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When a Woman Ascends the Stairs: The Hostess Bar as Theatre

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    One aspect of the film which I find particularly curious is the emphasis placed on Keiko’s apartment. It is an enviably nice apartment for a single woman to have in Tokyo at the time and this is frequently commented upon by the various visitors. It is also clearly a serious financial strain on her. She justifies the expense to her mother as a business expense – if she stayed with her family this would have saved a great deal of money but she says that ‘the customers would – somehow – know‘. Logically, if she lived at home, she could save far more money for her own future. In choosing her fancy apartment, she is, in effect saying that she needs the apartment to prevent the ‘smell’ of poverty following her to the bar.

    There are other hints I think that Keiko is not the normal bar hostess. Catherine Russell in the notes with the Criterion DVD notes that in an upmarket bar it was expected that the hostesses were from ‘good’ families – usually women from respectable backgrounds who had fallen on hard times, perhaps widows. It was important for the image of the bar, and the customers bringing their clients there, that the women were not obviously low class. But Keiko – as is hinted at by the comments of her female boss when she visits her during her illness – quite different. Keiko comes from, if not poverty, then a fairly low class background.

    This implies that Keiko has reinvented herself as a high class woman. In effect, ‘Mama’ is a deliberate invention by Keiko. She is not just pretending to be the lovely, respectable hostess. She is pretending to be a woman acting as as a respectable hostess. When she ‘ascends the stairs’ she is entering a theatre, one where she is a very different person. But she finds it hard to maintain this duality, hence her desire to escape her family, even at great financial expense. She is trying to escape Keiko, and become Mama, a role she possibly hopes to maintain even if she eventually marries someone rich.

    But she is not the only self-invention in the film. Sekine is an even more extreme form of self-invention – he has carried it so far, he has literally forgotten who he is. He, like a lot of Japanese at the time, would have been fascinated by the sophisticated world of the hostess bar with its beautiful women and rich self satisfied men. So he simply borrowed a good suit and a nice car, and introduced himself there. Once there, he seems to have found a home so comfortable he forgot all about his long suffering wife at home. He is in any ways just like Keiko/Mama. And it is fitting that this ‘invented’ man is the one customer who truly fools Keiko/Mama into thinking she can escape the bar into respectable marriage.

    The flipside to these two ‘invented’ characters are those truly belong to the Ginza world, no more so than Komatsu. At the beginning of the film, their scenes together suggest that Keiko and Komatsu are firm and close friends. They understand and trust each other. But at the end, it falls apart horribly. In his commentary on the Criterion DVD, Richie says that the reason for her somewhat cruel rejection of him is that they are too alike – they are both too closely bound up in the world of the hostess bar. But perhaps also, Keiko knows that Komatsu has been taken in by Mama – and that to marry him, she would have to reveal Keiko, and perhaps that is something she cannot do. She would do to Komatsu what Sekine did to her.

    Fujisaki, I would suggest, is also a character who sees the Bar as a theatre, but he has perhaps the most realistic view. He is an experienced businessman who enjoys the company of the women, but maintains (up to the end) a view of it as an extension of the work world. He knows there is something between him and Keiko, but insists on maintaining a ‘professional’ distance – particularly when he gently refuses to bend the banks rules to give her a loan. He knows the game – the hostess is there to entertain him, and he is there to be entertained (or to pretend to be entertained in front of his business guests). He has broken the rules by breaking through that barrier and falling for a hostess, and allowing a hostess to fall for him. His offer of shares at the end is perhaps a way of restoring the ‘natural’ order, by reinforcing the professional distance between them. When Keiko refuses to maintain the game, his composure breaks down and he is, at the end, speechless.

    I’m not sure where this analysis goes, but it does seem to me that the repeated insistence by the director of the fakery of the world of the bar is quite deliberate. Most Japanese films of this nature (including Naruse’s) seem to be about the difficulty of breaking out of traditional roles – but here we see two characters (Keiko and Sakine) who have ‘reinvented’ themselves as something quite different, in different ways. It is the characters who stayed in their roles (the professional bar manager, and the banker/customer) who have struggled when faced with this type of reinvention. Nobody comes out of it particularly well.

