Criterion Sunday 377: 女が階段を上る時 Onna ga Kaidan o Noboru Toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960)

Director Mikio Naruse had a great run of cinematic masterpieces throughout the 1950s (I did a whole week focusing on his work) and in some ways it’s capped by this melancholy 1960 film, starring one of his frequent collaborators, the wonderful Hideko Takamine. In one blurb I read online, she plays an “ageing Ginza bar hostess”, but Mama-san, as she’s known (her real name is Keiko), is just turning 30; Keiko’s nickname suggests the blurb may not be inaccurate, but if so it’s very much just another commentary on the society depicted in the film. Keiko is motivated and very good at her job, but every step she takes is negotiated with a series of men — to succeed at her job she needs to appeal to them, to make money to have any hope of opening her own bar she essentially needs to sell herself to them (or at least the possibility of her being their wife), and then there are the expectations placed on her by her family. It’s a sad film, but Takamine’s performance ensures it’s never overloaded with mawkishness or hopelessness. She keeps on moving, working, trying to make ends meet throughout, in this post-war Japan dominated by wealth and its acquisition, while all the time people are calling up their debts or talking money in front of her.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三; Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Keiko Awaji 淡路恵子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Daisuke Kato 加東大介; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 December 2020.