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When a Woman Ascends the Stairs: Film Noir as a narrative device

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    Vili Maunula

    I have very little background knowledge of Naruse or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, but something that caught my attention when watching the film was its filmnoiresque delivery. A quick web search suggests many others have also noted it, but the topic seems always to be mentioned only in passing as a stylistic device, rather than a narrative one. In fact, I have been unable to find anyone actually discussing the film’s noir influences. Yet, my take after a single viewing is that noir is narratively at the very heart of the film.

    But why film noir for a story which clearly is not film noir?

    While When a Woman Ascends the Stairs does not have the crime, the detectives, the violence or the shady characters that would actually make it film noir, it is curious how many other genre devices the film uses. It all starts with the stylised images in opening credits and continues with the protagonist’s voice-over narration. The scenes are throughout lit in very noir-like ways, and there is even something of the typical doomed noir hero’s alienation and hopelessness in Keiko. The setting, a Ginza night club district, with its drinks and ever lingering cigarette smoke is a perfect home for a noir film, and the cool jazz music soundtrack only heightens this feeling. The supporting characters, which include the young and handsome manager, the sexy and mischievous young hostess, the fraudulent suitor, Keiko’s married love interest, and the young hostess-turned-manager who overdoses, could all easily take the story into the noir territory, if allowed to do so. But they aren’t. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs lacks the hard hitting, hard boiled nature of a film noir. It is a much softer, far more gentle, and all in all a more grown up film than is typical for noir.

    Why, indeed, film noir?

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to approach the film as something like “social noir”, if I am allowed a rather clumsy attempt at a genre definition.

    While there is no murder or other similarly violent event at the centre of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, there nevertheless is an underlying crime which affects the protagonist. Keiko is a modern day Sisyphus, but unlike her Greek counterpart who was doomed for his eternal climb because of his deceitful actions, Keiko must ascend the titular stairs over and over again simply because of her gender. The crime which she is the victim of is not one of personal but of socio-cultural nature. She is denied her chance for independence by the rules of the male dominated world which she inhabits. Her options are to either marry or entertain, both ultimately serving the needs of the male society.

    Film noir is many things for many people. However, one fairly constant feature of the genre is the mood of existential bitterness, pessimism and fatalism, which is present also in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. I would like to suggest that by making use of noir vocabulary, the film inserts these components into the story without any need for actually verbalising or acting them out.

    I would therefore rephrase the original question. What would it be, if not film noir?

    If we were to remove the noir aspects of the film, we would be left with the core story of Keiko struggling to find a direction at a crucial point in her life. It would still be the same story, but its impact would be fairly different. It could be a fine film, perhaps even something comparable to Ozu’s Late Spring, but it would be a very different film. It would either entirely lack the subtly lingering dark and heavy atmosphere, or it would have to communicate this feeling by showing or telling more, probably to the detriment of the characters, which in their present form come across as very natural, real and unforced.

    The film noir influences in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs are therefore not simply a stylistic device, but a narrative one. Naruse makes use of conventions from a cinematic genre to add the necessary mood and colour to the story, but does not subjugate himself to any genre conventions. Where a lesser director would either didactically show the required existential despair or succumb to film noir’s stock clichés, Naruse picks and chooses what he needs, while remaining a master of his own narrative.

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    Ugetsu

    Interesting notion – the problem I think with identifying the film as ‘noir‘ is that there seems to be little real consensus as to what a film noir actually is – its a case of ‘you know it when you see it’ I think. I would add as a further complication that one of the features of Japanese art is I think the tendency to take non-Japanese influences ‘out of context’ in a way unthinkable to the originator country. This can be a negative – as a Japanese-African-American guy said to me once in a Tokyo bar when I mentioned how any hip-hop kids I’d seen said ‘The problem with the Japanese is they think its just clothes and music, they just don’t get the culture, man‘ (I decided not to pursue the topic, just ordering more beers instead). On the other side of course, you get a Kurosawa taking Shakespeare in a direction which would probably be inconceivable for someone from an English speaking background. This isn’t to say that the Japanese film makers didn’t understand something like film noir – Kurosawa for one quite obviously did – its just that they wouldn’t have seen it as a genre/stylistic straitjacket that a non-Japanese film maker may have subconsciously found themselves in once they started using noir signifiers.

