Sunday, May 27, 2007

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Naruse, 1960)

The title can mean at least a couple different things. Ascending the stairs can serve as a metaphor for the aging process. Our central character, Keiko, is merely thirty years of age, yet already a widow. In order to have a comfortable life for herself, she serves as a hostess at a bar that upon a cursory glance could be mistaken for a brothel. Although the female staff members are not officially ‘on the menu’, it is clear that their main task is to satisfy the male clientele with their charm and femininity. Having lost her husband, Keiko is now past the age when many women begin a life of marriage. In Keiko’s story, director Mikio Naruse suggests that the opportunities for women to fit into Japanese society are limited to a very narrow path – much like the narrow stairs which lead to only one destination. A woman may take a husband and live off of his wealth, or she may make her own way in a career that will most likely still involve satisfying the ego of a wealthy man.

Another metaphorical implication of the title may call attention to the way a woman ascends in social status. This aspect of the title’s meaning is ironic. As evidenced by the film, Keiko finds herself ‘ascending’ into a destination that she does not desire. On more than one occasion, she is offered an opportunity to attain financial comfort and security; however, these options lack those things that she most desires – namely control over her own destiny, and, perhaps more urgently, love. Although the topic of whoredom is never explicitly discussed, it permeates the subtext of the entire film. The favors Keiko offers and receives are invariably as romantic as a financial ledger. With each flirtation between man and woman, we must ask ourselves what each party has to gain. Even when Keiko seemingly negotiates an arrangement that is dispassionate but workable, her social position is only as sturdy as the man whom she has given control.

Naruse’s film will be pleasing to those who prefer a restrained and unadorned style. He is fortunate to have a strong, convincing lead in Hideko Takamine who is convincing in each and every moment she appears on screen. She is a woman who carries with her a lot of emotional baggage and yet clearly still strives to live happily and vibrantly. There is hope within her that she will discover something wonderful at the top of the stairs. And yet she is intelligent enough to observe the lives of those around her and foresee where she is most likely heading. Very little about Naruse’s style is particularly memorable, as he seems to have pitched himself towards efficiency rather than artistry. Because of this, the film occasionally has stretches that can seem obvious because we know the basic trajectory long before we arrive. Still, the tale is told well and with integrity, leading up to a climax that could prove emotionally powerful to some viewers. I found that my own response was something closer to detached appreciation rather than passionate investment. Still, the film is worth the journey in order to experience an articulate expression of a recurring societal issue.



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