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When a Woman ascends the Stairs: 100,000 yen in shares

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    Ugetsu

    There isn’t a lot of writing available on this film that I can find – the most useful I find is in the excellent Criterion booklet, especially Catherine Russells writing and a description in Joan Mellens ‘The Waves at Genji’s Shore‘. Most agree that Keiko (‘Mama’) is both symbolic of the status of women in Japan at the time and in particular the precarious position of women living in the floating world of semi-prostitution in the hostess bars. Philip Lopate (in the Criterion booklet) notes that :

    ‘Though we cannot but sympathise with Keiko, we are also allowed to judge her dispassionately. She comes across at times as self-righteous, other times as hard. For instance, when she flings the words “I hate you” at her admirer manager, the balance in sympathy sift to him for the moment: he has done nothing to deserve such scorn’.

    There is no doubt that she is at times not always a sympathetic character. Sometimes her integrity seems to have more to do with pride, and her treatment of her family seems unnecessarily harsh. In particular, she seems to pointedly consider her ‘nice’ brother to be weak, and hints that she sympathises with his wife’s decision to leave him.

    But one plot aspect of the film that has nagged at me since I saw the film the second time is the incident when she hands back the envelope of 100,000 yen shares to Fujisaki in the context of the unresolved sub-plot of her 5 year old nephews polio. He has given her a parting gift – its never clear to how much this substantial gift comes from generosity, love, or a guilty conscience, but it is clearly a substantial gift from someone who seems, it is implied, not to be very rich (he is a senior manager in the bank, but still essentially someone on a salary, not an independent businessman). She breaks what might be considered one of the unwritten rules of her job – to approach her customer in the presence of his family. Of course, she does it discreetly, but it is clearly laden with passive-aggressive intent. She knows full well he will be embarrassed, and his wife will have all sorts of questions. Mellen describes it as follows:

    Fujisaki, a dutiful company man, an automaton compared to this woman so much more capable of genuine affection as well as moral discrimination, is transferred to Osaka. He gives her stocks and money, but typically, he won’t break up his home. Her pride intact, Mama-san goes to the train station from which he is departing to return his stocks, which she finally refuses to accept. Beside him sits a wife whom Naruse has made homely and unappealing, perhaps unwisely, since this choice suggests and implicit justification for the husbands adultery. The stereotype of the ugly wife waiting at home is actually quite unrealistic in the Japanese scene, where company men with quite attractive wives nevertheless wander nightly to the hostess bars.

    Now I think this particular paragraph is a little unfair – I don’t think we have any evidence that Fujisaki is an ‘automaton’ – we can also see him as a man caught between duty to his wife and his love for Keiko – in addition to the fact that it never occurred to me that his wife was ugly, I thought the actress was quite attractive – but it does seem to sum up the general view that Keiko, despite her faults, has integrity and honesty on her side.

    But I can’t help feeling that this scene depicts a genuinely ugly side to her nature. The stocks were given to her in good faith – while she may have felt that they were ‘payment’ for the night together, he clearly already had them with him to give to her. To give them back in such a situation seems more churlish and prideful than anything else. But much worse – this seems exactly the sum needed to give her nephew the operation and physiotherapy needed to restore his mobility (presumably, this was deliberate – the cost of the operation was described earlier as ‘80,000 yen, in addition to 6 months physiotherapy’). In using this money to humiliate her ex-lover, she was also potentially leaving her nephew to a terrible fate, a life as a cripple, unable even to go to school. In short, she is guilty of what the ‘bad’ characters in progressive Japanese films so often do – put a meaningless sense of honour and pride in front of simple humanity.

    The final scene of course is desperately sad, and we are obviously intended to sympathise with Keiko. She has failed to escape, and will probably never escape it is implied. But for me, thinking of her penultimate act, I find myself with a good deal less sympathy. Do you think this was intended by Naruse?

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    Vili Maunula

    This is an interesting question, and something that I too spent some time thinking about when the film ended. While I definitely agree that Keiko is not perfect, the way I see the situation with the stocks is a little different from your interpretation.

    It seems that Keiko is the golden goose for her family. This is clearly not the first time that she has had to give money to her brother, and I think that it is even mentioned that she already sends them 20,000 yen each month. The film deliberately includes the bit about her having to pay the brother’s lawyer in order to underline this one sided financial relationship.

    Meanwhile, If Keiko accepted Fujisaki’s stocks as payment, she would be giving a silent blessing to the way that he has treated her, not only emotionally, but also physically. We are of course not shown exactly what happens, but it plays out terribly much like rape, regardless of the individuals’ feelings for one another. And even if it isn’t, Keiko surely must know that 100,000 very rarely comes with no strings attached. Her way of returning the stocks may be a little suboptimal in terms of social conventions, but then again it probably is a better idea than for instance mailing them to him, and I would say that she is allowed her passive aggressive attack there.

    I therefore don’t really see Keiko’s decision to return the stocks as something arising from honour or pride, but rather as an act to maintain or gain control. Giving the stocks back to Fujisaki is her only way of gaining control over the situation with him, and by this time refusing to help her family, she establishes boundaries with them.

    I see the film as being about a woman’s struggle for control over her life. Keiko is unable to accomplish much in the end, but her decision to return the stocks shows that she is at least capable of deciding her own destiny. This assures me that even if she cannot yet change her life completely, she will, in the end, do fine.

