When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

The film that most English-language cinephiles would name first when asked to produce Naruse titles. Try as I might, I can’t see it as the major Naruse work that nearly all others perceive. The script, by producer Ryuzo Kikushima (also producer/writer on YOJIMBO, SANJURO, HIGH AND LOW, and RED BEARD) is thematically fertile – discontent bar hostess Mama (Hideko Takamine) is suspended between pragmatism and the wish not to be claimed by her borderline sleazy job, between the desire for marriage and the need for a career that won’t die with her youth – and set in the visually and sociologically alluring Ginza district. Mama’s melancholy, confessional voiceover colors the film with an up-front emotionality not usual for Naruse; the hints of BONJOUR TRISTESSE in the tone of the narration, as well as the Saul Bass-like graphics in the credits, give the black-and-white TohoScope film a faintly Premingerian aspect.

Naruse’s unvarnished, observant depiction of the bar hostesses’ hazardous lives hearkens back to his earlier treatments of the subject such as MORNING’S TREE-LINED STREET and GINZA COSMETICS. Certainly no one could mistake ASCENDS for the work of another filmmaker: from the parade of bill collectors who show up at the funeral service of Mama’s doomed colleague Yuri (Keiko Awaji) to the parasitic family that finds new and inventive ways to drain Mama’s savings, Naruse insinuates his familiar depressive tropes into Kikushima’s script. Still, the material presents a number of problems. The script’s many explicit statements and restatements of theme leave little room for subtext; and, even with a voiceover available to help out, a good deal of exposition and authorial commentary is handed directly to the viewer in lengthy dialogue scenes. The narrative plan, which subjects the strong heroine to increasing stress from all sides, seems primarily designed to break down Mama’s composure and image; to this fairly simple end, a series of personal disasters are arranged for her, each of which might cut deeper were it the film’s principal focus. (Perhaps the most absorbing of Mama’s romantic trainwrecks is the most absurdist, in which the gentle factory owner Sekine [Daisuke Kato] who seduces her with his thoughtfulness turns out to be a lunatic.) The widescreen frame, so well suited for the film’s lovely images of Ginza at different hours (this was the last of cinematographer Masao Tamai’s 16 collaborations with Naruse), is pressed into the service of a narrative filled with two-person dramatic encounters, resulting in a number of dynamically equivalent scenes that rely upon cross-cutting between medium closeups.

Takamine’s wonderful performance carries the film despite its shortcomings. Always on center stage, Mama never completely abandons her professional composure, but throws off flares of anger, sullenness and whining need at unexpected times. Her amusing drunk scene with her favorite customer Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori) reminds us that Takamine’s considerable pantomimic skill provides a scaffolding for her often-subdued demeanor in Naruse films: her performing style is a fascinating combination of her child-star show-biz extroversion and her mastery of the cinema actor’s art of doing little.

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