama’s plight- we see her as willful and scornful of her own family (she mocks her mother and scorns her dumb, ne’er do well brother and his polio-stricken son, even if she finally tries to help them), as well as generous to those she likes. We see she is intelligent, prone to human failings, but also lacking the willpower to really change her life. It is a great character and an excellent performance by Takamine.
She, however, is not alone in good performances. One of the suicides, Yuri (Keiko Awaji), one of Mama’s former girls, has struck out on her own, opened a bar, lured away Mama’s best customers, but still gotten into debt, and ends up killing herself, as a way to ease the shame. Her end is almost foretold by the revelation of the film’s first suicide’s tale, told in voiceover by Mama. Her boss, the bar manager, Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai, fresh off his role in Kobayashi’s The Human Condition), is in love with Mama, but loves her in an idolatric way. He sees her as ‘pure,’ after he finds out she deposited a love letter in her dead husband’s urn. But, we see that, despite her protests to the contrary, Mama does have an affinity for fine things, lest she would just up and walk away from it all. She doesn’t. She considers the advances of a wealthy man, Goda (Ganjiro Nakamura), to be his mistress. She accepts a marriage proposal from a sweet factory owner, Matsukichi Sekine (Daisuke Katô), a man who turns out to be a fraud, not unlike the character Oscar from Nights Of Cabiria. When she finds out he is really married and a serial cheat, she then throws herself at the banker she has long loved, the married with children Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori). They sleep together, although the camera work implies that there may have been force involved, but the next morning he announces that he is being transferred to Osaka. He leaves her some old stocks to help start her own bar, then gets them returned, when she gives them to his wife at the train station. The film ends with Mama returning to her bar, and ascending the same stairs she loathes. She seems to have accepted her life, and the film end with her plastering a phony smile on for the benefit of her customers.
The film employs a voiceover from Mama, which is detached, and often used to elide much of the drama into offstage action, as well as provide snippets of the social milieu in which Ginza Girls operate. A similar technique, and a similar female life were portrayed in Woody Allen’s 1988 film Another Woman, with Gena Rowlands in the lead role. Rowlands’ character, like Mam, is stuck in a dead end in her life. Whereas Mama’s is a professional dead end, Rowlands’ is personal. Both women come to epiphanies about their existences, but Mama does not take the will to power herself to something better. The Rowlands character does. Both women, however, look ahead with few regrets, and accept their lives for what they are. The only question that Mama may be left with is whether or not she realizes she is too weak to change, i.e.- is it a conscious choice?
As for the other factors in the film, high marks go to Ryuzo Kikushima’s screenplay. The film’s circularity works well, for people like Mama are the overwhelming norm in human societies. They are the nameless, faceless bitchers who, when the chance to improve comes, usually find some way to sidestep it. Toshiro Mayuzumi’s limpid cocktail jazz scoring is solid, since it never intrudes on the action, even if it is not particularly memorable. Masao Tamai’s cinematography is also solid. Naruse’s film is not as detail oriented as an Ozu film, nor is there the torrent of motion that many Kurosawa films have, but, even though much of the film was shot on sets, one does get a feel of authenticity in all the scenes. Again, the screenplay does much to help reinforce this feeling.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is one of its better packages since the company went to the stylized C logo. Often, in recent years, the company has skimped on even providing a commentary track. But this disk has one by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie. Richie is often hit and miss with his passion-free commentaries. He sometimes rambles off into minutia whilst an important scene that could be explicated plays on, and never quite gets to the deeper meanings of the art he surveys. Or, in a positive light, he can often reveal tidbits that core into a certain actor or performance that pays dividends later in the commentary. This commentary has both such highs and lows, but I reckon the highs win out by about a 60-40% margin, meaning this is one of Richie’s better efforts. A notable flaw, however, comes when Richie claims the film is a picaresque, unknowing, it seems, that picaresques involve scoundrels. It also seems the commentary was recorded in two stages (2004 and 2007). There is also a well made and informative question and answer session with lead male star Tatsuya Nakadai (Komatsu) on the film and his role in it. One of the good things about these sorts of interviews with foreign actors is how ‘real’ they sound, in comparison to their American counterparts. There is no salespeak going on. Nakadai is really thinking about his answers, and not just tossing off one liners and bon mots. The package also contains the film’s theatrical trailer, but lacks any English language audio dubbing. Criterion again goes in for their abysmal white only subtitle fonts that often get lost in black and white scenes. Fortunately, in this case, because the film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio- called Tohoscope, the subtitles all appear against the lower black band. Unfortunately, the print that the film is taken from was not good, and little seems to have been done to erase obvious damage- white marks, speckles, dirt streaks, ghosts, etc. All in all, one of the poorer cleanup jobs that Criterion has released. The package also features an insert booklet, with essays by film critics Audie Bock, Catherine Russell, and Phillip Lopate. Lopate’s is the most in depth essay, but Bock’s is the most relevant to the picture. Where Lopate often rambles on with trite observations, Bock’s prose is crisper, if less mellifluous, and is less self-indulgent.
