Friday, 27 July 2007

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Japan, 1960, Mikio Naruse)

The BFI Southbank showed a retrospective of the shamefully overlooked Japanese director this July, of which this film was the focal point, and according to many, the high watermark of Naruse’s career. Most discussions about the early post-war Japanese cinema concentrate on the three directors known in the West; Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. There is certainly no reason why on the basis of this masterpiece that Naruse should not be discussed in the same breath. Many of his other films which I’ve yet to see (‘Repast’, ‘Floating Clouds) are reportedly the equal of ‘When a Woman Ascends the Stairs’, yet very little of his output is available on DVD; just the three film box set at present, though perhaps this might change in the near future. Thematically, Naruse has much in common with Mizoguchi, concentrating on the position of women in Japanese society, their subjugation and mistreatment by men and his sympathy usually resides with those women on the margins of society, such as Mama San, the heroine of this film.

A hostess approaching her thirtieth birthday, an age where women in her profession are considered past their sell by date, Mama San yearns to own her own bar, yet she’d require the patronage of a wealthy backer, which would be unlikely without prostituting herself. Yet Mama San is a dignified woman, far more refined and virtuous than some of her fellow hostesses. She frequently mentions that women should not be loose and that they lose their charm if they fool around. Despite the nature of her profession, Mama San aims for respectability; she hates the ascent she makes from the respectable street level life to the more sordid world of her work. Mama San is caught in a vicious circle she can’t leave; a widow since her husband was run over, she supports her feckless family as well as her own son. An impossible set of pressures to balance, Mama San makes a number of poor decisions thereafter, though never once loses the sympathy of the director.

Aware of the need to find a rich husband, she agrees to marry Sakine, an amiable large man, who is more respectful towards Mama San than many of her clients, even though she does not love her. Her nephew needs an operation to walk, but her act of self-sacrifice comes to nothing when she discovers that Sakine has a wife and has little money. Shattered, she starts to drink herself to death and becomes everything she vowed not to become, allowing herself to be seduced by Fujisaki, a man who loves her, but cannot bring himself to break up his family to be with her. Mama San’s manager who also loves her, is aware of this and informs her that he is disappointed in her and lost all respect for her. Mama San refuses to marry him, thus leaving her in the same position that she began the film, only compromised in her morals and in fear of being ‘past it’.

Like Mizoguchi, Naruse was a master at examining the role and position of women in Japanese society, though his interest was in more contemporary settings and environments than Mizoguchi, who approached these themes from a more historical perspective. Always sympathetic to his females, he presents the men on whom they depend as fickle and weak, always ready to betray and sacrifice them. The man Mama San loves is unattainable, yet keeps her at sufficient distance to give her hope, and the man she agrees to marry isn’t what he appears to be at all. The dashing of these dreams sends her into a downward spiral she doesn’t recover from. The unglamorous world of these late night bars are seen as traps that these women cannot remove themselves from; the potential riches derived from them are enticing enough to make women consider compromising themselves, and those not willing to totally give themselves to them are in danger of falling apart. A tragic, heartbreaking tearjerker.

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