    You also mentioned that Fujisaki had the stocks with him already before the night developed as it did, and suggested that he was going to give them to Keiko anyway. I am not so sure about that. After all, he walked into Keiko’s bar with a geisha, supposedly planning to spend his last evening in Tokyo not with Keiko, but with this other companion. To me, it seems like the stocks really were an afterthought.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    It seems that Keiko is the golden goose for her family. This is clearly not the first time that she has had to give money to her brother, and I think that it is even mentioned that she already sends them 20,000 yen each month. The film deliberately includes the bit about her having to pay the brother’s lawyer in order to underline this one sided financial relationship.

    The film spares no detail as to the costs to her of keeping her family going, but I think its also interesting that it doesn’t paint them badly (although several writers on the film describe them as ‘spongers’ etc). While her mother is a little demanding, she does seem suitably embarrassed by it. Her brother seems an innocent, someone afflicted with terrible luck and an inability to take control of life. And the little boy – who is, after all, her nephew – is just a child. So while they are a financial millstone for her, they are still very much her flesh and blood. It seems strange to paint a woman positively who is trying to gain freedom while chafing against even the most basic family responsibility – to get urgently needed medical care for her nephew. That is hardly admirable.

    And even if it isn’t, Keiko surely must know that 100,000 very rarely comes with no strings attached.

    I don’t see how there can be any strings attached when he said clearly that it was ‘goodbye’ and he was leaving for Osaka, never to be part of her life again. I don’t see anything in the film to suggest that it was anything other than genuine gift, albeit one perhaps motivated through guilt.

    You also mentioned that Fujisaki had the stocks with him already before the night developed as it did, and suggested that he was going to give them to Keiko anyway. I am not so sure about that. After all, he walked into Keiko’s bar with a geisha, supposedly planning to spend his last evening in Tokyo not with Keiko, but with this other companion. To me, it seems like the stocks really were an afterthought.

    That is a good point, although its not likely he would just happen to have 100,000 yen worth of stocks on him for no reason. I’d suggest another interpretation is that he had the geisha with him precisely to avoid the sort of emotional scene he perhaps feared if they were sitting alone together in the bar and he then had to break the news to her. In having an emotional connection they were both breaking the unwritten rule of the hostess bar. I’d suggest that the geisha was cover for him to keep it professional, with the shares a gift out of friendship, handed over (he hoped) in a cool and detached manner, both maintaining the charade of their roles.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: So while they are a financial millstone for her, they are still very much her flesh and blood. It seems strange to paint a woman positively who is trying to gain freedom while chafing against even the most basic family responsibility – to get urgently needed medical care for her nephew. That is hardly admirable.

    I approach this a little differently, and do in fact consider Keiko’s decision to (as I see it) maintain control of her own life admirable. I don’t really see why she should be considered responsible for her brother’s child, but then again I wouldn’t consider it a basic family responsibility. Do you think that it would have been viewed differently by contemporary audiences?

    I find it difficult to fault Keiko here also because we don’t really know too much about her family, apart from being shown that Keiko’s relationship with them is a little cool. We also know that her brother’s wife left him for some reason or another.

    Ugetsu: I don’t see how there can be any strings attached when he said clearly that it was ‘goodbye’ and he was leaving for Osaka, never to be part of her life again.

    I could easily imagine a sequel (if films like these got sequels) where he is transferred back to Tokyo and things get complicated. By refusing the money Keiko prevents putting herself into the same position that her brother is in with her.

    Ugetsu: I’d suggest another interpretation is that he had the geisha with him precisely to avoid the sort of emotional scene he perhaps feared if they were sitting alone together in the bar and he then had to break the news to her.

    I think that I like your suggestion!

    Ugetsu: In having an emotional connection they were both breaking the unwritten rule of the hostess bar.

    To what extent, do you think, the emotional connection actually is mutual? While watching the film for the second time, I kept wondering if Keiko indeed wasn’t just another one of the many women that he keeps (as Keiko and the film interestingly want to point out).

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – My reaction to Keiko’s relationship with her family and her returning the 100,000 yen isn’t negative either. It’s interesting that neither you nor Vili has mentioned the elephant in the room: Why was her brother headed to jail if she didn’t come through with money for him? If money would make the charges go away, it’s reasonable to assume that the crime was a financial one. The fact that he appears to be unemployed now (as well as destitute) suggests that the crime may have had something to do with his employment. The first thing that comes to mind is embezzlement. Also, the charges could well explain why his wife left him.

    I also found his statement that he gave his boss massages when they were on business trips together interesting. (IIRC, he specifically states that he did this at the boss’ request.) Was his boss sexually harassing him? Were they having an affair, and if so, was it consensual? If it was, did it cease to be? Was he blackmailing his boss (another possibility), or was his crime one that happened in response to whatever might have been going on between them, or to other treatment that he resented but didn’t have the power to speak up about or change? I realize that there could be an innocent explanation for the mention of massages, but it’s an odd detail and seems a bit out of the ordinary even for Japan, suggesting that it’s meant to function as some sort of indicator. Maybe it’s not Chekhov’s gun, but it adds to the breadcrumbs of suspicious behavior on the brother’s part.

    Once again, any of these possibilities would be logical reasons for his wife to leave. The bigger question is why she didn’t take their son with him, but maybe she was even worse off than him. Or maybe it was a coldly practical decision (for example, if she left him for another man who didn’t want to be responsible for her son’s medical care) or a completely heartless one (she wanted to leave her responsibilities behind as well as her husband). Keiko’s sympathy for her seems odd; if anything, if the brother can’t provide for his son, you’d think the mother would be the next person in line, not the aunt, I don’t know about Japanese law or custom, but that’s certainly the way it would work in the West, where the aunt would not have a legal or, in many (maybe most) people’s eyes, a moral obligation to provide for her nephew or her brother.

