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Film Club: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Naruse, 1960)

When a Woman Ascends the StairsOur film club’s choice for this June is Mikio Naruse‘s 1960 film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (女が階段を上る時, Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki).

As we have noted before, Naruse has long been less well known in the west than his contemporaries Ozu, Mizoguchi or Kurosawa. However, with digitally restored releases in recent years from the British Film Institute, Eureka and Criterion, the director’s works have now become more widely available for English speaking audiences. Also, in addition to the film releases Naruse’s works have furthermore been promoted by Catherine Russell’s book The Cinema of Mikio Naruse, which I believe was the first and is still the only full length study on Naruse’s films available in English.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is usually celebrated as one of Naruse’s best works, and indeed as one of the best Japanese films of all time. As is typical for Naruse, it is on the surface a fairly quiet and subdued story of a woman, in this case a nightclub hostess trying to decide on a direction for her life while navigating in a strongly male dominated world. However, the restrained and almost soothing quality of the film hides fairly complex and contemplative social commentary. As Kurosawa reportedly once described Naruse’s style, it is “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths”. As is often the case with Naruse, the style of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs can be compared to Ozu, while the film’s subject matter warrants comparisons with Mizoguchi.

For anyone familiar with Kurosawa’s works, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is an interesting film to watch also for the number of familiar faces that appear on screen. Tatsuya Nakadai and Daisuke Katoo are immediately recognizable, while Masayuki Mori (Iwabuchi in The Bad Sleep Well, the husband in Rashomon and the titular character in The Idiot) gives yet another strong performance as the protagonist’s love interest. Ganjiroo Nakamura, Reiko Dan, Eitaroo Ozawa and Keiko Awaji have likewise all appeared in Kurosawa’s films. It is very interesting to note the differences between these actors’ performances here when they worked for Kurosawa.

The film’s leading actor (and interestingly also costume designer) Hideko Takamine should be a similarly familiar face for most of us. We have already seen her in Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes and Naruse’s Flowing, which have all been in the film club schedule. And while Takamine never appeared in Kurosawa’s films, the paths of the two did cross a few times during Kurosawa’s early career as an assistant director.

Another more than familiar name that can be found in the film’s credits is Kurosawa’s regular co-writer Ryuuzoo Kikushima, who wrote When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. He additionally worked as the producer of the film, marking his first time in that role. After When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Kikushima went on to produce five other films, four of which were Kurosawa’s.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is available from Amazon.com (Criterion release) and Amazon.co.uk (as part of a BFI box set release).

And as always, a brief reminder of what is to come next: In July, we will continue with Kurosawa’s chronology, and take a look at Yojimbo. The full film club schedule can be found from the film club page.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

Quick off the mark as usual Vili! An excellent summary. I watched the film a year ago and I was deeply impressed, as I usually am with Naruse. I’ll have my second viewing tonight.

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Vili Maunula

I saw it for the first time yesterday, and really liked it.

Come to think of it, I don’t think that I have seen a Naruse film that I haven’t loved. Although I admittedly haven’t seen many, even if I own almost everything that is available from him with English subtitles. I think it’s time for me to watch more Naruse. Again.

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Ugetsu

I watched it again last night and my admiration for it has increased. What a wonderfully controlled, balanced film. The acting is uniformly great, from Takamine in the lead role down to the most minor characters, it would be unfair to pick out anyone. They all seem perfectly cast, all hitting just the right note for the film. But it is fun to see just how many familiar faces there are from Kurosawa and Ozu films. I’m amazed that it seems Naruse never gave instructions to his actors or guided them in any way – it seems he just shot and shot until they did something that satisfied him.

I think what stands out from this film is just how complex and real the characterisations are. There is no noble suffering as you would expect from a Mizoguchi or Ozu film, no grandstanding as you would expect from Kurosawa. Just lots of people with a little bit of good and a little bit of bad, all trying to find a bit of happiness. I love the way the film avoids melodrama just at the point where you think its all going to get a bit over the top and avoids any judgement of the characters, even the relatively unpleasant ones.

Structurally, I think its superb – the pacing is very deliberate, but the pauses for the scenes where she ascends the stairs, and the occasional voice-overs, are beautifully controlled. It allows us to see we are really seeing this world through Keiko’s eyes, while simultaneously having a birds eye view of this strange contrived world of the hostess bar. I think the editing and overall pacing of the film is near perfection. I can’t think of a superfluous shot in the film, or any aspect which needed elaborating.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I’m amazed that it seems Naruse never gave instructions to his actors or guided them in any way – it seems he just shot and shot until they did something that satisfied him.

I would like to know how much of this is true, and how much based on something someone said somewhere and that got endlessly repeated. As often happens.

For whatever it’s worth, at the end of the “Introduction” video on the BFI release of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, film critic Freda Freiberg states: “Now, some people have dismissed [Naruse] and said he didn’t give them any direction. It’s not true. Because in memoirs — after he died — memoirs by Hideko Takamine said he went through the whole script with her before filming, and made suggestions. He said she could cut out some of the dialogue if she could express those feelings without words. And she came to the film fully aware of what character she was playing and how she was supposed to feel. So, he did prepare her properly. He mightn’t have been directing her on the set, but he properly prepared her.”

It’s a pity that her commentary on the film lasts only around 15 minutes. I would have loved to listen to her more.

I’m seriously thinking about ordering also the Criterion edition, just to hear Richie’s commentary. It’s annoying that they have suddenly started to charge for import tax in this country, as until late last year I could place orders for well over $100 without anyone minding, but it seems to have changed and they now catch everything. If I knew I wouldn’t have to pay the taxes (we even have one of the highest VATs in the world — 27%), I would probably order the Criterion edition together with the silent Naruse box set that I’m tempted to get.