    Anyway, that’s a rambling way of saying that I’m not sure that its useful to see this film in a film noir context as it is normally understood, despite as you rightly point out, there are some clear influences – especially the use of voiceover. When I saw the film I actually thought of German expressionism, which of course is one of the sources of noir. Of course, all those strands of film making were long established in Japan by 1960.

    I do think that Catherine Russell is right in her essay in the Criterion notes that the style of the film was intended to emphasise the modernity, cosmopolitanism, and foreignness of Ginza. Remember of course that for most of the contemporary audience this world was as distant and unreachable as New York or Paris. This was a world for the working women and rich men only (and, as we’ve seen, at least one poor man who faked his way in), one in which few Japanese would experience, but would also have been intensely curious about (as we can see from the huge popularity of films set in this world). I think the noir elements are part of emphasising the exoticism of this world.

    Film noir is many things for many people. However, one fairly constant feature of the genre is the mood of existential bitterness, pessimism and fatalism, which is present also in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. I would like to suggest that by making use of noir vocabulary, the film inserts these components into the story without any need for actually verbalising or acting them out.

    I would agree with this, but there is a certain chicken and egg element here – is it the generally fatalistic mood of the film which makes us think of film noir? Again, I’m inclined to think that we are dealing here with what biologists would call evolutionary convergence – where different animals end up looking similar because they are following the same evolutionary paths. I think this often happened in Japanese films – at the same rough time frame as this film, younger Japanese film makers were making films like Kisses which had many of the stylistic and thematic elements of the French New Wave – but in 1957, a couple of years before 400 Blows or Breathless.

    While there is no murder or other similarly violent event at the centre of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, there nevertheless is an underlying crime which affects the protagonist. Keiko is a modern day Sisyphus, but unlike her Greek counterpart who was doomed for his eternal climb because of his deceitful actions, Keiko must ascend the titular stairs over and over again simply because of her gender. The crime which she is the victim of is not one of personal but of socio-cultural nature. She is denied her chance for independence by the rules of the male dominated world which she inhabits. Her options are to either marry or entertain, both ultimately serving the needs of the male society.

    I like your comparison to Sisyphus very much – its very appropriate! However, while what you say is in line with much of the commentary on the film, I would disagree with the rest of your interpretation. I don’t think the film was about her chance for independence being ruined by a male dominated world. Quite the contrary, I think the film emphasises just how many options she has – she gives herself two options (marriage, or running a business), while Komatsu, the manager, gives her a third ‘work in a factory and starve’ (the starving bit presumably not meant literally, I took it as a way of pointing out how well paid she is compared to her factory working/office girl contemporaries). Most of the audience watching the film would I think have been quite envious of, if not her life, then her potential life. Her three options would have been two more than most Japanese people at the time. And she had a lovely apartment and beautiful clothes. Of course, she had a crappy job, but that just put her in good company with 95% of people in post war Japan. I think a feature of the film is a contrast between the constant griping and complaining of Keiko with the sleek beauty of her surroundings and the rich glamorous men she spends her time with. It is also I think striking that unlike in Mizoguchi’s films, where all the women seem downtrodden and miserable, and all the men are bastards, in this film Keiko seems almost alone among the working girls as being miserable – most of them seem quite happy, while the customers are a clearly differentiated mix of bastard, drunk, nice but dull guy, fantasist, well meaning if gormless, attractive and intelligent, and so on. There is no clear directorial approval or disapproval of any of the characters I think, unlike Mizoguchi (or, more subtly, Ozu) who always signal who we are supposed to sympathise with, and who we shake our heads at. I don’t believe we are supposed to see Keiko as uniquely downtrodden victim of society.

    Her story actually made me think of the characters of James Joyces ‘Dubliners‘. Individuals from various strata of society who are caught in a state of stasis – paralysed by an apparent set of choices, none of which are real choices, or alternatively caught between notions of duty and happiness, respectability and freedom. In fact, I could see this story fitting snugly right into Joyces collection. In other hands, the film could have been a morality tale – see the sleek, beautiful woman who despite all her money isn’t happy – but in Naruses hands it is far more complex and real and human. I don’t believe Naruse was making a comment on society (although there certainly are comments on gender and class) so much as one on economics – when you don’t have money, you don’t have choices. Mix this in with all the other constraints of a rigid society and you have a recipe for human unhappiness.

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    Vili Maunula

    You raise a number of excellent points, Ugetsu. But I will persist with my interpretation.