    Her mother strikes me as an insincere passive-aggressive harridan who wants to exert control over Keiko and her money with her talk about how extravagant Keiko is (some truth to that, but the subtext I got was that she wanted her home and under her thumb) and what good schooling Keiko got (subtext: look how I sacrificed to provide you with a good education, and you waste it as a bar hostess). There’s also a “how you’re shaming us and your dead husband” subtext going on as well, IIRC. But for all we know, Keiko might have chosen to work in an office instead of a bar if she hadn’t been helping her family financially. It’s even possible that her mother is talking out of both sides of her mouth, wanting the money that comes with bar hostessing but not the social stigma. That raises another question: why would Keiko need to support them when her brother was working, or did her brother only move back in with her mother when he lost his job or when his wife left him, and before that she was sending money to her mother only?

    All of this is a long-winded way of pointing out the many signals that something is fishy even before we learn that the brother’s asked her for money multiple times before (as much suggesting that he’s irresponsible as that he’s unlucky) and she’s tired of it (it wouldn’t surprise me if she’d heard the words “this is the last time” before) and possibly justifiably concerned that the money is not going to get spent the way he says it will or that he’s outright lying,

    I’m going to get to the 100,000 yen in a separate comment. I need a break from looking at the computer screen.

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    lawless

    Continued …

    Also, in the context of her family’s reliance on her and what it might mean, recall that at various times throughout the movie, Keiko mentions how much she dislikes, even hates, her job. She does it because she is good at it and it pays her well, not because she loves it or even likes it. She puts on a good front and even enjoys being around some of her customers (although we see her mask slip with Migune, assuming I’ve got his name correct), but she’s not blinded by the apparent glamour. Assuming she actually gets an enforceable deal in writing that says their investments will be repaid by their bar tabs, she’s not one to borrow large sums that she then has to repay, and her kimono purchases are frugal. Her apartment is the only thing she splurges on. This in itself suggests that something other than a desire to do it motivated her to turn to bar hostessing (impliedly immediately after her husband’s death). Her doing so both to escape her family and to help support it (or her mother) is fully consistent with that.

    Also, this all suggests that the backstory of Keiko’s family is something Naruse and his screenwriter have chosen to submerge just as Kurosawa does with the backstory in The Bad Sleep Well per my comment in another thread.

    Ugetsu: But one plot aspect of the film that has nagged at me since I saw the film the second time is the incident when she hands back the envelope of 100,000 yen shares to Fujisaki in the context of the unresolved sub-plot of her 5 year old nephews polio. He has given her a parting gift – its never clear to how much this substantial gift comes from generosity, love, or a guilty conscience, but it is clearly a substantial gift from someone who seems, it is implied, not to be very rich (he is a senior manager in the bank, but still essentially someone on a salary, not an independent businessman). She breaks what might be considered one of the unwritten rules of her job – to approach her customer in the presence of his family. Of course, she does it discreetly, but it is clearly laden with passive-aggressive intent. She knows full well he will be embarrassed, and his wife will have all sorts of questions.

    I read her return of the 100,000 yen differently than you. I think Keiko’s main characteristic throughout the film is internal conflict. You characterize working in hostess bars as “the floating world of semi-prostitution.” That’s probably a fair statement about the profession as a whole, but it’s not necessarily a fair statement about any given hostess, including Keiko. A bar could run the gamut from wink wink nod nod places that in fact facilitate and promote prostitution, which would run afoul of the recently-passed anti-prostitution laws that Street of Shame helped bring about (not that we see any of them) to places where it’s implicitly expected that the hostesses will go home with patrons and make their own deals in which the bar and its owner has no official involvement to the illusion of access that is all that is technically on offer and is as far as Keiko seems willing to go. She’s not even willing to market herself or put herself out there the way Yuri does, and her reaction to some of Yuri’s suggestions seems equal parts horror and admiration of her cleverness. We all know where Yuri’s cleverness leads her.

    Keiko’s limits finally crumble after the seemingly heaven-sent offer of marriage is shown to be a sham. She gets drunk and takes Fujisaki home with her, but then, just before he pushes her down on the bed, she says “no” and drops her glass. Vili has already mentioned it, but continuing at that point is rape and not just terribly like rape. At least that would be true by Western legal standards, and even by Western cultural standards nowadays; see the Steubenville rape trial, which revolved around actions that constitute rape under the law of every state because the ability to think consciously is required for consent but which might well not have been considered rape twenty years ago, especially to a jury, on the mistaken thought that it’s somehow a negligence system on which comparative “fault” or risk assumption has any bearing.

    Her actions and statements earlier may have led him to believe she would consent, but they’re still provisional, and she quite clearly says “no,” resists, and is overborne. Just because the scene the following morning is placid and she’s smiling doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped; it just means she’s decided not to think of it as rape or, most charitably, she stopped resisting and decided to allow it. But that could as easily have been for prudential or emotional reasons instead of representing affirmative consent.

