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WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS
1960 - Mikio Naruse
Japan
3
Opening Shot

We see several exteriors shots outside a city with a voice-over "An afternoon in late autumn. Bars in the daytime are like women without makeup". This opening dialogue sets the tone for the film and is reflection of the films ideas, which are (like the beautifully constructed shots) very quintessential of it's filmmaker, the great master Mikio Naruse.

The Film

"I hated climbing those steps more then anything, but once I'm up, I can take whatever happens". When a Woman Ascends the Stairs may be my favorite Mikio Naruse film (or at least alongside Floating Clouds), and a film I'd rate among the very greatest ever made. Keiko is absolutely one of the greatest portraits of any character in film history and the performance by Hideko Takamine is remarkable. She flawlessly captures the beautiful, delicate, proud, and heartbreaking essence of the character, a widow who supports herself as a bar hostess. She represents the traditional Japanese values more then she does the prototypical bar hostess. As she begins to "age" Keiko is torn to the progressions of marriages or of owning her own bar. Keiko is faced with resilience as she is surrounded by a world of disappointment and hopelessness. This expression is represented by the image of the vertical stairs ascending towards the bar, taking Keiko on a path alone through life. Using a smooth jazz score and 1960s Japanese night clubs settings Naruse's bleak, expressionless melodrama is centered on a woman who fights to remain true to herself within the dishonesty and inconsistency of the world around her (notably the two biggest social pressures: men and money). Through subtle and masterful performances and filmmaking, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs becomes Naruse's purest work in defining his mastery of narrative rhythm, and also the definitive work in detailing the Naruse heroine as 'Mono no aware' in the sense that through the conflicts and troubles (be it social or economical) Keiko understands and accepts what is "right" because it is something that must be (even if sad). In the films unforgettable final moments, a triumphant truthfulness emerges from the heartbreak of her hidden emotion, as Keiko accepts that she has become what she did not want as rightness. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a bleak and tragic film of brutal emotional and melodrama, yet Naruse's subtle style and Takamine's expressionless performance gives the film a truthfulness that is devastatingly authentic, transcendent, and perhaps even fulfilling.

The Filmmaker

Mikio Naruse is often regarded among the greatest Japanese filmmakers of his era (alongside Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kon Ichikawa). While respected in his native Japan, Naruse is very little known in the United States and his films are nearly inaccessible on home video. To see any of his work in America, you'll likely have to look for a retrospective or purchase a video overseas (and even they can prove challenging). Naruse has directed nearly 90 feature films and I have been fortunate enough to see fourteen of them to date. There is still much I've to discover from this great filmmaker, but I have greatly admired what I've been able to see thus far. The films I have seen are all from the postwar era so I can't go into great detail about his early work (and if Naruse is anything like Ozu or Mizoguchi there is likely a distinct difference between the Japanese time periods). Naruse might not be the cinematic stylist like Ozu or Mizoguchi yet his films seem to connect through his mastery of character and narrative structure, which explores and ultimately discovers the very essence of human living. Naruse was raised from a poor family and this upbringing is very reflective in his films which center around poor or low middle class living (money is an underlying theme in many of his films). His films very often get compared to his good friend and contemporary Ozu, who was known for his gendai-geki films (modern-day, middle-class). Also like Mizoguchi and Ozu, Naruse would use the focal point as the role of woman in a way that was sincere and moving. However, Naruse undoubtedly had a style and approach of his own and one that defined the human struggle of living with a focus on honesty over sympathy. The greatest aspect of Naruse films is the depth of their impact on the viewer. They have a sense of quietness yet underneath is a complexity that is bold and harsher then his contemporaries. There are moments in his films that just stick with you and really have a meaningful effect (like the poetic final images and voice-over from Mother; the Marilyn Monroe impersonation in Late Chrysanthemums; or the heartbreaking final close-up of Naruse's doomed Floating Clouds; the memorable smile by the great Hideko Takamine at the conclusion of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs ). Above all Naruse's films present an unsentimental and bittersweet exploration into human struggle with a deeply honest, calm, and effective mastery that is in it's own manner - perfection! Hopefully over time, more of his work will become available to Western audiences.

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