When a Women Ascends The Stairs (1960): A Prescient Portrait of Japan

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A version of this review was first published in Film Inquiry

If director Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds is a film about making peace with the war years, then When a Woman Who Ascends The Stairs is a far more forward-thinking endeavor. In fact, I would say it’s a near-prescient portrait of where Japan has ventured now over 60 years onward.

One lady comments you can still see the old Tokyo but it’s obvious — even the classy scoring and the generally sleek compositions suggest as much — modern society is upon us in full force.

It’s the 1960s built on the bedrock of a post-war economy. In a highly fashionable area like Ginza — renowned even today for its shopping and glamour — the western influence is undeniable. Most of the film doesn’t take place on the main streets, however, but in the back alcoves in the lines of bars hidden away. Even here the American influence is felt with many of the bar names deriving from English.

What’s presented is a different type of life, even as it presents its own fashionable conception of the world.  Mama-san (Hideko Takamine), as she is known by all, is one of the women living in this world. She is a kind of hostess. If it’s a euphemism or not, I can’t entirely say.

Still, her entire existence can be summed up by one early shot. The daunting stairs winding up in front of her toward her work. In a practical sense, they lead up to the bar she frequents every evening dutifully, but Naruse’s shot comes to represent something far more.

I’m not sure if we could call it the stairs toward the glass ceiling exactly, but it is true she enters a new world when she steps into work every day. She must fortify herself. She has an untenable veneer built up over the years.

It braces her to be the perfect hostess to all, balancing her customers’ entreaties and come-ons with the utmost ease and floating from each conversation with impeccable tact. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she works with her longtime manager and bill collector (Tatsuya Nakadai) trying to eke by paying off the creditors they must rent from.

It’s never a sustainable life. Trying to keep customers happy while getting by on only the smallest of margins. Even a regular, named Minaboe, has started frequenting another place. His absence hurts her business. Thankfully, there is other clientele to work on and so she does her best to keep them happy while never quite acquiescing to their wishes. For 5 years in this tawdry business, she’s kept strong in this regard.

Because this is a film all about sex really, though we never see it outright. And if it is about sex, then it’s only as a commodity, a tool, a bargaining chip to be used. Despite being a story about women giving companionship to men on their business trips and away from their wives, for the longest time, no notion of actual love is developed. This should not catch us by surprise.

It is business first. Mama-san is expected to supply small talk and the girls that work under her flirt with the patrons over drinks. But as Keiko later admits, when she returns to her humbler roots, it’s all a created fabrication. They wear kimonos, buy perfume, and pay for taxis and apartments they can barely afford, way above their paygrade just so they can maintain the fantasy for their obliging audience. Meanwhile, there’s another side, a lot more disheartening and downright heartbreaking.

It’s the undercurrent of Tokyo if you wander into the red district or happen to step outside the confines of the beautifully cultivated exterior. It’s not a lie — all the things in front — but there is so much more to contend with. Love hotels, geishas, and hordes of hostesses to go with them. What do they beget? Among many things suicide, loneliness, and helplessness.

If there is any other film I found myself cycling back to it was actually Imitation of Life, directed by the master of luscious American melodrama Douglas Sirk. It also was about a strong single woman trying to make her way in a world all but dominated by men. If it was true in America, it was even more so in an albeit modernized Japan.

Hideko Takamine faces much of the same struggles as Lana Turner in the movie from a year prior when it comes to her own dreams — in this case, gathering enough funds to open her own bar. The only way to get ahead seems to be settling and giving in to the constant implicit or explicit demands of men. Because they hold the power. Society has certain set expectations. So they must play the game or live a life like hamsters on a wheel, in a constantly spinning wheel of survival.

Turner’s life is equally complicated by her relationship or lack thereof with her daughter (Sandra Dee). But in a manner indicative of Japanese culture, Reiko must deal with a nagging mother and a timid brother who are constantly dependent on her for money. It’s the tug and war between familial duty and what she aspires to.

It starts being a film about love once Mama-san finally relents and opens herself up to be hurt. She’s finally human and loves, and the scenes that evolve out of this development are the film’s most devastating. What makes them even more impactful is how they just keep building off one another, scene after scene. There is no relief in this barrage of pain, rejection, and heartbreak that our heroine is taxed with.

There was a certain continuity created between Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori thanks to their work together in Floating Clouds and yet the relationships go still further. She’s proposed to and berated and lied to and loved. And yet at the end of the day, she must put a cap on her emotions and saunter up those same solitary steps and put on the genteel facade expected of her. The final action, the smile on the face, and then the token salutation, a last touch of irony.