    It is a good question whether the film simply makes us think of noir, rather than noir actually influencing the film. I tried to briefly touch this in my original post by pointing out that if we simply removed the noir elements, we would be left with a rather different film. My other counter argument is that there seem to be too many noir elements for it to be a simple coincidence or, as you put it, evolutionary convergence.

    For me, the most striking feature is the lighting, which is very noir-like. Early on in the film there is a scene where Keiko sees off her former employee and her new husband at the railway station. It is a day scene, and yet the characters cast unnaturally huge shadows on the billboard behind them. My first thought was that the scene was poorly (that is, too strongly) lit, but as the shadows kept on popping up also in subsequent scenes, and indeed throughout the film, I realised that it must have been intentional.

    Of course, as you say, the shadows alone do not make a film noir. But with the other common noir features that I mentioned, which include the voice over, the music, the setting and the characters, the film really seems to be circling around film noir territory without ever actually driving the plot there. The number of film noir boxes that the film ticks is I think meaningfully high for the work to be considered playing with noir, rather than having for instance merely being influenced by it. Meanwhile, I don’t think that the film has a similar relationship with something like German expressionism, with which it certainly shares the shadows but lacks other major elements such as sharp modernist architecture or indeed the very notion of expressionism itself.

    Whether Naruse was familiar enough with western genre conventions to consciously play with something like film noir archetypes is a good question, and I admit that I lack the knowledge to answer it. I know practically nothing about Naruse, but based on my knowledge and understanding of his contemporary colleagues and their works, I think that we should reject the notion that Japanese filmmakers were somehow romantically working in a total cultural vacuum. Mind you, I would definitely not accuse you of subscribing to that idea, but it is something that seems to be the starting point for surprisingly many critics writing on Japanese film.

    Also, to briefly touch a related point that you raised, I would likewise say that the Japanese “out of context” borrowing that you mentioned is often not actually a case of “not getting the (original) culture”, but rather one of appropriating the features into a new culture, one alien to the western observer. Obviously there is also plenty of “empty” borrowing going on as well, but I think that this is something that is true of any trendy cross-cultural borrowing. In any case, I think that your decision to simply order more beers was the correct one. 🙂

    With all this in mind, and to get back to the main argument, I think that a filmmaker of Naruse’s calibre who, if he was anything like his contemporaries, probably watched and studied as many western (and eastern) films as he possibly could, must have recognised the noir elements in his film as soon as they began to infiltrate it, even if (and this is an if) they weren’t originally planned. I would say that we would be seriously underestimating and underrating Naruse, a professional filmmaker, to think otherwise.

    As for the story, you definitely make a good point when you note that the options available for Keiko are really no fewer than what a contemporary Japanese individual would on average have had, a man or a woman. Perhaps I am approaching the film anachronistically and with a too western mind set, living in a world where career (and identity) changes are fairly commonplace.

    Yet, it seems important to me that in the film’s story any option that Keiko attempts to pursue necessitates male approval in order for her to be successful. Meanwhile, from her family it is again her brother who introduces additional expenses for her, keeping her back.

    You are correct that Keiko lives a better life than most of her contemporaries, at least if measured purely by material wealth around her. It is also true that her co-workers all seem happy. But I think that the film manages to show us that appearances do often deceive.

    Ultimately, I very much agree with you that Keiko is not a unique victim of society, although I perhaps interpret this fact differently. I think that Keiko’s story illustrates the unfair position that she is put into simply because of her gender. Having said that, I would definitely not go as far as to say that she somehow stands for all women in Japan, and I am in fact not really sure if the film should be read as some kind of a feminist statement, at all. Rather, and I think that we may again agree here, the social criticism is directed more towards the confining structures that contemporary society forces on any individual.

    It is this very inability to truly gain control of your own life which, I think, the film’s noir elements enhance and underline.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I tried to briefly touch this in my original post by pointing out that if we simply removed the noir elements, we would be left with a rather different film.

    I’d certainly agree with that – I don’t doubt that Naruse knew a lot about noir and this did influence (at least) the look and ‘feel’ of the film.

    Meanwhile, I don’t think that the film has a similar relationship with something like German expressionism, with which it certainly shares the shadows but lacks other major elements such as sharp modernist architecture or indeed the very notion of expressionism itself.

    I don’t really know enough about expressionism to comment, but I think it was those cool early international style bars Keiko and Yuri worked in (they reminded me a little of the Loos bar in Vienna) which made me think ‘expressionism’ rather than ‘noir’.