    At any rate, however she interprets what happened in her bed that night, to her mind, the 100,000 will always be associated with the sex they had because of the timing of its presentation. He gives it to her before explaining that he’s leaving for good in a day. Those stocks will therefore always be associated with what they did, which at the time she had every reason to believe constituted unpaid recreational sex with someone she loved. By giving her the stocks, he’s cheapened what they did even further. From her perspective, it doesn’t matter why he gave it to her; it’s still tainted. (In that regard, he tells her that he brought the stock with him to give to her at the bar the night before, so you are right that “he clearly already had them with him to give to her,” geisha notwithstanding. )

    As for the geisha, I think one or both of the following two explanations are the most likely: (a) she had entertained him, either by herself or with others, at a good-bye party in his honor earlier in the day that might have been arranged by his superiors or co-workers, and tagged along; from my research into geisha culture, heading for hostess bars after one’s appointments are over isn’t uncommon; or (b) he was hedging his bets in case Keiko wasn’t interested in entertaining him privately, as she normally wasn’t.

    There’s another aspect to this that hasn’t been mentioned. His insouciance with the 100,000 yen contradicts his earlier (but not that much earlier) assertion that he couldn’t afford to invest 100,000 yen personally in a new bar; he can only afford 30,000 yen out of his own pocket. Now he gives her 100,000 yen and offers to back the bar as well? This certainly seems like double-dealing, if not lies, to me; I suspect it felt that way to her, too. Personally, I would have been tempted to throw the stocks in his face and make that very point, but that wouldn’t have been a prudent thing to do.

    Turning to her return of the stocks, if her self-respect doesn’t allow her to keep them, particularly if she feels he’s flim-flamming her, by his own account, the only place she can be sure to find him is at the train station, as he’s leaving that day or the day after (I forget which). Sending it to him in the mail is less secure than handing it to him. And his wife’s reaction makes it clear that she’s heard of Keiko and knows who she is and possibly also what she means to her husband. There’s no disapproval or discomfort, just politeness. (Given Fujisaki’s departure; there’s little long-term threat to the wife, who I agree is not homely, just not glamorous.) I honestly don’t see it as an attempt to humiliate Fujisaki, although he is somewhat discomfited (but, I would argue, he should be; he has only himself to blame by springing this on her the way he did and under the circumstances he did), but rather to exert control and regain her dignity and sense of integrity by making it clear that they aren’t lovers, they never were lovers, and that it wasn’t a commercial transaction, either. As Vili observes, there are other ways of being in someone’s debt; he could be transferred back to Tokyo or he could arrange to visit it, possibly on a business trip. I see this as her taking a stand and exercising what little agency she has, not as something ugly.

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    Vili Maunula

    An excellent examination of the topic at hand lawless, thanks for the thoughts! I agree with much that you wrote.

    Some comments:

    lawless: It’s interesting that neither you nor Vili has mentioned the elephant in the room: Why was her brother headed to jail if she didn’t come through with money for him? If money would make the charges go away, it’s reasonable to assume that the crime was a financial one.

    I thought that it was sort of explained in the film by Keiko’s line “Why’d you affix your seal to a receipt you knew nothing about? Did you have to do everything your boss said?”. I assumed that his boss made him sign something that wasn’t entirely legal, and now it’s his head on the line, not his boss’s.

    Come to think of it, that’s actually another link between Naruse’s film and The Bad Sleep Well.

    lawless: I also found his statement that he gave his boss massages when they were on business trips together interesting.

    It was definitely interesting, but I doubt that any sexual connotation was intended. I don’t have anything to pack this up with of course, but for some reason I feel that the situation would not be that strange in a Japanese context.

    lawless: The bigger question is why she didn’t take their son with him

    That indeed is a good question! My understanding is that Japanese divorce law doesn’t recognise shared custody, so children always (legally) go to just one parent, which is usually the mother. Why not here is a good question. It seemed that the ex-wife had something very much against Keiko’s family (“What did my sister-in-law say?” “That she’d never return to a family like this.”), so perhaps she wanted to get rid of them entirely, her own flesh and blood included.

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve just watched the film for the second time, this time with Donald Richies garrulous, but very interesting commentary. I find it very interesting how Richie and Russell seem to have very different interpretations of the characters motivations, and in turn, we have all disagreed with each other on this! I’m not sure whether this is a reflection on us or the ambiguities of the film, and if the latter, whether these ambiguities were deliberate.

    On my second viewing, I find myself somewhat at variance with most other views. In the context of my theory (as I’ve set out in another thread) that Mama is in effect an ‘invention’ of Keiko, and that she is determined, even at great cost to hersself and her family, to maintain this invention, I find myself with less sympathy with her as a character.

    So Lawless and Vili, I won’t follow the usual way here of quoting you both, I’ll just deal with the general themes here as you both set out such interesting ideas, I’m really just commenting on them and setting out my own interpretations:

    I find the relationship of Keiko and her brother to be very interesting, and telling. The general view of him seems to be as something of a leech on her, but I don’t think this stands up to a close examination. He is repeatedly described as ‘nice’, even if this is a somewhat backhanded compliment. His legal problems seem to have arisen from his innocence – a former boss forced him into taking responsibility for something which had nothing to do with him. I think this much is set out more clearly. The issue of his ex-wife is I think, quite telling. When he massages Keiko, she asks him ‘Did you massage your wife like this’. ‘Of course’ he replies ‘She was my wife’. At this, she murmurs something like ‘No wonder she left you’. I take this as a barbed comment and a reflection of her later comment to Fujisaki that ‘you are the type of man who women like’. She seems, in effect, to be saying that her brother was too nice, too weak. His niceness repulses her, as despite herself she is attracted to the strong, if emotionally distant and unreachable Fujisaki. She also, it should be noted, rejected at the end Komatsu, a man who has always helped and supported her. She seems to be partly reproving herself at her taste in strong, distant men while also stating the simple fact, that her brother is not a ‘real’ man as he is so dependent on her. I think there is a strong implication here that Keiko is sympathising with her brothers wife for having left such a weak man (it should be noted that other Naruse films, such as Floating Clouds, deals with married women in apparently good marriages to reasonably good men, but who are suffering from ennui and unhappiness and boredom)

