When Appellate Judge Dan Mancini ascends the stairs, well, nothing happens that's worth making a whole movie about.
"I hated climbing those stairs more than anything. But once I was up, I would take each day as it came."—Keiko Yashiro
Largely unknown in the west, Mikio Naruse is one of the great directors of Japan's golden era of cinema. His sensibilities combine Yasujiro Ozu's (Tokyo Story) focus on the melancholy inevitability of change in life (known as mono no aware in Japanese) with Kenji Mizoguchi's (Ugetsu) concern with the plight of women in Japanese society. While Ozu made contemporary family dramas, Naruse's films are about the cold economic realities of working class life in urban Japan.
Released in Japan in 1960, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is late-period Naruse, and one of his finest films. Set in the Mizo Shobai of geishas and Ginza bar hostesses, the film is about the dreary hopelessness of the lives of women who must choose stultifying domesticity or the unending stress of catering to male patrons in order to make a living. It's a beautifully constructed and well-acted film that, thanks to the Criterion Collection, we can now enjoy on DVD. Hopefully, this is the first of many Naruse releases by Criterion; the director certainly deserves more recognition on this side of the world.
Facts of the Case
Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine, Floating Clouds) is a bar hostess in Tokyo's Ginza district. Recently betrayed by her one-time protégé Yuri—who opened her own bar with money borrowed largely from Keiko's patrons—her business is tanking and she's racking up debt with the owner of the Lilac bar where she works. On the verge of turning 30, Keiko must soon decide whether she will raise the money to buy her own place, or marry one of the affluent patrons who desire her—bank manager Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori, Rashomon), businessman Minobe (Eitaro Ozawa, Ugetsu), chubby and affable salesman Sekine (Daisuke Kato, Seven Samurai), wealthy old man Goda (Ganjiro Nakamura, Floating Weeds), or bar manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai, Harakiri).
Like Ozu, Mikio Naruse holds melodrama at arm's length by hiding in ellipses scenes that tempt actors into histrionics. When one of the characters in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs commits suicide, Naruse sets the event up with a brief but flippant conversation that is more about the hideous rigors of economics than death, but keeps the terrible act itself off screen. Somehow the ugly, senseless reality of the death is all the more powerful for our not having witnessed it firsthand. This sort of tight control of storytelling and cinema technique is apparent in every moment, every shot, of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. The film's a masterpiece.
One of the more remarkable things about Naruse's work here is his control of tone. The movie is saturated with desperation. His Ginza demi-monde is stocked with loser businessmen and dissatisfied bar hostesses, all aping lifestyles of phony urban affluence and sophistication. Though some of the men are successful, they're all lonely, craven, or unhappy at some level with their meaningless careers. The women live on the jagged edge of poverty, yet can muster little enthusiasm for their only other option: marrying a man of the sort who haunts the Ginza district. All of the characters are near the ends of their ropes and so enslaved to grim economic realities that they have little hope for bettering their own lives. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is relentlessly pessimistic. The picture isn't dour, though. Despite their dire straits, Naruse's characters brim with human vitality. They're often likable and sometimes despicable—like real people. Naruse was entering his fourth decade as a film director when he made the movie. His experience and control of the medium can be credited for much of the film's supple tone.
It also helps that the cast overflows with high caliber character actors from Japan's classic era of cinema. Masayuki Mori is most familiar in the west as the murdered samurai in Kurosawa's Rashomon. In fact, the best work of his career was under the direction of Naruse, with whom he made a number of films. Mori plays a small but significant role in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. His understated performance finds the sweet spot between kindness and petty self-indulgence. Daisuke Kato—memorable for his over-the-top turn as the piggish halfwit villain in Kurosawa's Yojimbo—does a masterful job of wrong-footing us with his naturally sunny disposition and pudgy vulnerability. And future movie star Tatsuya Nakadai gives a fine, deceptively straight-forward performance early in his career. His good looks imply a conventionally romantic finale that, in keeping with Naruse's stoic cyncism, never materializes.
The movie's bedrock performance is Hideko Takamine's, another regular player for Naruse. The feminist sensibilities that saturate every iota of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs make Keiko Yashiro a dream role for any actress. That Takamine does so much with so little reliance on histrionics is a credit to her talent. Her thoughtful rendering of Keiko in three dimensions gives full flesh to the cultural, economic, and sociological questions Naruse explores in the film, providing us a full and prescient emotional handle on what might be a dry treatise in the hands of a lesser director.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs looks very good on this new DVD. Criterion's liner notes indicate that the transfer was sourced from a newly minted 35mm fine-grain master positive. The film was shot in black and white at the Toho Scope ratio of 2.35:1. Contrast is mostly lovely, with isolated instances of flicker and weak black levels. A few frames here and there throughout the picture are marred by the sort of extreme damage that can't be undone by digital magic. These minor and unavoidable annoyances aside, the image is extremely attractive, with sharp detail and controlled grain.
As with Criterion's recent releases of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, the default audio option is a single-channel restoration of the original Japanese mono track; but there is also a three-channel Dolby mix that reproduces the Perspecta Stereophonic sound with which the picture was exhibited in some Japanese theaters in 1960. Due to the limitations of the source materials, the audio isn't as good as what you'll find on Yojimbo or Sanjuro, but better than the audio for the older Seven Samurai. Clicks and pops have been meticulously removed, but dynamic range is tight and minor distortion is prevalent (especially of Toshiro Mayuzumi's [The Pornographers] vibraphone-heavy hipster score).
This single-disc release isn't loaded with supplements, but those offered are of the highest quality. Japanese film expert Donald Ritchie (A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos) provides an excellent feature-length audio commentary that is both a screen-specific analysis of the film, and a crash course on Naruse's sensibilities, style, and technique. Casual, substantive, and intelligent, it's a great track.
The disc also contains a 13-minute video interview with Tatsuya Nakadai (who acted in so many classics that his input has become almost de rigueur on Criterion DVD releases of Japanese films), and a theatrical trailer for the film.
A 38-page insert booklet contains essays about When a Woman Ascends the Stairs by film critic Phillip Lopate (Totally, Tenderly, Tragically) and film professor Catherine Russell (Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video). There are also two excerpts from Audie Bock's Mikio Naruse: A Master of the Japanese Cinema (a catalog written for the Art Institute of Chicago's 1984 Naruse retrospective). One of the excerpts is a tribute to the director written by Hideko Takamine.
Last year, Criterion righted a major wrong with their release of Ugetsu—the first quality release of a Mizoguchi flick on DVD on this side of the planet since the format's inception. They've done it again with this release of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. The DVD doesn't have as many bells and whistles as Ugetsu, but the audio/video presentation is excellent and the supplements offer a ton of detailed information about Mikio Naruse, a great Japanese filmmaker who's been largely ignored in the western hemisphere for far too long.
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• Commentary by Japanese Film Scholar Donald Richie
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