    Also, to briefly touch a related point that you raised, I would likewise say that the Japanese “out of context” borrowing that you mentioned is often not actually a case of “not getting the (original) culture”, but rather one of appropriating the features into a new culture, one alien to the western observer.

    Indeed – I didn’t intend it as a negative, its one of the things I’ve always found refreshing that Japanese culture is so ready to adopt elements of other cultures without having a hang-up about having to pretend a deeper knowledge if they don’t want to do so. Of course, occasionally the result is Santa Claus hanging on a cross….. And of course plenty of Japanese film makers (not least Kurosawa of course) managed to greatly enrich very Japanese stories by intelligently borrowing all sorts of ideas from Russian and western cinema and literature.

    I would say that we would be seriously underestimating and underrating Naruse, a professional filmmaker, to think otherwise.

    I’d certainly agree that it would be a huge mistake to underestimate Naruse. I wonder if his quiet and retiring nature led him to being underestimated by so many of his contemporaries and later writers – he seemed to be the least self-promoting of directors. But I think as we can see from this (and other) of his films, he was supremely in control of his art, which assumes both deep thinking and a wide knowledge.

    Yet, it seems important to me that in the film’s story any option that Keiko attempts to pursue necessitates male approval in order for her to be successful. Meanwhile, from her family it is again her brother who introduces additional expenses for her, keeping her back.

    But is this really true? It seems to me to be significant that one of her bosses is a self-made woman (I didn’t catch if she has a name – its not listed in imdb). And it is this woman who makes the most cutting statement about Keiko’s family home – when she talks about it reminding her of ‘old Tokyo – before the war’. There is an element here where I’m at sea, not knowing Japanese, but I think the suggestion here is that Keiko comes from a lower class background, not just a poor one (from what I know of the Hostess Bars, the most successful ‘mamas’ were often women from very respectable backgrounds who had become impoverished in one way or another). One of the attractions of course of the upmarket bars was that the hostesses were classy and educated. I think the suggestion here is that Keiko has successfully reinvented herself, rather like Gondo in High and Low. In other words, the key aspect of her story is a battle against social hierarchy and a lack of money.

    Here we see (I suspect) we see an echo in Sekine, the fantasist. He is also from a modest background, and has passed himself off as a rich and successful man – all he needed was a good suit and a borrowed car, while Keiko needed her stylish apartment and good clothes to do likewise. They were both in the bar pretending to be something they are not. The difference between the classes is so shallow, just a good suit and a way of talking. But family (in Sekine’s case, his wife and kids, in Keiko’s case, her mother and brother) have a way of dragging you back. It seems to me, that the core of the story is how difficult it is to escape our origins. Poverty has this horrible knack of pulling people back into its black hole, no matter what they do. The rich somehow keep floating above it all, no matter how stupid they are.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: It seems to me to be significant that one of her bosses is a self-made woman (I didn’t catch if she has a name – its not listed in imdb).

    I, too, see her as an anomaly in my otherwise well fitting theory. I actually originally thought that she had a male owner behind her, but on a second viewing didn’t notice anyone mentioning that, so I must have originally misunderstood something.

    You do make a very good case about the film being about social hierarchy and money, and how difficult it is to become something that you were not originally supposed to be. I’m not sure how far this idea is from my original interpretation, as ultimately both are about control, but I am starting to lean toward your direction here. Perhaps gender doesn’t really play as big a part here as I originally thought.

    I’ll still keep to my “film noir as a narrative device” interpretation, though! 🙂

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    lawless

    Sorry – this is going to be a long comment. I disagree with both of you on some points and agree with both of you on others. I remember mentioning noir influences in an earlier thread — I don’t remember what about, maybe it was Drunken Angel — and having a discussion about how difficult it is to define noir. So I think part of this is a problem of semantics, and I would raise the same questions in that regard as Ugetsu. But I definitely think of noir as a stylistic device and not a narrative one, although you’re right, Vili, the two blend together here.

    Vili: While When a Woman Ascends the Stairs does not have the crime, the detectives, the violence or the shady characters that would actually make it film noir….When a Woman Ascends the Stairs lacks the hard hitting, hard boiled nature of a film noir. It is a much softer, far more gentle, and all in all a more grown up film than is typical for noir.