    As for the issue of supporting her nephew, I can’t really comment on what would have been ‘expected’ within a Japanese family at the time. My understanding is that a single woman would certainly have been responsible for helping out her family in every way, up to her own marriage, where her duties transfer to her in-laws. A son, on the other hand, would have expected help and support from his sisters (Mizoguchi, who was supported financially by his Geisha sister for much of his younger years would be an example), but in later years, would have been expected to be the primary support for his parents and perhaps also, less successful siblings. Beyond that, i cannot say. But I do think her obvious distaste for helping out her nephew doesn’t reflect well on her.

    On a side note, Vili mentions that under Japanese law, only one parent would be responsible for the children after a divorce. I know from a friends situation that certainly these days, this is the case, and its normally the mother who gets the children. I was quite taken aback when a female Japanese friend told me that her husband had no rights or responsibilities whatever for their child after their divorce once she ‘won’ custody – this is considered entirely normal.

    The final night with Fujisaki is a different matter, fraught with many different potential explanations. I think a crucial aspect goes back earlier, to the scene in the bank where she asks for a loan. I think this scene is quite crucial, as it is an unusual one in which Keiko is shown in an environment which is not her own. We don’t see her negotiating in this way with any other of her customers. My interpretation of the scene is that it shows Fujisaki to be a businessman of some integrity – it would have been tempting (as Keiko seems to have expected), for him to bend the rules to give her a bank loan, but he refuses this, pointing out that its not his money. Bear in mind that we have seen earlier that his relationship with the bar is largely professional, as his bill is paid in his office (Richie says this was common at the time, as having a bar or Geisha house for customers was seen as a legitimate business expense). Instead, he offers to give her the money he has at the moment – a not inconsiderable sum (given that he is a senior bank employee, but not apparently independently rich), but a lot less than she expected. In this context, it would seem that he put together the 100,000 yen shares later, as a sort of belated apology for letting her down.

    Richie considers that his declaration of love for her later was false – it was simply a way of getting her to sleep with him. I can’t agree with this. I think we had plenty of signals through the film that her love for him was not unrequited. I think his decision to give her the 100,000 yen (and I do think he had it with him to give to her) was an attempt to acknowledge his feelings, while maintaining a professional distance. I think he had the Geisha with him in the bar as an attempt to keep their final meeting, and his breaking of his news to her as neutral as possible, to save both their faces. But her drunkenness took him off balance.

    The scene in her room is equally problematic. Richie considers him to have lied to her to get into her bed – but again, I see no evidence that he decided to sleep with her until that moment when they were sitting there. I agree absolutely that under modern interpretations, his grabbing and kissing her despite her protestations was rape. But I do not think that this was in any way in the mind of the writers or film makers. This was a common trope in films at the time – in, for example, Douglas Sirk films and in a film like The Quiet Man. It may be disreputable now, but it was at the time a sort of short-hand for a sudden burst of passion. There is nothing I think in her behaviour afterwards to suggest that she considered herself to have been raped or maltreated and whatever you can say about Keiko, she was not someone given to lying to herself or illusions about other people. But after he broke the news to her that he was leaving, it all changed. She undoubtedly felt duped and cheated, and he immediately recognised and acknowledged how cowardly he had been not to have told her he was leaving Tokyo earlier (again, I would suggest, evidence that he had strong feelings towards her).

    So while the scene at the train station was her way of regaining dignity, it was also I think quite cold blooded revenge for her – she, in a gentle, very Japanese way, avenged herself by shaming him in front of his family. Richie describes it as the only option available for her to regain her own dignity, but I’m not sure it was that simple. Her self image as a Hostess who never lowered herself to sleeping with her clients was gone – and she blamed Fukimaki for it. But I’m not entirely sure it was his fault.

    I do think she is a sympathetic character, but I’m not sure she is in any way likeable or blameless for her own situation. She has fought against a rigid patriarchal and hierarchical society by reinventing herself – she has turned Keiko, the lower-middle class widow into Mama, the charming and formidable Hostess with a lovely apartment and clothes and enviable lifestyle. She has created herself anew, but cannot fight back the drag of her own family and her own conflicted feelings. She is both fighting barriers erected by society and those she has created for herself. She is proud, strong and admirable, but also ruthless, selfish and narcissistic. She is, like most of us, a prisoner in a jail built by others but also, crucially by herself.

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    lawless

    Vili: I thought that it was sort of explained in the film by Keiko’s line “Why’d you affix your seal to a receipt you knew nothing about? Did you have to do everything your boss said?”. I assumed that his boss made him sign something that wasn’t entirely legal, and now it’s his head on the line, not his boss’s.

    Whoops, my bad. Now that you mention it, I vaguely recall this line, but I don’t remember which scene it’s from. I think my mind stuttered on the reference to “affix[ing] your seal to a receipt you knew nothing about” and missed the reference to his boss.

    I’m still puzzling over what this could mean, as I can’t see the brother signing a document in lieu of his boss leading to jail time unless he was attesting to something that wasn’t true (i.e., covering up a bribe or a kickback or embezzlement). If it was just a matter of the brother signing a legally binding document such as a contract instead of the boss, it would be a civil matter on which jail had no bearing unless Japan had debtor’s prisons at the time. As far as I know, it didn’t.