    For someone so deeply part of the world of film and creativity, it is perhaps natural for Naruse to see the parallels between the hostess bar and the world of theatre. But rather than use it as a cinematic device as Kurosawa frequently did, he seems to be saying more here – about the nature (and hazards) of reinvention, of pretence. He seems to be suggesting that much of Japanese society is ‘theatre’, with people playing roles, guided by a cruel but anonymous scriptwriter/director. But he does not condemn this – in the final scene we see ‘Mama’ emerge through the theatre doors, a huge (and fake) smile on her face.



    Ugetsu, I feel that you have been circling this topic in our other discussions of the film, but the way that you put it here really opened my eyes to a number of things that I hadn’t thought of before.

    I think that I have so far largely thought of the film as criticising a social structure something akin to the concept of a “great chain of being“, with the story’s central conflict arising from the protagonist’s ultimately failed attempt to move from her preordained category or class to another. I now realise that this has misdirected my interpretation of the film. What I had not really realised is that the film is more complex than I had thought and already at the story’s starting point the universe, so to speak, is out of order, and that it won’t be fixed. Not only has Keiko assumed the role of Mama, but as you point out, the whole world of hostess bars functions on an assumption and to a large extent acceptance of fakery.

    I particularly like your point about the Keiko/Mama duality, and how you apply it to explain her relationship with both Fujisaki and Komatsu. It makes a lot of sense. In this context, Keiko’s reply to Komatsu’s proposal, “We know each other too well”, also becomes interestingly complex as it acquires strong ironic overtones, and/or possibly indicates that Keiko herself hasn’t quite understood what the director understands about her.

    All in all, viewing the film as a commentary on a society built on pretence makes a lot of sense, indeed more than anything else that I have read about the film. I very much applaud and thank you for this insight.



    I don’t disagree with the thesis in its broad strokes. Performance as a motif looms large in this film both visually and psychologically. But I would put the emphasis elsewhere. I don’t believe Keiko is engaged in wholesale reinvention; for one thing, her conversation with her mother reveals that she received a good education and hence might have been groomed to be upwardly mobile before her marriage. She is emphasizing a side of her personality that doesn’t come as naturally to her as to others while working in a job that she doesn’t particularly like, but I see that as more a function of her being an introvert with more scruples about the means she uses to get ahead — not just sex, but how pushy to be — that itself is consistent with being higher-class. In other words, she may come from a lower-class family, but she’s more comfortable in a higher-class milieu. There’s also the possibility that she received a good education in order to get ahead, whether it be through marriage or working in upscale bars; we don’t know enough to eliminate the possibility that her mother approved of her decision to work in a hostess bar when she first made it. It was not unusual, for example, for families to sell girls with artistic talent or good looks into apprenticeships in geisha houses or brothels.

    I would instead put the emphasis on performance and masks and note that everyone engages in it, even us.

    As an aside: I did not view Keiko as visiting Fujisaki in his office to ask for a loan from the bank. Rather, I viewed her as there to ask for a personal loan from him just like the loans from her other customers (where else is she going to go to ask such a thing of him?) and her failure to correct his misapprehension as polite deference on her part. I’ve discussed my view of his response and his coming up with more money just before he left Tokyo elsewhere. Also, so little time elapses that I find it hard to believe he didn’t already know he was being transferred, or might be, when he spoke to her about the loan, thus making his statements look like double-talk.

    Also, since this seems to be the thread best suited for it without starting a new one, which I’m disinclined to do, I don’t view her rejection of Komatsu as cruel at all. It is the result of Komatsu’s assumption (or hope) that she knew how he felt about her instead of telling her directly. At the very least, he should have proposed a business partnership when they were looking at bars for sale!

    The fact that she is not interested i him is no reason for him to slap her, either. (Once again, more exploitation, this time using actual violence.) Personally, I was waiting for her to slap him back. While I think she’s deluding herself by pining after Fujisaki — as I think I mentioned elsewhere, I’m as skeptical as Vili that his profession of love for her is anything other than convenient — asking her to manufacture or ignore her feelings when Komatsu has never given her an opportunity to consider him in that light is another example of what’s wrong with relations between the sexes. Komatsu can’t complain of the results of keeping his feelings and aspirations to himself. That, too, is a form of deceit.

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