    I think it would be fair to say that the film’s setting in the seamy although glamorous world of hostess bars is always teetering on the edge of disrepute and crime, and there actually are many shady characters: the brother, the hostesses who cross the line into prostitution or become kept women in return for a loan, which is prostitution under another name, the supplier of black market whiskey, Sekine, in some senses even Fujisaki and the bar manager, given their resort to violence in their relationship with a woman both profess to love. It may not be hard-boiled, but that’s because there’s no (male) private eye running around dodging bullets. The narrative certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

    I see this as female noir. While traditional noir movies like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Dark Passage, and Body Heat have at least one female character, she’s never the viewpoint character, and she’s a femme fatale. What Naruse has created here is a noir movie with a female viewpoint character. Just changing the gender of the viewpoint character changes the contours of the movie greatly, which may be why it strikes you as softer, gentler, and more grown up. As someone who can more easily identify with Keiko and see things from her point of view because we are the same gender and thus broadly speaking (pun not intended) have some of the same experiences, I don’t see the movie as “softer” than other noir, and it’s only gentle because that’s society’s perception of what goes on in this movie. In reality, the life Keiko lives is neither soft nor gentle; the only description I agree with is “grown up,” even though it’s not a term I would apply to many of the characters other than Keiko. Keiko and other women in her situation can’t afford not to approach things in a grown-up, clear-eyed fashion. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to exist at all. It is men who can afford to enjoy themselves casually, and the performative nature of her work exists because she must please men in order to succeed at her job.

    Vili: Keiko must ascend the titular stairs over and over again simply because of her gender. The crime which she is the victim of is not one of personal but of socio-cultural nature. She is denied her chance for independence by the rules of the male dominated world which she inhabits. Her options are to either marry or entertain, both ultimately serving the needs of the male society.

    I agree with you here and regret your backing down. I disagree with Ugetsu that men are equally as constrained as women. They may be as equally locked into their roles once they accept them, but men in Japan then, men in Japan now, and men in the Western world today still have more socially acceptable choices than women when it comes to careers, sex, education (even though women are more educated than men, at least in the US), clothing, media, entertainment, and a host of other things. Not only are male and female deliberately polarized along masculine/feminine lines — look at the gender essentialist purveyors of evolutionary psychology who believe that male dominance and female submission (whatever that means) is hard-wired — they are made to feel that this separation is inevitable when it is clear that much of it is societal and there is no way to test or prove it’s inevitable in any scientifically valid way because the effect of societal norms can never be controlled for or filtered out.

    In the film, this plays out in many ways: It is men, not women, who have the economic clout to patronize the bars. Without them, the bars would close, and the reason for hiring bar hostesses is to bring them in and help keep them there. (There’s also the social stigma attached to women who go there and the fact that Japan is a homosocial society; men and women do not socialize or share the same social space in the way we in the West do.) It is men who are factory owners; Sekine trades on this by successfully pretending to be one simply by borrowing nice clothes and a car. (He must have some money, though; otherwise he’d have been tossed out or refused entrance for failing to pay his bill.) Neither Keiko nor any other woman could successfully pull that off; their only possible roles are as bar hostess, bar owner, prostitute, office worker, or wife. All of those involve some level of servitude and subservience to men. While women may have had choices, by and large they didn’t have agency (and still don’t).

    Vili: If we were to remove the noir aspects of the film, we would be left with the core story of Keiko struggling to find a direction at a crucial point in her life. It would still be the same story, but its impact would be fairly different. It could be a fine film, perhaps even something comparable to Ozu’s Late Spring, but it would be a very different film. It would either entirely lack the subtly lingering dark and heavy atmosphere, or it would have to communicate this feeling by showing or telling more, probably to the detriment of the characters, which in their present form come across as very natural, real and unforced.

    I agree with you here, but still don’t think it makes noir more than a stylistic device used to color the narrative. As mentioned up front, that may only be a semantic difference, but it’s an important one. For that matter, what does the distinction you seem to draw between noir as a stylistic choice and noir as driver of the narrative mean anyway?

    Ugetsu: Her three options would have been two more than most Japanese people at the time.

    Are you really suggesting that marriage wasn’t an option open to most Japanese people at the time or are you merely pointing out that by her age, most other men and women were already married? Because if it’s the latter, then it’s a choice that’s not unavailable to them; it’s a choice they’ve already made and are experiencing.