    Also, I posted this at virtually the same time as Ugetsu posted his latest comment on this thread, which I’ve read but will respond to later. My future responses to the thread Vili started on noir and Ugetsu started on performativity will also cover many of the same issues, but it will probably not surprise anyone that my view of Keiko and the men in her life differs significantly from Ugetsu‘s or that I disagree with both of you (albeit for different reasons) regarding the influence of noir.

    If anything, I feel even more strongly than Vili did originally that the movie depicts a gender divide and regret that he backed off of that aspect of his comments. I’ll grant that men are probably as equally locked into their roles as women, but the roles and economic status available to them to begin with were far broader and to a large extent still are. Sekine was able to plausibly masquerade as a factory owner; no woman of the time (or possibly even now in Japan) would be able to do so no matter how upscale or glamorous her clothes, apartment, or automobile were.

    I’ll save the rest for later. 🙂

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I’m still puzzling over what this could mean, as I can’t see the brother signing a document in lieu of his boss leading to jail time unless he was attesting to something that wasn’t true (i.e., covering up a bribe or a kickback or embezzlement). If it was just a matter of the brother signing a legally binding document such as a contract instead of the boss, it would be a civil matter on which jail had no bearing unless Japan had debtor’s prisons at the time. As far as I know, it didn’t.

    I don’t think its so unlikely that an underling could end up taking a fall because he was too naive or innocent not to sign a document on behalf of his boss. In fact, when I saw that scene I was reminded of the situation of the cousin of a friend of mine who worked for a mortgage broker in New Jersey who ended up with serious criminal charges after the collapse of the company after the 2007 crash. He’d been involved in ‘robosigning’ mortgages illegally – according to my friend (I only have this story second hand), he was a recent graduate who simply did what he was told, but ended up taking the fall for more senior managers. He eventually only escaped a prison sentence by testifying against senior managers, but he still ended up with a conviction against his name.

    I’ll grant that men are probably as equally locked into their roles as women, but the roles and economic status available to them to begin with were far broader and to a large extent still are. Sekine was able to plausibly masquerade as a factory owner; no woman of the time (or possibly even now in Japan) would be able to do so no matter how upscale or glamorous her clothes, apartment, or automobile were.

    I don’t deny at all that men had a vastly greater range of options available to them than women, but I don’t think that Sekine did something only a man can do – in fact, I think the whole point is that Keiko was doing exactly what he was doing – pretending to be wealthier and more upper class than she was born to be. The whole point of her charade of a fashionable apartment and clothes was to create that aura of sophistication and wealth her clients craved. It wouldn’t matter how beautiful and witty she was if she could not maintain that charade of high class and sophistication. Both of them were carrying out a charade to make themselves blend in with Ginza society, the only difference is that she was doing it for professional reasons, he was doing it for fun. If this led her to success and she wished to avoid marriage, the obvious next step for her was ownership of a bar, and after that, to aspire to be like her (unnamed) female boss, clearly a woman of wealth and influence and probably self made (her comments about Keiko’s family home I think suggested that she may have had a similar background). While women had far fewer options for making themselves rich than men, there were clear routes for them, and bar ownership or related businesses were one such route. In Donald Richies wonderful travel book The Inland Sea, he makes the point that the banning of prostitution in the early 1960’s actually had the (probably) unintentional impact of destroying many female-owned businesses which revolved around the hostess bar/geisha house industry. If I recall correctly, he makes the rather cynical suggestion that one reason feminist campaigners were supported by conservatives in their campaign against brothels was exactly this – they wanted to undermine one of the few female dominated sectors of business.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu: I’ve just watched the film for the second time, this time with Donald Richies garrulous, but very interesting commentary. I find it very interesting how Richie and Russell seem to have very different interpretations of the characters motivations, and in turn, we have all disagreed with each other on this! I’m not sure whether this is a reflection on us or the ambiguities of the film, and if the latter, whether these ambiguities were deliberate.

    I have yet to listen to the commentary. I think a movie like this that presents an interesting yet problematic social situation and interesting characters without making any overt judgments about them is going to engender multiple interpretations. When the film doesn’t tell us how to feel, we see our own experiences, desires, and preferences mirrored back at us. So, to answer your question, I think this is a reflection on us and the film’s ambiguities, and I think to a large part those ambiguities were deliberate. If they weren’t, the script wouldn’t have left so much of Keiko’s backstory out.

    As for Keiko’s unnamed brother, I see him as pathetic and spineless, someone who lets things happen to him rather than causing them. (Which I guess makes him a stereotypical passive female, but I don’t want to veer off into a discussion of that other than to say that I generally dislike passivity in all characters, male and female.) Where Ugetsu sees “[h]is legal problems … to have arisen from his innocence – a former boss forced him into taking responsibility for something which had nothing to do with him,” I see a lack of backbone. That’s especially true if, as Ugetsu theorizes, what happened was something like what happened to his friend’s cousin. We need to remember, however, that approving a bad loan to transfer potential criminal liability from the cousin’s boss to the cousin can only happen if extending the bad loan itself is a criminal act, such as fraud or the like.

