When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Dir. Mikio Naruse, Japan, 1960

by Justin Stewart

Mikio Naruse was obscure enough as recently as autumn 2005 for NYC's Film Forum to dub its godsend retrospective The Unknown Japanese Master. "Unknown" might have taken things a touch far (there was a traveling retro in the Eighties, and several VHS titles are domestically available), but it's true that his films had seen neglect in the West in comparison to compatriots like Mizoguchi and Ozu. He was certainly new to me, and the series provided me manifold revelations and a new auteur crush, as I joined the curmudgeonly ranks of Naruse acolytes. His rep has slowly since grown; you see his name shuttle-cocked in print with growing frequency, and now Criterion has issued Region 1's first high-quality, tangible product (there's a pricey UK box out there), with more hinted at to come. Rather than moan about the "great wrong" that was the prior supposed oversight, better to cheer the correction—Naruse's is a special and essential vision.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is "mature" Naruse. (He made over 80 movies between 1930 and 1967, and he died in 1969.) It is of a whole with his other films of the era, beginning perhaps with 1953's Repast, his first of many adaptations of the novelist Fumiko Hayashi, all the way up until his final picture, the sumptuous Scattered Clouds. That stretch is clotted with high points (Yearning, Floating Clouds, Her Lonely Lane), of which Stairs is but one example. Like so many other lumped works (Rothko's color fields, Conan Doyle's collected Holmes stories), the masterpiece is not so much about the particulars as it is the combined entirety. In these films, Naruse repeatedly found beautiful, economical, and multifaceted ways of exploring his favorite topic—the futility of hope (despite the admirability and beauty of the hopeful)—that forms his overarching pessimism.

Not that Criterion settled on Stairs with a dice roll: it's an exquisite cocktail of established Naruse themes and a cosmopolitan Sixties cool, a welcome change of scenery from the hemmed-in settings of his other works, several of which seem to take place in the same mile stretch of dusty, suffocating households in small-town Japan. This is Tokyo's Ginza entertainment district, where the hostess's workday begins at dusk and pictures of Joseph Cotten and guitarist Julian Bream decorate the backrooms of nightclubs. It's a reunion between the director and many in his working family, including stars Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Daisuke Kato, as well as screenwriter Ryuzo Kikoshima and cinematographer Masao Tamai. But the music, by the prolific Toshiro Mayuzumi (he's scored numerous Imamura and Ozu movies), is a departure; the nonchalant bass and plinking piano both complement the heroine's inner dilemma and bring a refreshing sexiness to the filmmaker's sometimes oppressive world.

"Stretch yourself too far and you're bound to fail," a mother laments. Her daughter, a bar owner, has just killed herself, and she's venting to Keiko (Takamine), who is seeking to take over a club of her own. It's a sentiment that Naruse—whose most oft-quoted statement of philosophy is "the world we live in betrays us"—no doubt agrees with, even if its blunt pronouncement seems to lay it on thickly. The plight of Keiko in Stairs dramatizes the fact, but such a statement belies the courage and humor with which she faces it. An aging widower, Keiko is a bar madam at a crossroads nearing a life decision—settle down with one of many admiring patrons or open a place of her own. Neither choice, both made complicated by matters of money, particularly appeal to her. She's too cynical and feisty to fully embrace the wife role again (she buried her love, literally, in a note in an urn, with her dead husband) and, being a sort of cerebral type who also hates liquor, she cares little for clubs. What greets her when she does try to move, to step out of her conservative kimono and "matronly" hairstyle into a new chapter, is one disappointment after another.

Although he worked repeatedly with other actresses (notably Setsuko Hara and Kinuyo Tanaka), Hideko Takamine is Naruse's greatest collaborator. It's fruitless to single out and rank her uniformly excellent performances (I like best her droll, world-weary evocation of Fumiko Hayashi in 1962 's Her Lonely Lane, a.k.a. A Wanderer's Notebook), but Stairs clearly sits near the top. As lovely and graceful as a glass figurine without ever seeming as fragile, her Keiko seems to both acknowledge and laugh at the colorless opportunities that her future offers. When asked if she's lonely sometimes, she says, "Sure, but I have a brandy and go to sleep. That kind of fever soon passes." In public she glides as if on a conveyor, kept at a dignified remove in her kimono cocoon. Sometimes the vexations that form her voiceovers seep outward and Keiko's lifelong performance cracks, as in her cannily handled drunk sequence (rarely done well), when she submits to the patron she most loves (Mori).

Keiko's three primary potential suitors round out the same dream team of Naruse regulars seen in 1957's Untamed. Nakadai (Sanjuro, Ran) is at his best here as Keiko's bar manager, his debonair good looks scarcely concealing his vulnerable infatuation with her. Mori and Takamine resurrect their chemistry from Floating Clouds, though here the passion is (almost) mutual. Usually called a character actor, the doughy Kato brings nuance to his role as the seemingly harmless suitor Sekine. His girth and perma-smile ooze affable reliability (Keiko's mother: "Fat people are usually nice"), with only subtle details like his darting eyes and serial killer leather black gloves hinting at the truth of this deceitful lady-killer. It's tricky casting—in other Naruse roles he usually remains the nonthreatening standby.

Most interesting of Criterion's extras are Takamine and Nakadai's insights into the director's working methods. She's open about his "mean old man" reputation being entirely justified, citing distressingly mixed-up shooting schedules and his refusal to offer the slightest criticism or approval of his actors' performances, only encouraging them to be more line-readers than actors; Nakadai: "I never felt like I was doing much in his films." The results, as it goes, speak for themselves. Naruse's editing style in Stairs is likewise fleet and unflashy. A shot of Keiko (distraught and at her absolute lowest) vomiting blood at her club moves to a lazy tugboat pulling into a rural harbor, to Keiko safe and snug in her mother's home, recovering. The stairs motif is similarly brisk and not beaten home, appropriately, as her meditative climbs are more commas than periods. The final frames show a persevering Keiko, comforting herself with a pep talk much like Michiyo's at the end of Repast. Her future may not be brighter, but it's not billed as delusion. Naruse, the meanie, would never mock his heroine that way.