Naruse’s film, if it lacks the poesy of the films of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu, makes up for that by being an outstanding example of filmic prose. Everything that occurs in the film is believable, sympathizable, and requires no leaps of logic (unlike filmic proesy which often requires Keatsian Negative Capability). Although Mama’s is a state of continual declension, there is no moment where she, nor the viewer, can go, ‘Aha, she’s now doomed!’ It simply proceeds too logically, really, and cruelly to have such a moment. And, while there is nothing approaching the overt violence of many of the American New Wave films of the late 1960s and 1970s, one can see, to some degree, how a film like this influenced later works by filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and others. And contrary to many critics, this film is anything but melodramatic. There are no forced scenes of weepiness, nor are there scenes that could be culled from a soap opera. The verité aspect of the screenplay (as mentioned above) is so wholly at odds with such claims, which makes one wonder why such claims would even be made? Is it that most critics simply do not understands what differentiates melodrama from drama? Or is it the old creeping illness of criticism- ‘critical cribbing’- wherein many critics do not even engage the works they are criticizing, they merely rewrite some points they’ve read from others’ reviews?
But what lifts this film from being merely good to arguably great, is that never is the heroine of the film portrayed as a victim. She is not at the whims of a cruel paternalistic and sexist society. She has her opportunities, but ignores some, and squanders others. Her rationale, as example, for turning down Komatsu’s proposal of marriage- the second such proposal she’s received in a brief period, is simply silly, and a cover for her own willful pride and arrogance. If he is, to her, the embodiment of the Ginza, and she must thus reject his advances, then why does she go back to the lifestyle she claims to detest? She, therefore, is the sole architect of her life’s stasis, if not failure. No one else. No thing else. So, the film is a sad one; not as sad and downbeat as Theo Angelopoulos’s Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, but perhaps even more depressing because, whereas the female heroine of that film fully earns the viewers’ sympathies for all she has suffered needlessly, Naruse’s heroine, by virtue of helping to fix her own sad state, does not even garner the grace of pity from most viewers. Her motto is, ‘I hated climbing those stairs more than anything. But once I was up, I would take each day as it came.’
Trite, but admirable. And these are qualities that many can relate to. Mama’s Sisyphan life is of her own making, but that is also, in an odd way, an admirable thing. She is not a mistress, not a prostitute, just a working woman trying to survive. And, unlike Cabiria, at the end of Nights Of Cabiria, the odds are that Mama will not just make it, but prosper, in her own way. This, in fact, puts her in league, along with other similarities, with the widow, played by Setsuko Hara, in Tokyo Story. Hers is surely a lonely life, and a frustrating one, but it is not one void of hope. Mama may not be the best example of what a woman of singular means can do by exercising her free will, but a freely deficient life is, in many, if not most, aspects, a superior life to those who cede their volition for material gains. Mama has seen this close up; so do the film’s viewers. Her choice may not be ours, but it is hers, and, in The Ginza of old, it seems, that meant alot. It still does, to those in the arts, and those in art itself.