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When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and its carefully constructed narrative structure

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    Vili Maunula

    In the general discussion of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, phrases like “slice of life”, “without a complete narrative arc”, “lack of narrative or apparent purpose”, “formless” and “lack [of] coherence” have recently been applied to describe the film. This has surprised me, for one major reason why I have so totally fallen in love with the film is what I perceive to be its masterfully constructed narrative structure.

    While I definitely agree with lawless’s remark that simply following something like “12 rules of narrative structure” doesn’t get you anywhere, I firmly believe that there are structural elements that are common to (almost) all good stories. I see master storytellers (and pretty all master artists) as craftsmen who know the tools of their trade inside out and are able to apply them in ways that don’t necessarily draw our attention to them, while still very much following conventions and influencing our enjoyment of the end product. A story without a structure is almost always like a building without a proper, well, structure, and it will fall apart in no time. In the case of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, I believe Naruse and his screenwriter-producer Kikushima have crafted an almost textbook example of a well constructed screenplay.

    There are various models of narrative structures, but perhaps the simplest and also the most often mentioned in film studies is the basic three act structure (see also Wikipedia). You could in fact say that almost all other narrative models for screenplays are variations of this basic model, as it is loose enough to be almost universally applicable, while still definite enough to be meaningful.

    To illustrate that When a Woman Ascends the Stairs can be shown to neatly follow the basic three act structure, and is therefore far from being in some way purposeless or lacking a narrative arc, I will show that the film dutifully checks all the necessary boxes for a three act screenplay: in Syd Field’s terms, it has three Acts which include a Setup, an Inciting Incident, a First Plot Point, a Midpoint, a Second Plot Point, a Climax and a Resolution. And all of these follow each other logically and are driven by the story.

    Let us start by looking at the film’s first six minutes, the Setup. Like all good setups, the film begins by introducing us to its world and characters. And like most excellent setups, it also introduces and foreshadows most of the film’s major themes and plot points. Consider the following, all crammed into the first six minutes of the film (all quotes throughout from the BFI subtitles):

    • The film’s first full scene is the farewell party for one of the girls working with Keiko who has gotten married and is leaving the profession. This will later be one option that also Keiko pursues.
    • The reason given for Keiko’s absence from the wedding party, and the film’s second scene, is that she is meeting with the bar’s owner who insists that they are not making enough money. The reason for this is Keiko’s former co-worker Yuri, who has set up her own bar and is drawing all the customers. This will later be the other option that Keiko pursues.
    • To echo this verbally, some of the first lines of dialogue exchanged in the film are “Marriage is what every woman wants” and “Not me. I’m going to save up and buy a house for myself”. Other early references to these two choices include Komatsu’s direct suggestion that Keiko open her own bar and Keiko’s selection of a “housewife’s haircut” at the hairdresser’s.
    • The need to maintain a fa├žade of luxury, which Ugetsu has noted as the film’s central topic, is also mentioned at least three times in these first scenes. First, after meeting with her boss, Keiko expresses her dislike for “cheapening” herself by calling her former customers. Later, the girl who got married complains how her new husband hasn’t even bought a second class ticket for the train. The third time this subject comes up is when one of the girls kisses some matches saying that “twin matches mean luck”, only to be told by one of her coworkers to not act “like a cheap cabaret girl” — a scene immediately followed by a shorter scene where other hostesses bargain over kimono prices. Don’t act cheap but save where you can.
    • The married girl’s departure by train mentioned above can also be seen as foreshadowing the late scene where Keiko sees off Fujisaki. Meanwhile, the first minutes of the film also include a hostess’s suicide, anticipating what will happen later with Yuri. In that scene, a fortune teller is also mentioned, and Keiko will indeed later go to a fortune teller after attending Yuri’s funeral.
    • The suicide also inspires a number of meaningful comments from the bar girls, one about keeping the professional and the private life separate (“A love triangle. Her patron and her lover had a fight”) and another about age “[She was] about forty, but she looked young. / How awful to grow old. / Save money for old age.”). The latter receives an annoyed remark from Keiko, and meaningful glances from her younger co-workers. These are very relevant to the film as a whole.
    • It is also very early on (right after Keiko’s comment about cheapening herself) established that Keiko does not particularly enjoy her work.

    All this takes place in the first six or so minutes after the opening titles, with the initial section ending with Keiko ascending the stairs for the first time.

    Having now established the situation, the film moves into Yuri’s bar to show how successful she is with her new establishment, and how she has lured in most of Keiko’s former customers. Including, crucially, also Fujisaki, who as we will later learn and can already from her reaction suspect Keiko likes most.

    By showing us Yuri’s place, the film has illustrated the protagonist’s central problem. Business is slow. She is growing older. As Keiko climbs the stairs for the second time, her voiceover remarks: “What shall I do? This is the moment to make the decision.” We are now through the film’s Inciting Incident.

    Keiko and her crew move into a new bar and we are next introduced (literally) to the three regulars that Keiko entertains and who will become central to the story. We are told that the “rich man from Osaka” (Goda) is the richest, that Keiko likes Fujisaki the best, and that Sekine, the “fatso” that she will of course later almost marry, is out of the race. Just before this revelation, we also have a scene with Sekine and another girl, with the film directly establishing that Sekine is in fact already married, and perhaps even suggesting that the girl attending him at that point suggests to him the idea of marrying Keiko.

