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.

流れる Nagareru (Flowing, 1956)

I’m finishing off my week dedicated to Mikio Naruse with this 1956 drama, though he kept making films for another decade after this. One of them (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from 1960) is in the Criterion Collection so will eventually get reviewed here when I get to it in my regular Criterion Sunday feature.


I love Mikio Naruse’s films but I’m also very conscious that I don’t really have the language to describe them, but this was an era when (because there were essentially no women directing films, aside from rare examples like Kinuyo Tanaka, who stars in this film, and Park Nam-ok in Korea) you’d get a whole cadre of venerated older men anointed as being excellent at ‘women’s pictures’. There are barely any men in this film, but there’s still a strong sense that the women we see — from the woman who runs the business (Isuzu Yamada), to her geisha employees, her maid, her daughter (Hideko Takamine), her sister and mentor — are all essentially still powerless in a society that esteems the money of men most highly. Even a drunken family member of a former employee seems to get his way, while the woman who owns the business is having trouble keeping it going. The story is largely told from the new maid’s point-of-view, and Kinuyo Tanaka is just wonderful at giving depth to this middle-aged woman fallen on hard times, but who still has enormous empathy and a remarkable grace in dealing with all the backstabbing and various fallings out. And yet for all this behind-the-scenes drama of the geisha house, it’s still a rather gentle and sweet film — the title suggests the gentle movement of a river, but also its inevitability and unchanging nature — about events which are not particularly gentle or sweet.

Flowing film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Aya Koda 幸田文); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 February 2019.

浮雲 Ukigumo (Floating Clouds, 1955)

Another Naruse melodrama about a single woman living her life and finding others — perhaps society itself — can’t quite live up to her standards. Exquisite as ever, and available on DVD.


Mikio Naruse often makes melodramas, and when he does them they’re as big and bold in many ways as contemporary Hollywood ones — with almost as much exploitation (if that’s the right word, perhaps not) of the suffering of women — but yet there’s so much elegance and subtlety as it unfolds. In a way the central character here, Yukiko (played by the wonderful Hideko Takamine), is a metaphor for post-war Japan, but her travails in love — finding a man while working in Indochina, then discovering he’s married when they return to Japan after the war, and proceeding to doubt his motives throughout, as he courts other women — also pretty starkly illustrate her place as a woman in this society. I find it really difficult to write about what’s good in the film, as I lack a lot of context for writing about 1950s melodrama, a rich and complex topic, except that Naruse’s film is compelling and beautiful.

Floating Clouds film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 February 2019.

晩菊 Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)

This film by Mikio Naruse is a beautifully understated piece of work, one of the great achievements in post-war Japanese cinema. Usually I reserve Wednesdays each week for films directed by women; as my theme this week is the films of a male director I cannot do that. However, this film focuses solely on the lives of four women, and is written by women.


Another of Naruse’s lovely quiet films about people just living their lives, though it’s a few decades on from his first works, so it doesn’t start with an automobile accident (as many of those seemed to do). This tells of the lives of four former geishas, one of whom is a moneylender (Haruko Sugimura), with the others variously in debt to her. A couple of them have adult children, and lovers pass through town too, but it really does keep its focus very much on the women’s lives. Nothing melodramatic really happens: life passes; the kids move away; the lovers disappoint. But it is exquisite in its simplicity, which like many of Naruse’s films of this era was written by women (specifically Sumie Tanaka. based on writing by Fumiko Hayashi).

CREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on short stories by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chikako Hosokawa 細川ちか子, Yuko Mochizuki 望月優子, Sadako Sawamura 沢村貞子; Length 101 minutes.
Seen on train from London to Brussels (DVD), Friday 1 June 2018.

山の音 Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain, 1954)

Mikio Naruse made three films in the year before this one, and I’m willing to bet at least one of those is equally brilliant, because he was very much on form this decade. A lot of his work was adapted from the writing of Fumiko Hayashi, but she is not the source for this one but rather the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, though it uses a lot of the same key cast as Naruse’s earlier film.


This is some film, one of Mikio Naruse’s finest, and I don’t want to attribute all of its success to one person, because it’s made with such sensitivity by everyone involved, but Setsuko Hara must be considered pretty central to that. Partly it’s the role she’s playing, a wife shunned by her husband (who is having an affair with a younger woman), but Hara is expert at making it not just a tragic account of this woman, but a far more rounded and nuanced portrait of familial relationships, in which Hara’s character is not to be pitied, but instead a really developed character whose motivations and actions cut against the expectations of her society and her family. I just find her every expression to be that little bit heartbreaking (not unlike in Tokyo Story, where she proved that sometimes smiling cheerfully is the saddest emotion of all). The film itself is framed by her father-in-law (So Yamamura), who is disappointed in his son (Ken Uehara) and just trying to understand Hara’s situation and consider what is best for her, which is why his reaction to news of her abortion is both so deeply felt and also so unusual in a film of this era. Surely a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, and I still have so many Naruse films yet to watch.

Sound of the Mountain film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (baed on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, So Yamamura 山村聰, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 January 2019.

めし Meshi (Repast, 1951)

Continuing the Naruse theme, I’m now starting in on his 1950s masterpieces. All of these major films from the 1950s are easily available on DVD through the Masters of Cinema label in the UK, while many of his minor works can be viewed on YouTube (many with English subtitles).


This is, as one might expect from Naruse, a beautifully modulated film about Michiyo, a woman unhappy in her marriage. Setsuko Hara (surely familiar to even the most idle viewers of Japanese cinema from Ozu films like Tokyo Story and Early Summer) plays Michiyo, and Hara remains so very brilliant at conveying her dissatisfaction even as she’s smiling and reassuring people. Such indeed is the weight of societal expectation that there’s no meaningful way for her to confront the misery of her household chores and the disinterest of her husband (Ken Uehara), who only becomes animated when his young female cousin comes to visit spontaneously. My favourite moment is when Michiyo is asked “so what do you talk about with her husband?”, and she pauses, looks away and replies “I have a cat.” (It’s a very cute cat.)

Japanese films confronting domestic politics aren’t a million miles away from those of other traditional cultures (old British films like Brief Encounter seem to operate on a similar subterranean level, as everyone observes the correct etiquette and minuscule breaches are punished), so here too elaborate codes of conduct loom just beneath the surface of everyone’s actions, and it’s a great testament to the filmmaking skill that it’s all so very evident without being showy and didactic. Within this context (and I am treading carefully in how I phrase this), I was initially disappointed with the ending, but in retrospect it feels like a bitterly sardonic riposte to everything that has gone before, like the way Hollywood tacked on demonstrably phony ‘happy endings’ to films that really weren’t heading that direction. This is a brilliant and watchable — and, at times, even light-hearted — film about profound unhappiness.

Repast film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成, Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, Yukiko Shimazaki 島崎雪子; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 April 2018.