Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

In a way, it's perfect that this post follows up my musings on the difference between kids' films and adults' films. I noted that movies about and for grown-ups usually contain an element of stoicism, an existential mix of fatalism and grim determination. This aspect is present even in the more romantic movies, but it's especially notable in a work like Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Everything about Naruse's film proclaims a world-weary understanding of society (represented not in the abstract but by a series of well-defined yet very individual types), coupled with a tired but steady endurance and attempt at progression - best represented by the titular image of the heroine climbing up to her workplace: is the motion endlessly cyclical or slowly advancing?

This is a very modern film in the early sixties sense, its jazz score, tastefully glamorous Ginza bars, and sleek widescreen images suggesting an affinity with contemporary films like L'Avventura and La Dolce Vita. Most modern of all, indeed far more modern than at least that latter film, is the movie's treatment of women. Naruse never objectifies Mama, his female protagonist (real name: Keiko) even as we see what leads others to do just that. From her patrons to the coolly professional bartender/manager (who turns out to be the most foolish romantic of them all), all see her resistance to customers' overtures and her refined and slightly distanced charms (compellingly conveyed by her warmly approachable good looks) as noble, heroic, even tragic. But we come to understand Mama not as a saint but as an unusually stubborn person whose principles give her the only sense of worth she has. To hold to them is a matter of survival, not idealism.

The film's emotional flavor is best represented as a persistent ache, the kind you can adjust to but never quite get used to. There are moments of physical and psychological breakdown, grief-stricken funerals, heartbreaking departures, sorrowful loneliness and shocking revelations. But somehow these potentially melodramatic developments seem less indicative of the movie than do its continual reversion to Godard-like (yet pre-Godard) moments of objective/subjective narration over nighttime cityscapes (they're objective in the sense that Mama's tone is cool and explanatory, subjective because it's Mama we're hearing, for once unfiltered by her guarded speech or reserved expressions). These "bookmarks" along with the recurring ascension of the staircase and the persistence of Mama's stumbling forward momentum indicate Naruse's true attitude towards his subject, a very self-willed "life goes on."

One of the fascinating aspects of the film for non-Japanese viewers will be its presentation of the Ginza, where men pay to spend time with women, yet not (necessarily) in a sexual context. That the concept manages to represent both the difficulty for women in a male-run society and the universal loneliness of the human animal, male and female alike, is testament to Naruse's unique ability to fuse acute social perception and subtle analysis with unsentimental and entirely genuine humanism. The combination makes When a Woman Ascends the Stairs a truly excellent film, and I look forward to my next Naruse.

2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, it's a definitive study of women, it's emotionally aching and it's one of this underestimated Japanese master's greatest films, certainly ranking with the likes of FLOATING CLOUDS, REPAST, LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS and WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE! I agree with you posing its modernity, what with its jazz score and 60's ambiance. But as you know there is a lingering essence of ancient Japanese mores and customs that like in many of his other films, clash with Western influences.

I must say I am always ravished by the widescreen black and white cinematography here.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, I quite liked this film. I know you're a great admirer of Naruse, and based on that and my enjoyment of this, I look forward to seeing more of his work...this was actually my first Naruse.