    This is bringing in material from other threads, but I do not understand why other people’s envy or the relative “glamour” of her lifestyle, which is belied by harsh reality (most so-called “glamorous” jobs are a lot of work) and her own distaste for it, undercuts the claim that she feels trapped and confined by her job and the limited opportunities open to her as a women even without regard to her job. For more as to why it’s a potentially draining occupation, see this interview of gay porn actor and escort Christopher Daniels (WARNING: NSFW images — explicit male nudity), who says that the biggest downside of escorting is having to be “on” at designated times irrespective of how he feels or what’s going on in his life: “Sometimes you just don’t want to have sex, talk to people, be sexy or even get out of bed. It can be draining.”

    It’s not at all unreasonable of Keiko to worry about her job’s effect on her dignity and respectability, especially as those qualities are perceived by others, as it limits her choice of suitors. Despite the male-centrism of Japanese society of the time, she seems to be pining for a man to love and take care of her the way her first husband did – note the way in which she refers to him, wishes she’d been more understanding, and romanticizes their past together (in part because he died long before either of them expected him to). Even Sekine will do if he is kind and a good enough provider. (I have to admit to having rooted for him up until the point at which he’s revealed to be a fraud because he seemed kinder and more interested in her as a person than as a lover or sex object.)

    To me, this desire to rely on the kindness of others is her biggest mistake; she needs to take her future into her own hands. The experiences of the hostesses who try to open their own bars (Yuri and Keiko’s friend who leases the bar with the shared bathroom that Keiko understandably rejected) as well as Keiko’s experience with looking for investors suggests that opening her own bar isn’t the escape from male domination that it seems. If she wants to be financially independent, her best course of action is that of the young prostitute in Street of Shame who lends money instead of spending it and winds up running a lucrative business that serves but is outside of the bar/brothel industry, but she has the good luck to be beautiful, smart, good at manipulating men, and lucky as well as ruthless. I don’t get the same sense of ruthlessness from Keiko, and indeed the need for ruthlessness and a certain degree of duplicity in order to survive itself suggests how tilted the playing field is on the basis of gender. If the same person were a man, he wouldn’t have to scheme to get what he wants; he’d be able to achieve it more straightforwardly.

    Ugetsu: It is also I think striking that unlike in Mizoguchi’s films, where all the women seem downtrodden and miserable, and all the men are bastards, in this film Keiko seems almost alone among the working girls as being miserable – most of them seem quite happy, while the customers are a clearly differentiated mix of bastard, drunk, nice but dull guy, fantasist, well meaning if gormless, attractive and intelligent, and so on. There is no clear directorial approval or disapproval of any of the characters I think, unlike Mizoguchi (or, more subtly, Ozu) who always signal who we are supposed to sympathise with, and who we shake our heads at. I don’t believe we are supposed to see Keiko as uniquely downtrodden victim of society.

    I agree with you that Naruse’s films (judging from this one, anyway) seem more observational and less judgmental than Mizoguchi or Ozu’s films, but that doesn’t mean that a Naruse film exists in a vacuum. Rather, by getting out of the way himself, the director lets us judge for ourselves. Obviously, our individual judgments run in all sorts of different directions; if I can put it this way, yours is unsympathetic to Keiko and mine isn’t. But while my sympathy for her and her situation may have something to do with shared gender and perspectives, there’s plenty of concrete evidence in the film that her gender hinders her economically and personally and limits her in a way the men aren’t limited. (They have limitations too, but they’re mainly based on their acting out the limitations society puts on their behavior.) Whether that’s Naruse’s perspective is beside the point.

    Ugetsu: I don’t believe Naruse was making a comment on society (although there certainly are comments on gender and class) so much as one on economics – when you don’t have money, you don’t have choices. Mix this in with all the other constraints of a rigid society and you have a recipe for human unhappiness.

    I absolutely agree – and that’s the point. Women are kept out of the economic equation; the only time they add value and can make real money is when their sexuality is exploited. But even then, men still control the real money.

    Vili: It is also true that her co-workers all seem happy. But I think that the film manages to show us that appearances do often deceive.

    Ultimately, I very much agree with you that Keiko is not a unique victim of society, although I perhaps interpret this fact differently. I think that Keiko’s story illustrates the unfair position that she is put into simply because of her gender. Having said that, I would definitely not go as far as to say that she somehow stands for all women in Japan, and I am in fact not really sure if the film should be read as some kind of a feminist statement, at all. Rather, and I think that we may again agree here, the social criticism is directed more towards the confining structures that contemporary society forces on any individual.