Even with its touches of humor, in an expression or a line of dialogue, it’s nowhere close to the campy, technicolor crescendo Sirk cooked up for Imitation of Life. But as Sirk was capable of dissecting American life, I would wager Naruse is equally perceptive and adept when it comes to Japan.

Satire and sarcasm infused in drama do not function in the same manner in Japan. In its place, Naruse commits irrevocably to his story and consequently provides another moving examination of his culture. It has a lot to say about a Japan that still seems to exist to this very day in ever-evolving forms.  Loneliness, suicide, and patriarchal ways are not just specters out of the past; they are alive and well to this day.

My last thought is only this. Setsuko Hara was the first Japanese actress I truly recognized across a body of the work; she was a luminary personality, and Hideko Takamine might be right below her, proving herself to be incomparable in her own right.

The performance she gives her yet again is so potent with the range and verisimilitude to all but carry the picture. She’s spellbinding, beautiful, and simultaneously breaks our hearts with the depth of her vulnerability. I won’t be forgetting it any time soon. Because in one go she effectively represents an entire subset of human beings and imbues them with unmistakable pathos.

4.5/5 Stars

Floating Clouds (1955): Capturing Japan’s Post-War Zeitgeist

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The Odyssey to finally get to Mikio Naruse has been a long and arduous one. I must admit, like many before me, his name carries none of the recognition we commonly lavish upon Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and a select few. So, for the longest time, there was no pursuit. His name was totally unknown.

However, as you begin to familiarize yourself with Japanese cinema (and I must admit to still being a relative novice), there are certain names that you keep coming back to. Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa fall right behind the illustrious trifecta. Certainly, you have the Japanese New Wave directors like Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

However, for some reason, I just could not stop thinking about Mikio Naruse. It seemed like I was always being reminded of him. Whether it was Kurosawa praising his writing or Hirokazu Kore-eda saying his style was more akin to the lineage of Naruse and not Ozu. Again, it reflects an oversight on many film aficionados. We do not pay Naruse much respect because, frankly, there’s not much access to his work in America.

In fact, because I am so fortunate to come of age as a cinema lover in a world that is so globalized, with content so accessible, it is not a form of helplessness that I have felt too often. It’s not simply a matter of his film’s being hard to come by; it felt like only a few were readily available.

This absence of his work made it all the more imperative to reach him. Finally, I can attest to dipping into his filmography and finding myself deeply fortunate to have made his acquaintance. If it’s allowable to use a German word to describe a Japanese condition, Floating Clouds captures the zeitgeist of Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

The film’s structure feels as fluid as its title. It trusts the audience to follow along without voiceover cues of any kind, drifting in and out of the present and flashbacks set before the war had ended. This is the fashion in which we get to know our two “destitute expatriates” now reunited in 1946.

They met for the first time in Indochina. It’s a world we can contrast with another romance like Red Dust. An outpost out in the forests of Asian proves a far more bearable place to pass the war.  If you recall, the earlier film is made by the red hot chemistry between Clark Gable and Jean Harlow (and with Mary Astor).

Except in such a patriarchal society, like Japan, it always seems to be the man who has the say. Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) begins his acquaintance with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) with slight jabs at her, all but solidifying his gruff character for the entirety of the film. These rocky foundations give way to passionate romance and Naruse does something dynamic by cutting right between a kiss in the past to one in the present. So much has changed and yet nothing at all. Much of Floating Clouds is about this reconciling this past with the present.

The pensive serenity is one of the unifying hallmarks of the picture. This is another point of departure with a Hollywood romance like Red Dust. This, paradoxically, feels like a grand statement — choosing a tranquil path in a medium that is so often filled with noise and a world full of constant turbulence.

Even in considering his countrymen, Kurosawa is often more dynamic in composition and action. Thus, it seems most obvious to contrast Naruse with Ozu. However, whereas Ozu heralds his presence within the frames through the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, you do not necessarily see this to the same degree in Floating Clouds.

It is stripped down to a near Verite approach, which still cannot be mistaken for shoddy work. In fact, it boasts beautiful interludes between two people on par with a picture like Late Spring. It’s not a perfectly ordered fabrication of reality where human drama plays out. The spaces feel rich with the impoverished and worn layers of Japan as it lay. The people are much the same, unadorned yet imbued with truth.

Hideko Takamine is extraordinary for how she is able to manage a spectrum of emotions — exuding an inner strength and individuality — while still giving way to honest feelings of regret. She can be the adulterer, the nagging lover, the broken heart, all of the above , as they cycle through time.