    I realize that refusing one’s boss may be culturally impossible (it’s more important to put food on the table than to stand up for principle), but it’s not factually impossible. And while it’s not unheard of for sisters to support brothers, I think that has more to do with family dynamics (i.e., it’s done at the parents’ behest) and even if it doesn’t, I’m not sure it extends to an adult male sibling who is capable of standing on his own two feet and earning his own money. Is he doing anything to bring money in? I find it hard to believe that the pending criminal charges prevent him from, for example, engaging in buying and selling.

    I’d also like to reiterate that we don’t know if her brother is on the up-and-up with his begging. Did he really take his son to the doctor, and did the doctor say exactly what he said, or is this a way to get money out of her? Even if it’s true, will he take the money and use it for something else? Keiko may have lived through earlier sob stories and then discovered that her help was wasted or wasn’t enough. Even if she’s wrong this time, that doesn’t make her hesitance unreasonable.

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (and now I realize this was the better thread for it), I didn’t view Keiko as seeking a loan from Fujisaki’s bank but rather from Fujisaki personally, just as she did with her other regulars. Even if that’s not the case, though, the only justification for using that to drive what happens between them at Keiko’s apartment is an artistic one. It’s fictional shorthand; in the most charitable interpretation, it brings Keiko’s misgivings and argument with herself to light. (In that regard, I see Keiko as a more conflicted character than Ugetsu does.)

    In purely human terms, though, what we see is a terrible betrayal. The fact that it doesn’t get treated that way even by the characters and instead is excused as meaning something different is only proof of how society and culture have trained us to look at it that way. From this post on the blog Yes Means Yes:

    By normalizing rapists and rape, by blurring the lines between rape and sex, we create a culture where instead of responding to the crime like we should, there’s always room to argue for and or excuse or mitigate the rape and the rapist.

    Here’s another peripherally relevant post entitled Man Refused Service, Kills Service Provider (the service provider was a sex worker).

    I know this makes many people uncomfortable, but I’m made uncomfortable by media — even media made fifty years ago in another country where the exact same thing would probably not be considered problematic even today — that perpetuates this myth. It’s 2013 and we need to move to a societal model of affirmative consent by all parties (I like that terminology better than enthusiastic consent, which makes it sound like participants are expected to respond like cheerleaders), so I’m going to continue to speak up and point this out. Given the horrendous victim-blaming responses of men and women (and boys and girls) to events like the Steubenville rape, I can’t not. Maybe someday we’ll be at a point societally where there’s equality between the sexes, including over the issue of sex, and we can go back to enjoying mythological depictions like this for the fictional shorthand they are, but I’m not holding my breath.

    I don’t see the scene at the train station as a humiliation. I believe the only one humiliated was Fujisaki, and in his case, it was in his own mind. He may have felt guilty about the way he’d treated her, about leaving her, about staying with his wife, or about her showing up with his wife there, but I don’t believe his wife was all that surprised or humiliated, and by bringing a treat for the children, Keiko acknowledged the wife’s primacy in the family. She might even find that admirable; I don’t get the sense she expected Fujisaki to leave his family for her. In this regard, I’d like to remind everyone that samurai wives, who were responsible for keeping track of a couple’s expenditures and were in charge of a samurai’s home base while he was gone, paid their husbands’ “entertainment” expenses, including gifts to mistresses and lovers, and were often involved in the selection of a mistress or courtesan. While societal strictures about how open one could be might have changed, the expectation that the wife would deal with household bills hadn’t. So Fujisaki likely would have had to put some effort into hiding any payments he made or money he gave to Keiko.

    I’ve responded to most of Ugetsu’s other points elsewhere. I will only add that Richie is correct to point out that at least in the short term, the anti-prostitution law hurt the very women it purported to help by denying them some of the ways they’d used in the past to attain economic clout. On the other hand, those businesses were still tied to the sex industry; Japan still wasn’t ready to give women economic freedom (other than that that comes with inheriting or being gifted large sums of money, to answer a point that’s often raised about women “owning” more assets than men because they’re longer-lived) outside of industries where their sex was precisely the point. The kind of trap the industry became for young girls and mature women, as depicted in Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame, is precisely why the law passed.

    I am in favor of decriminalizing non-street prostitution in conjunction with real crackdowns on trafficking, but this works best when sex workers have the same legal protections and access to the police as anyone else and when hiring female sex workers doesn’t happen because “good girls don’t” or some other societal divide that puts some women (like wives) on a pedestal or keeps men and women from socializing together on an equal footing.

    For some background information on sex work and related industries in Japan, see the following books, all of which I’ve read: Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki (the source for the information used to write the fictional Memoirs of a Geisha); Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Matsuda; Geisha, Liza Crihfield Dalby, and Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha by Leslie Downer. The first two are autobiographies and the last two are more academic in nature; Liza Crihfield Dalby became a geisha for a year in the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto (the same one where Mineko Iwasaki worked and where Memoirs of a Geisha is set) as an ethnographic study, becoming the first Western woman to train and work as a geisha, and Leslie Downer’s book is a historical survey.

    Sayo Matsuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha is particularly important, as she was a geisha in a hot springs resort area prior to WWII and thus prior to the anti-prostitution law. Prior to that law, geisha working in hot springs resorts were prostitutes with some talent for singing and dancing, not the elevated and more remote ladies who worked in Gion in Kyoto and equivalent neighborhoods in Tokyo whose favors were usually reserved for their best — usually a singular — patron and who thus would better be described as mistresses or courtesans rather than prostitutes. Read about her and her son’s struggle to survive, and I doubt you’d view When A Woman Ascends The Stairs the same way. The publication of her book also contributed to the enactment of anti-prostitution laws.

