Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mikio Naruse | 女が階段を上る時 Onna ga kaidan wo aga toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)

ascending into descent
by Douglas Messerli

Ryuzo Kikushima (writer), Mikio Naruse (director) 女が階段を上る時 Onna ga kaidan wo aga
toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) / 1960 USA, 1963

At the center of Mikio Naruse’s painful story about Tokyo Ginza nightclubs and the modern Geisha who service them is a beautiful widow, Keiko, who, since she manages the other girls and refuses to go home with her clients, is lovingly named “Mama.” But while she may be the “motherly” type, Keiko (Hideko Takamine) knows precisely how to please her customers, carefully stroking their egos while they buy her unwanted, but necessary—given that alcohol pays for clubs survival—drinks.
      Some of the girls go home with their customers or promise sexual favors for patronage; Keiko, however, who has buried a letter in her husband’s burial urn, —despite her financial needs—has determined she will not give herself sexually to others. Unlike many of the other women, Keiko ascends the staircase to the upstairs bar each evening with dread, before entering with a friendly smile upon her face.

      On the other hand, things are not going well at the small bar where she works, and she and her financial manager, Kenichi Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai) are scolded by the bar’s owner (Kyū Sazanka) for their inability to keep customers, some of whom have moved over to a nearby bar opened by a previous employed, Yuri (Keiko Awaji). Yuri’s bar has become the new hot space, a bustling place where the geisha’s wear more contemporary clothing and more openly flirt with their customers than in Keiko’s place.
      The seemingly straight-laced Kenichi assures “Mama,” however, than if they were to lose their jobs, she would still be so beloved that she could easily find a new bar, and Keiko continues to attract loyal customers in men like Nobuhiko Fujiski (Masayuki Mori) and Matsukichi Sekine (Dasuke Katō)—in part because she remains chaste and traditionally dressed, although the kimonos she wears cost her a great part of her paycheck.
      In fact, we soon discover, most of the girls have a hard time, given the cost of clothing, perfume, and boarding have a hard time of breaking even, despite the fact that they make higher wages than women working in factories or noodle shops. For Keiko, moreover, it is even worse given the fact that her mother has no income and her brother, whose wife has left him, has been involved in some unspoken crime and is being threatened with imprisonment. His son, moreover, having been crippled from polio, needs an operation if he is to begin school. 
       The only real hope for these hapless women, before they lose their beauty, is that, despite their profession, they might find someone willing to marry them; or that they might, like Yuri, be able to find patrons willing to help them open up their own bars.
     Keiko, with the help of the loyal Kenichi and a woman confidant, Junko, explores the latter possibility, going so far as to approach some of her customers to ask them to make a financial pledge to help her,  to be paid back, in future months, in the form of free drinks. With a male friend, he even searches out a new space, but is troubled when she discovers that the upstairs bars shares bathroom facilities with a cheap sushi shop below it. She goes as far as consulting a fortune-teller, who suggests that instead of rushing into the deal that she be more patient and wait.

     Soon after, she meets her former employee Yuri, who, over tea admits that the success of her new bar is all a sham, and that she is unable to pay back her creditors. She tells Keiko of a plot in which she will fake her suicide in order to keep her creditors at bay; but the very next day, Keiko discovers that Yuri has, in fact, really died, having either contemplated death or taken her sleeping pills with too much alcohol. When she visits Yuri’s family-in-mourning, she is horrified to see some of her former customers who have helped Yuri dunning Yuri’s poverty-stricken mother, and soon after openly challenges the worst of them, Minobe, for his brutality. After Kenichi chastises her for her public behavior, Keiko angrily refuses to comply, heavily drinking. 
      Moments later, she begins to vomit up blood, and is diagnosed with a peptic ulcer, forced to stay away from work for a few weeks. She escapes to her brother’s house, clearly located in a slum. But even there, a former client, Sekine attempts to visit her, and she realizes that she must return to work in order to help her brother and her young nephew.
      At the bar again, Sekine finally proposes to Keiko, and even though she remains unattracted to him, sees it as her only possible way out. A telephone call from the man’s wife, however, reveals that it is all a fraud, that he has no money and, quite obviously, is already married; in fact, she admits, he has played the same trick on other women previously.

      Angry and bitter about her situation, Keiko gets drunk, leaving, observed by her manager friend, with the one man she truly loves, the married Fujisaki. Upon driving her home, Fujisaki suddenly turns on her and rapes her; but because of her love, Keiko is nonetheless pleased for the turn of events, hoping, perhaps, that he might leave his wife and marry her. Fujisaki, however, reveals that he is soon moving to Osaka and that he is a coward, unable to leave his wife and family. 
      Furious over her abandonment of her high ideas, Kenichi expresses his disappointment of her, particularly when Keiko pretends that she has never loved Fujisaki, but when Keiko falls into a fit of crying, he realizes that she has really loved the man and perceives her utter despair. For the first time he admits his love and admiration for her, offering himself for marriage, but Keiko declines, arguing they know each other too well. With the rejection, the loyal Kenichi resigns.
     The film ends with the memorable jazz renditions of composer Toshiro Mayuzumi score, while Keiko once again, briefly pausing, ascends the staircase to her bar, a smile pasted across her face.
      Although Mikio Naruse’s sophisticated soap opera certainly calls up the many films about the same topic by the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, When a Woman Ascends a Staircase seems far more personal, focused as it is on the life of a single woman, than Mizoguchi’s more socially-concerned films about prostitution. And while the same themes of patriarchal domination and the pitiable social conditions of working Japanese women arise, there is something more hopeful and modern about Naruse’s still obviously bleak tale. 
     Keiko appears to be such an indomitable force that we can only hope that she still may find someone to love or, at the very least, find a way to open her own bar, freeing herself from the indentured position in which, at film’s end, she remains. Yet, at the bottom of our stomachs, we cannot help but fear that, given her age, “Mama” has so very little time to make those vast cultural shifts that she will have no choice but to continue mounting those stairs even when her legs can no longer take her there.

November 22, 2015

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