No less important is Masayuki Mori as he acts as her perfect counterpoint. He gives her nothing, or at least very little. Every potentially thoughtful action is dismissed and any form of commitment is avoided doggedly. There is even so much about their preferred temperaments putting them at odds. It seems like circumstance and they’re own interactions together all but destined them to part ways and move on with life. He returns to his wife “nobly,” while she is supported by the brother-in-law who formerly took advantage of her. Every relationship is riddled with these personal dilemmas.

There is another brief snapshot that resonated with me — both in its mild humor and how it proved indicative of the times — when Yukiko is walking down a street alone. In the periphery, we see what looks to be a Japanese woman with an American G.I. He seems to be at least a head taller than everyone else. Then, almost on cue there comes a voice, speaking my native tongue: English.

It’s a second G.I. looking for a date, and he affably asks her in broken, bastardized Japanese (rather like what I’m capable of speaking), if she’s alone and where she’s going. She simply smiles and moves on, either to brush him off or resign herself to a superficial evening of companionship. He exists as more of an archetype than a fully defined character even given that his name is “Joe.”

However, what it provides is a fascinating counterpoint to what we are used to in our little universe, where everything commonly revolves around the western world, if not America. Pictures like House of Bamboo, Sayonara, Teahouse of the August Moon, they all give us a very specific and tailored experience.

It’s somewhat strange and fascinating to feel like the “other.” The soldier here is the sailor in Lola (1961) or the soldier in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). In fact, they all serve much the same function. They come to represent a different type of relationship and with it a diverging life, even if it’s only meant to be a momentary fleeting fancy. 

This is not a picture where we see the chaos and the bloodshed. After all, these two were the “lucky ones” stationed in Indochina. And yet we see the shadowy imprint of a former life involving suffering, poverty, and the ignominy of surrender. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to claim Floating Clouds somehow channeled the thoughts and feelings of a generation. The Best Years of Our Lives might be similar to a generation of Americans.

Consequently, as a viewer in this contemporary moment and an American on top of that, there is a realization of how much I take for granted in this story. I am more like the American soldier than I am this couple. It proves a humbling observation, carving a path toward some sense of empathy.

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 Eventually, her lover turns up again — still as brusque and egocentric as ever, looking around at her plain surroundings and commenting on how well she’s doing. These types of evasive, indirect proclamations are all she ever gets. So she’s hanging on his words, getting whisked this way and that with partial promises and empty hopes, never going anywhere. Later on, he has his eyes on the pretty young wife (Mariko Okada) of an acquaintance (even soaking in the public bath together). After all, in superficial terms, she is much more “desirable.”

To consider the American soldier again, he was on leave for two months before shipping home. Even in the short amount of time, he was overflowing with geniality. If we take Floating Clouds as indicative of all of Japanese society, it proves a telling portrait. There is no affection or sense of vulnerability within men. Endemic to the society and more so a holdover of the war. It’s not simply about women being overly emotional, though this is often the cultural expectation. More emphatically so, the men lack any type of emotion. They are ingrained with this stoic (sho ga nai) mentality.

There are numerous walk-and-talks, and the scenery and setup might as well be interchangeable, but the subtext and junctures in their lives are starkly different each time. So we have all these snippets wedged in between their life events as they orbit in and out of each other’s lives.

It’s easy enough to juxtapose it with Citizen Kanes dinner table scene where a relationship is seen crumbling in a matter of minutes. Stretched out as it is, within Floating Clouds, these walks continue this metaphor of progression. It is the progress of life, of a relationship, and of the world existing around us. Because while the steps might remain the same, the circumstances are different around every bend. Time marches on with each footfall.

It’s not about being ships in the night either — that they missed out on one another’s company — simply put, they are abrasive together. Their traits and identities are constantly causing them to attract and repel each other again and again.

The lasting image is a bent head, but this is not one of Ozu’s quiet forlorn scenes where a father has just made the honorable decision to give up his daughter. These are ugly, bitter tears. He is weeping. And this man, for the first time in his life, is providing physical acknowledgment of how much another individual human being meant to him. In a Hollywood picture, the action would be meaningful, but not unprecedented. In this movie, it feels heart-wrenching because we have yet to anything so transparent.

It’s an evocative final note in a work rarely prone to this kind of overt outpouring. It’s the cathartic release in a bittersweet tragedy. All we can do is bemoan the fact this man was never vulnerable enough to admit the depths of his love during life. Unfortunately, in this particular life, there is no resurrection.

4.5/5 Stars