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    Ugetsu

    Lots of good points there, Lawless. I’ve been a bit busy this week to write up everything I want on this, so this films discussion may well extend into July! Last weekend I got Catherine Russells ‘The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity’ and from my quick read through she has some very thought provoking analyses of issues around Naruse’s approach to gender. But I need a little time to get my thoughts together!

    But to give you an idea of the way I’m thinking, I think approaching this film (and other Naruse films) from the perspective that his lead female character is a ‘victim’ of sexism or bias is to misread his intentions, and in many ways leads to a misreading of the films characters. Russell argues (as I understand her argument anyway), and I’m inclined to agree, that Naruses intention was to examine modernity in a Japanese context. In doing this, he subtly alters his films ‘gaze’ from male to female as appropriate in particular scenes. He alters the subjectivity of his camera according to the setting (for example, she argues that the scenes in the bar are shot from the point of view of the ‘female gaze’), and this is a broader part of his attempt to show how the characters fill their roles within a changing Japan, all within his generally very pessimistic world view. For me, this matches my opinion that the film is full of ‘dualities’ in gender and other roles – every character seems to have a ‘match’.

    But more on this later!

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    Ugetsu

    I keep trying to get the time to put together the long post I was hoping to do in response to all the issues raised (especially by Lawless) but between a dying home pc and visitors I haven’t been able to do so. So a quick summary of my thoughts will have to suffice (this is relevant to several of the threads on this film, I’ll put it here for convenience, although I think a specific thread on Naruses view on feminism would be very interesting, another time perhaps).

    I’ve been reading through Catherine Russells book with great interest and I find I agree with a lot of what she writes. Her view I think on a feminist reading of Naruse’s films can be summarised in this paragraph from page 13 of my paperback edition:

    Sato defines feminisuto as a “special brand of Japanese feminism” and associates it especially with Mizoguchi. The “worship of womanhood” in whch a woman’s suffering “can imbue us with admiration for a virtuous existence almost beyond our reach” is patently absent from Naruse’s cinema, even if he frequently draws on the cultural heritage in which this aesthetic is inscribed. Naruse’s heroines, in my reading of the films, are thinking, active women. Tsuneishi Fumiko’s reading of the eye movements is somewhat more helpful than Sato’s. She says that the failure of characters to meet each other’s gazes is symptomatic of the “ever present veil between men and women” …. the veil is occasionally lifted, creating moments of insight and recognition, fleeting moments of understanding, complicity, and love.

    My view is that applying a feminist or social critique approach to Naruse is to miss the core of his film making concerns. Its not so much that it is not a legitimate approach to his films, but that I believe he constructed his films precisely so they could (or should) not be interpreted this way. I believe he very carefully constructed his films so that each character, whether central to the film or peripheral, could be seen as real people, each moving within the constraints set by a rigid society. So while films by Mizogochi and others have distinct protagonists and antagonists, with Naruse we are seeing a carefully balanced menagerie of people, none of them particularly bad or good, all struggling within the context of Naruse’s famously dark and pessimistic view of life.

    In the specific context of this film, I think Naruse has quite consciously balanced the film with a series of dualities in order to prevent us seeing Keiko/Mama as a particular victim of circumstances or society. In the bar, we see Keiko and Komatsu apparently being ‘equals’, she being ‘front of house’ manager, while he is ‘back of house’ manager. It is never quite clear which one is the more senior – it is implied that neither are, resulting in a conflict when their roles overlap. As Russell points out, the ‘front of bar’ scenes are shot with a specifically ‘female gaze’, while the scenes in the office seem set up to give us Komatsu’s view (the camera always seems tilted on his side, with Keiko the ‘interloper’ within the male world of the office).

    Above Keiko and Komatsu, we see two owners, a male and female one (interestingly, I don’t think we are given the name of either). The only scene we see with the male owner is at the beginning, when he is carpeting both his managers for allowing an ex employee to poach so many customers. While he seems a thoroughly unpleasant man, its hard to blame him for being hard on his employees in those circumstances – and he seems astute enough to identify Keiko’s pride and traditionalism as being the source of the problem (i.e., her refusal to hustle for clients). The female owner seems more pleasant, but her ‘social call’ to Keiko seems to have been at least motivated by a desire to keep taps on her employee, and she is cheerfully casual in the way she instructs Komatsu to pull an all night stint on the books because (it seems) she has forgotten to do her tax returns (I’m told by a Japanese friend this is pretty common work practice in Japan, and is sometimes a way for managers to assert authority – in other words, the owner is saying ‘I screwed up, but you are going to have to fix the problem, because thats your job’).

    The customers in the bar are also an interesting mix. As I said elsewhere, I think its significant that the man who finally persuades Mama to marry is a fake – I think this emphasises the fakery of Keiko’s carefully constructed life. She recognises the cynicism and lies of other customers and so is immune to their flattery and macho behaviour, but it is a Walter Mitty character who suckers her.

    In short, I believe the film is constructed carefully to prevent us from the sort of easy identification with characters which we are used to with this type of film. Its not just a case of the characters being subtle and complex – they are all interracting like a group of dogs each on a separate leash – each one only able to move in tightly constructed circles, sometimes overlapping with other dogs and clashing (or mating), but otherwise only being able to bark in a futile manner at those just out of reach. It is not the intention I believe of the film to show any one character as being a ‘victim’ – everyone and nobody is. They are all just striving within the prison of society, their accident of birth and their own inadequacies. In this way, they are all entirely equal in their inequality.

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