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A FilmExposed Film Review

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (PG)

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (PG)

Dir: Mikio Naruse, 1960, Japan, 111mins, Japanese with subtitles
Cast: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Reiko Dan, Tatsuya Nakadai

At the centre of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a strong lead performance from one of Japan’s biggest stars of the mid-20th Century and director Mikio Naruse’s long-time actress Hideko Takamine. Takamine plays Keiko, a bar hostess in the Ginza district of Tokyo, affectionately known by the younger hostesses as Mama-san. These younger hostesses often sleep with the men they are employed to flirt with but despite pressure to do the same Keiko has remained faithful to her long-dead husband. Turning 30, Keiko finds that she has few options for the future and must take decisive action, either to re-marry or to start up her own bar, if she wants to avoid a desolate future.

Takamine’s performance has a hypnotic quality that brings to mind the kind of non-acting found in the films of Robert Bresson. Bresson famously forced his actors to repeat individual lines fifty-odd times in order to gain a performance devoid of forced emotions and Takamine’s experience of working with Naruse while not as extreme, was not wholly dissimilar to this. “He was a really difficult person to go along with”, Takamine has written, “I don’t recall ever being directed on how to act.”

In both cases these directors’ methods seem primarily intended to eliminate overly self-conscious artistry on the performer’s part. This certainly works for Takamine who is very naturally convincing as an independent-minded woman considering going into business, surely in no small part a result of Takamine possessing these qualities herself. In 1950, after a six-month sojourn in Paris, Takamine broke her ties with the studios in Japan and decided to freelance as an actress, determining her own career path. This is not to say that Takamine’s performance is that of a puppet-on-a-string. She plays Keiko as extraordinarily sensitive and emotive as well as independent, and with a complete absence of the self-pity that often accompanies stories of women in distress.

The film as a whole has a lightness of touch aided by the subtlety of Takamine’s performance alongside a terrific mellow jazz score from Toshiro Mayazumi. Naruse’s fine script employs lyrical repetitions and parallels, most notably the repeated motif of Keiko ascending the stairs at the bar where she works, her inner monologue telling us that she hates this daily ritual, but her face seeming to radiate a sensual pleasure which we are forced to recognise as an ongoing performance in her life. The script also displays an extremely fascinating and meticulous interest in the social and economic intricacies of the central character’s situation, which has even prompted one critic, not wholly inaccurately, to claim the film as “virtually a dramatised documentary … in the guise of a melodrama”. While the direction of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is not very showy this hardly feels a flaw, as it allows small moments of subtle visual symbolism to have a great impact.

In late June and throughout July a season of Naruse’s films will be playing at the BFI Southbank, for details and bookings see: MIKIO NARUSE.


Ben Dooley

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