Onna Ga Kaidan Wo Agaru Toki (1960) (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)
Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) could have well unfolded in post-war Los Angeles, in its dark alleys and seedy bars, for it reveals itself as something of a hard-boiled film noir told through the eyes of a woman. Set in the upscale Ginza district of Tokyo, the film centers on a bar manager Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a widow of thirty years, who must choose between remarrying into a respectable family and starting her own joint. Keiko is in a race against time, against the disappearance of her youth, and her tragedy is the tragedy of most women in modern society. Appearance is of paramount importance. “I hate liquor, yet I drink my fill every night” she says. She must be glamorous; she must smell good; she must be young or perish. She must don this Sisyphean role that is decided for her, never to complete her ascent and always returning to the bottom of the eponymous staircase. Positioned somewhere between the cool, satirical detachment of Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963) and the melodramatic viscosity of Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star (1960), Naruse’s empathetic yet never simplistic film offers no easy way out, not once letting our sympathies get tuned to a particular character. Constructed nearly as a string of conversations – all shot exquisitely in widescreen with striking centralized compositions marked by tense negative space – When a Woman Ascends the Stairs charts a single woman’s ultimately futile stabs at success in a grossly lopsided industrial society. Towards the end of the film, as Keiko ascends the stairs one more time, now more determined perhaps, Naruse’s film nearly attains the spiritual-existential intensity of Winter Light (1963). She can’t go on. She will go on.