When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Danny LIKELoneliness is a killer, and it's infinitely worse when you're surrounded by other lonely people. This tensions is acutely tuned by Mikio Naruse in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, a character study about someone who has lost control of her fate to the melancholy world she's resigned herself to.

Let me back up for a second. Mama is a hostess in Tokyo's Ginza district. The district is an intricate series of restaurants and bars that fill up at the end of the work day. One of the older women working, she spends her nights drinking and carousing. She has a number of wealthy clients who enjoy her charms, but she resists them when they make their amorous advances towards her bedroom.

Mama goes for the motherly look.

Mama's heart is still with her dead husband. She left a letter in his urn promising him undying love, and with that letter stays her heart. She's a woman very much trapped in both her own past and Japan's, as she watches women in Western style dresses go by her on the street as she shuffles along in her kimono. The younger women who inhabit her profession move effortlessly from man to man; Mama can't even comprehend this.

Mama's traditionalism clashes with the men in her life, as well, who range from a homely man who promises to care for her to a rich banker with a family of his own. There are several industrialists, too, and all of them range from incredulous to disgusted when faced with the fact that Mama won't share their beds. Her stoicism is what gets her through the changing times, but nothing is impenetrable.

Naruse imbues his characters with a silent dignity, as long as they're above a certain age. The younger ones are reckless and insane, but daring and alive. Did Mama losing her husband kill this spark within her?

Lonely bars full of lonely people. God, I think three more 'lonely's from hitting the top of Google's search results for that word.

Watching a movie like this, which portrays the passing relevance of a generation with such crystal clear sadness, really creates an eerie sense of quiet regret. Japan was caught between two generations-- pre-War and post-War-- and Mama is stuck in the past. The film doesn't condemn her for it, but admits there's nothing she can do about it. Her acceptance of that is graceful, honest, and compelling.

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Posted by Danny

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