When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960, Mikio Naruse)

“Bars in the daytime are like women without makeup.”

Set in the Ginza district where female hostesses converse with male patrons, trying to keep the regular customers coming to their bar in a high-competition area, all told from one woman’s point of view – so naturally I thought of Mizoguchi (Street of Shame, etc.), whose movies I haven’t especially liked. But in the commentary D. Richie compares this to Bresson, which seems more apt. Quite an excellent movie.

Mama (Hideko Takamine of Floating Clouds, Lightning, and thirty years earlier, Ozu’s silent Tokyo Chorus) is the head hostess at one bar, moves on to another when business starts declining because one of the girls left, luring away some regular customers. Mama’s been doing this for a long time and isn’t getting any younger, sees other girls escape through various means (suicide, marriage, or getting financial backing to open one’s own bar) but she doesn’t manage herself, ends up back where she started, ascending the stairs to work another day in another bar.

Mama falls for married businessman Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori, star of Ugetsu) but he’s moving away to Osaka.

Her manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai, the “hobo swordsman” of Kill!, star of the second section of Kwaidan) comes along when she switches bars. He’s in love with her, finally moves on after he catches her with Fujisaki.

Junko (Reiko Dan of Red Beard, Sanjuro) is a sexy young thing who stays at Mama’s apartment, sleeps with Komatsu and steals away Goda (Ganjiro Nakamura of Ozu’s Floating Weeds and The End of Summer), the older man who’d offered to set Mama up with her own (second-rate) bar.

Yuri (Keiko Awaji, the showgirl sold out by her mother in Stray Dog) is the ex-employee who ditched with some good customers, later kills herself with pills (possibly by accident), ruining the family she leaves behind with her debts.

Sekine (Daisuke Kato, professional rotund sidekick actor) acts like a factory owner looking for a mistress, turns out to be broke and married.

From the writer of a bunch of major Kurosawa films as well as Afraid to Die. Cinematographer was Masao Tamai, a Naruse regular who also shot Godzilla.

P. Lopate:

Though we cannot but sympathize with Keiko, we are also allowed to judge her dispassionately. She comes across at times as self-righteous, at other times as hard. … Asked to help pay for an operation that would correct her nephew’s polio, she discards the plea as too expensive, and we never do find out if she springs for the loan. In short, she is a very human mixture of generous and self-protective. …

Naruse’s gift here is being able to keep alive surprise and the fresh possibility of hope, even as you know deep down that he’s going to snatch most of that hope away. Endurance is the final antidote to despair, and that he does not extinguish. For a director whose vision is so frequently called pessimistic, what continuously engages and enthralls in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a lightness of touch, deft and coolly understated, like its cocktail jazz score.