When A Woman Ascends The Stairs

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"I hate to ascend the stairs," says Keiko, known to her clients as Mama-San, upon facing another night's work. Keiko is a hostess in the bars where prosperous Japanese businessmen go to drink and be entertained. Her living depends on smiling, laughing, flattering, and generally making sure everyone has a good time, but at the end of it all she has very little energy left for herself.

Now she has reached a turning point in her life. She must decide whether to marry - if a suitable opportunity presents itself - or whether to launch her own bar. Either way, she needs male protection and support. Meanwhile her family, who consider her rich because of the luxurious trappings she needs to sustain her business, exert continual pressure on her to support them.

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Despite being nearly 50 years old, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs comes across as a thoroughly modern film; but then, the issues it deals with are timeless ones. It is modern in its willingness to explore the situation from Keiko's point of view and to lay bare the grim reality behind her apparently glamorous lifestyle.

Though shot in black and white, its rich visuals provide a luminous depiction of the classy yet seedy world of the hostess bars, contrasting them with the homes of the poor, which are shot in a more traditional, almost nostalgic style. This visual eloquence cleverly underscores the film's more brutal exploration of Keiko's plight.

Though not overtly feminist and, indeed, romantic in its approach to feminine virtue, it's not shy about stressing the injustice which she faces. To marry - even a man who loved her - would be, in its way, another form of prostitution, giving up what freedom she has in exchange for financial security. To open her own bar would mean being trapped in the hostess world forever, condemned to repeat the actions which she despises ever more. Meanwhile, though one after another of the men in her life fall in love with her, entranced by her virtue and fortitude, she is devastatingly lonely, with no-on in whom to confide. Happiness is only ever temporary and, even then, is difficult for her to find without compromising herself.

In the role of Keiko, Hideko Takamine gives the performance of a lifetime, ably illustrating her distress even whilst she wears a painted smile. Though the formalities of polite behaviour limit her means of expression, her subtle glances and gestures enable the viewer to feel continually connected to her, drawn into her private world. It is this sense of intimacy which gives the film its real power. It also enables it to cross linguistic and cultural barriers, so it's not necessary to be Japanese to relate to what's happening and be affected by it. This is a truly universal film; it's a grim one, and at times difficult to watch, but it's a highly accomplished piece of cinema which should not be missed.

Reviewed on: 28 Jun 2007
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A middle aged hostess struggles to preserve her virtue as she faces financial difficulty and a critical life decision.
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Director: Mikio Naruse

Writer: Ryuzo Kikushima

Starring: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Reiko Dan, Tatsuya Nakadai, Daisuke Katô, Ganjiro Nakamura, Eitarô Ozawa, Keiko Awaji

Year: 1960

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Japan


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