But maybe I’ll wait for a Barnes & Noble sale for Criterion titles.

Ugetsu: I think the editing and overall pacing of the film is near perfection. I can’t think of a superfluous shot in the film, or any aspect which needed elaborating.

This is so so very true. It’s so close to perfect that it’s scary.

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lawless

Finally got to watch this. I agree with everyone else’s assessment of the acting, the script is insightful, and the direction and cinematography are well-done (loved the sequences of her climbing the stairs), and yet … it’s a little too formless and slice of life-y for me. Not as much so as I find most of Ozu, and it doesn’t try to have things both ways like Mizoguchi does in many of his films, where he sympathizes with exploited women one minute and exploits them himself the next, but it lacks a certain coherence and is emotionally distant in a way that ultimately makes it less than completely satisfying as a narrative. I appreciate that Naruse avoids judging his characters, but the lack of drama results in a movie that is ultimately a sequence of events without a complete narrative arc or apparent purpose. That isn’t a method of storytelling that particularly appeals to me.

Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame is a movie that covers similar (although not identical) territory which appeals to me more. It is less “objective” because it shows the sex industry (at least as practiced in Japan at the time) as inherently exploitative, but it’s no more judgmental about the women it depicts or the people they work for than When A Woman Ascends the Stairs is, and its narrative has a shape and more forward movement. This may in part be due to the fact that its main characters are clearly part of the sex industry, whereas much of the narrative tension that exists in When A Woman Ascends the Stairs has to do with Keiko’s determination not to exchange sex acts (as opposed to the illusion of sex) for business or monetary advantage. Technically, bar hostesses are there to encourage patrons to drink and stay longer, not to offer sex for pay or otherwise, but the illusion of availability that attracts many of the patrons would soon be dispelled if all bar hostesses refused after hours sex with their customers or rejected proposals like Mr. Goda’s, which puts them somewhere on the border between non-sexual entertainment and the sex industry.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

I appreciate that Naruse avoids judging his characters, but the lack of drama results in a movie that is ultimately a sequence of events without a complete narrative arc or apparent purpose. That isn’t a method of storytelling that particularly appeals to me.

I find that interesting – I’m the exact opposite! I find the characters in Naruse’s films fascinating and the lack of narrative or apparent purpose in the films to be refreshing – I can just enjoy watching these people struggle with their lives without worrying about whether there will be a happy ending or not or if the film is ‘going’ anywhere interesting. I do wonder sometimes though whether my own fascination lies in seeing a world so ‘different’ from mine – I suspect a similar film set among modern Europeans might bore me silly (as so many modern ‘art’ films do for me).

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lawless

Ugetsu: I find the characters in Naruse’s films fascinating and the lack of narrative or apparent purpose in the films to be refreshing – I can just enjoy watching these people struggle with their lives without worrying about whether there will be a happy ending or not or if the film is ‘going’ anywhere interesting.

Clearly, you have a higher tolerance for slice of life movies than I do. I can think of one or two that I like — Napoleon Dynamite comes to mind; Hal Hartley’s Harry Fool might also qualify — but it has to be a quirkier slice of life than this for me to like it. I have a much higher tolerance for slice of life in fanfiction (hell, I’ve written a lot of it), short stories, and poetry, but it takes special talent to make it work for me in longer form fiction.

As for endings, I care more that it fits the rest of the film and gives me a sense of conclusion or narrative coherence than that it be happy. That’s why I don’t like the ending of Rashomon; it doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. But I do like movies, like novels, to have a narrative shape, with a well-executed beginning, middle, and end.

On the other hand, I find nothing more boring than “the 12 rules for narrative structure” (I just made that up; I don’t know if there are 12 rules) school of writing advice. Once it gets broken down to the point where you have to follow a bulleted or numbered formula, what’s the point? There’s no more creativity. It’s much better (for me, anyway) to follow a few simple common sense guidelines instead.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

Clearly, you have a higher tolerance for slice of life movies than I do. I can think of one or two that I like — Napoleon Dynamite comes to mind;

Strangely enough, Napoleon Dynamite is the only film I’ve every walked out the cinema half way through! I felt the humour was unbearably cruel, but that may have been more my mood on the day, another day I might have loved it (as lots of people I know rave about it). I have a very low tolerance normally for comedy of embarrassment.

The ‘slice of life’ director working now I like most is, unsurprisingly, Japanese – Koreda Hirokazu. I’ve loved all his films I’ve seen, for me he is by far the best Japanese director today. I also like some of the films by the French director, Claire Denis – her 35 Rhums is a very lovely update of Late Spring, and full of in-jokes for Ozu fans.

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Ugetsu

Oh, and I was just reminded of my favourite ‘plotless’ films of all, the now-trilogy by Richard Lindlaker with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke – Before and After Sunrise and Midnight (or whatever they are collectively called).

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Vili Maunula

Your comments on the narrative structure of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs prompted me to write something, so you can find my response to that topic there.

As for the other films mentioned here, I still need to rewatch Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool but I think that I do like it, although I don’t remember it being so “slice of life” as suggested here. Like Ugetsu, I disliked the beginning of Napoleon Dynamite and never finished it, while 35 Rhums is still towards the top of my pile but since it’s also in my wife’s pile, we still haven’t found the time when we both would like to watch it. Finally, my wife absolutely loves Linklater’s Before trilogy, and while I am a little on the fence on whether I like the first two or not, I’m nevertheless quite looking forward to seeing the new one soon.

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