    After their introduction, Keiko’s own feelings for these three customers are immediately made known to us. First, she immediately (but politely) refuses Sekine’s invitation to eat with him the next day, saying that she needs to accompany a customer to the airport. Yet, just a minute later she entertains the idea of dining that day with Goda who is just leaving the bar, suggesting that the airport trip was a blatant lie from her part. After this, Keiko notices that also Fujisaki is leaving, and unlike with Goda, she expresses disappointment for his departure, especially as he says that he is leaving to meet someone. Once the two are outside the bar, also Fujisaki suggests a dinner the next day, to which Keiko replies that she will call him.

    This type of attention to detail runs throughout the work, and I could go on and on about the film’s intricate structures and rich internal references, which are pretty much everywhere — absolutely everything in this film is meaningful — but I would just end up describing the whole film. Let us then consider just the major events, of which we have already had the setup (the first six minutes) and the incident that illustrates the protagonist’s central problem (Keiko’s visit to Yuri’s bar).

    In order to answer her earlier question “What shall I do?”, Keiko finally decides to do something at around the 38 minute mark. Since she figures that no decent man would marry a bar hostess, she decides that she must open her own place. But she will not accept Goda’s suggestion to exchange sex for financing (the incident that thrusts her into action), and decides to collect the money from her many suitors. Here is our First Plot Point which ends Act One.

    Act Two begins with Keiko trying to establish her new business, but like all good second acts, also this one is an uphill battle. Keiko has trouble finding a proper place and collecting the necessary money turns out to be more difficult that she had originally thought. To add to the hardships, she first finds out that Yuri is not doing as well as Keiko had thought, and to top that, Yuri even ends up killing herself. At her funeral, Keiko witnesses first hand how debtors’ claws can reach one beyond the grave. This depresses Keiko, who against the advice of Komatsu proceeds to get drunk, causing an ulcer to flare up. We have reached the film’s Midpoint, both in terms of its running time as well as narratively. Keiko is now at her lowest as she is transported to stay with her lower class family who expect money from her. She now seems to be furthest away from her goals.

    Parallel to the above, Sekine has been playing his game to win Keiko’s heart, while the fortune teller has told her that she will receive an offer of marriage. As Keiko is making her recovery, Sekine continues his pursuit and we move into the second half of Act Two, where Keiko’s resolution to establish her own bar begins to be replaced by the idea of marriage. Yet, just like her first pursuit in the first half of Act Two, the goal of marriage is more complicated than she had hoped. Sekine ultimately turns out to be a fraud, marking the Second Plot Point and the end of Act Two.

    Enter Act Three. Having already burned bridges with Goda and discovered Sekine’s true nature, Keiko is left with only the third suitor and the man she really feels for, Fujisaki, to pin her hopes on. Again, just like at the end of the first half of Act Two, Keiko drinks herself silly. Again, just like at the end of the first half of Act Two, Komatsu tries to stop her. But she does not listen to him and proceeds to spend the evening, and ultimately the night, with Fujisaki. The next morning she finally goes for the kill telling him that she loves him, but she is no luckier with him than she has been with her earlier choices, and he leaves her with news about his transfer out of town as well as with some money for reasons that can be disputed. This is the Climax where the film’s primary underlying tension (Keiko’s love for Fujisaki) is resolved.

    What follows, the last ten minutes of the film, is the Denouement or the final resolution. All three suitors mentioned at the beginning of the film have now been revealed as impossible matches for Keiko, and the story proceeds to tie up loose ends — Keiko will not marry Komatsu either, she will not accept Fujisaki’s money, and (supposedly) she will not help her brother financially. Instead, she returns to being a bar hostess and ascends the stairs one final time with a new determination and what is probably a fake smile on her face. The End.

    Granted, it is not your cardboard cut Hollywood summer film’s three act structure with hammered-home plot points, but all in all When a Woman Ascends the Stairs follows this very common narrative structure fairly meticulously. Obviously, the film was released 20 years before Syd Field’s book that I have been using as a reference here, but we must remember that rather than inventing the structure, Field simply wrote what he observed to be the case in successful screenplays. The general theory of the three act narrative division itself goes back at least as far as Aristotle’s Poetics, and is also typical for instance of traditional Japanese theatre.

    As I have done my best to point out here, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is far from formless or lacking a narrative structure. The only reason this carefully crafted narrative may come across as a “slice of life” experience is because of the sheer mastery of Naruse’s direction, the brilliant and life-like performances by the various actors, and the realism that Naruse is able to insert into the exquisitely planned story.

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    Ugetsu

    I can’t add anything more to this than to say this is a great post, Vili. It shows clearly just how wonderful Naruse was at constructing his films. You are quite right that this is a very structurally complex film, which is so skilfully executed that it has the appearance of simplicity.

    I’m reminded of a comment made by a theatre director about Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest – that it is the easiest play in the world to direct because the script was constructed with the elegance of a fine watch – all the director had to do was wind it up and let it go. I think the strength of Naruse’s film is this type of very careful and precise narrative structure.

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