    I second Vili’s observation that the apparent happiness of Keiko’s co-workers is likely to be deceptive. If they’re so happy with their lot, why is the one (whose name escapes me) who stays at Keiko’s apartment in her absence so eager to open her own bar and to sleep with the bar manager even though she realizes he has the hots for Keiko? Yuri’s fate should be kept in mind here – it’s not clear whether she overdosed or despaired at the last minute, but the upshot was that she took her own life because she was being hounded by a creditor who’d pretended to be a friend. Even if she hadn’t committed suicide, using the pretense of doing so to stave off a creditor is a pretty extreme way out and an indicator of how helpless she felt.

    I also agree with the rest of his observations, at least vis-à-vis Naruse’s intentions, but as far as I’m concerned, the movie is a feminist statement and is a more powerful one for not overtly taking sides. Given what I know about Japanese society and the sex industry there at the time and now, I cannot evaluate the movie in any other light.

    You mention that the owner of the Bar Carton is a woman. All that tells us is that some women have made the same transition Keiko contemplates, which Yuri made, and which Keiko’s co-worker and friend expects to make. We learn nothing directly about how she became an owner and whether she needed outside financing, although her age and dignity suggest that she’s been in the business for awhile and might have paid off any creditors she had. But what the text tells us directly is that none of the women we see going into the business now are able to afford it without outside help and their creditors use that need for outside money to extract a great price financially and by restricting their autonomy — a price it seems Keiko is unwilling to pay. Making those who are less well off pay more and restricting their autonomy is a form of exploitation. I’d also point out that the owner of the Lilac Bar — a man — is even more openly exploitative and bullying toward his employees than the owner of the Bar Carton, thus reinforcing the male/female divide when it comes to exploitation.

    I don’t disagree that this is also a story of the rich exploiting the poor, or at least those who are less rich, but the fact that the divide between haves and have nots in this film is almost universally a male/female divide (we don’t really know how well off the owner of the Bar Carton is or how the bar is doing) and that the divide is both caused and reinforced by the limitations on female agency suggests that the movie is about the intersection of gender, class, and economics. As for the moral equivalence Ugetsu seems to posit between Keiko and Sekine, I don’t buy it. Her pretense is a matter of economic survival; his is a matter of making himself happier by committing fraud. There’s a difference between putting on a mask, which arguably we all do, and pretending to be something you’re not. I see her as aspiring — or pretending, if you prefer that word — to be better or more than she was, once again proving my point: fraud committed by a man who wants to impress others by pretending to be something other than what he is (a factory owner who’s free to marry) is viewed as no big deal whereas a woman bettering herself by acting as if she comes from a higher socioeconomic class than she grew up in is implicitly criticized for her ambition and drive. Would trying to fit in a higher socioeconomic class in order to advance professionally be criticized in a man? I doubt it.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I see this as female noir. While traditional noir movies like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Dark Passage, and Body Heat have at least one female character, she’s never the viewpoint character, and she’s a femme fatale.

    I really like the idea of ‘female noir’! It sounds just right for this film.

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    Vili Maunula

    The title of my first draft for the original post actually was “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs: Female Noir”. However, I decided against walking down that road.

    This was partly because I didn’t feel comfortable feeding into the “women are soft, men are tough” stereotype. I also wanted to stay away from any broad feminist interpretations, as I didn’t really see it as my territory to traverse in this case — and I don’t actually think that the film walks there, either. I saw the film as focusing more on unique individuals than larger and more allegorical characters, a view that Ugetsu’s comments and my recent third viewing have further reinforced for me. The film does not offer a sufficiently wide slice of contemporary life to convince me that it is focusing on wider gender issues, so I felt that my title and genre definition should not prompt the reader to think too far along those lines.

    I would still make the same decision.

    lawless: For that matter, what does the distinction you seem to draw between noir as a stylistic choice and noir as driver of the narrative mean anyway?

    The way I see it, a film style can be used simply as a visual style or a mood setter, as also noir is often used. However, noir like many other film styles can also be used to influence what is specifically being communicated by the narrative arc.

    My original argument was that by bringing in the noir style for When a Woman Ascends the Stairs Naruse also intentionally introduces a range of elements from the archetypical noir film in order to influence the way that we approach the core narrative of the film. More specifically, I argued that with this borrowing, the story acquires concepts such as existential bitterness, pessimism and fatalism, without much need for either the characters or the plot to spell these things out.

    However, following my most recent viewing, I am no longer entirely convinced about this argument. I am sitting on the fence here.

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