Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), a 1960 film by Mikio Naruse, is a film I'd not heard of, by a director I'd not heard of, until somewhat recently, and yet I think it's a movie I've wanted to see for a very long time. I'd wanted to see a Japanese film about Japanese women living in actual, peculiarly Japanese social roles, preferably from a woman's perspective. The closest approximations I could find were heavily westernised melodramas like Memoirs of a Geisha, or Japanese exploitation films like Lady Snowblood or Sex and Fury, which may have had strong female characters, but they lacked the perspective on traditional female social roles I was interested in. Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki delivered in spades.
In his review of Memoirs of a Geisha, Roger Ebert mentions having seen movies illustrating in the world of geisha "currents deeper and more subtle than the broad melodrama on display" in Memoirs. He may well have been thinking of several of Naruse's films, most of which, unfortunately, seem to be unavailable on DVD. Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki is not about geisha, but it deals with another denizen of the mizu shobai, the bar hostess, who is both on a lower rung, professionally, than the geisha and yet also in the world of 1960 Tokyo's Ginza district, was quickly replacing her.
The movie stars Hideko Takamine as Keiko Yashiro, sometimes referred to as "Mama", due to her alpha position among hostesses in the bar where she worked. These hostesses seem to be endemic of a traditional Japanese attitude which regards the female sex as a servant species. Hostesses lacked the training in the arts characteristic of the geisha, and were not booked for functions, but instead acted as social diplomats, informal escorts, and occasional sexual partners for their successful businessmen customers, who could only be among the higher echelons to afford the services of such bars.
However, the movie is not a study of social hierarchies within 1960 Ginza, but rather a nicely woven character drama that expects audiences to simply know all of these things, which is perhaps why Naruse's films see so little foreign distribution. Yet, at the same time, Keiko's difficult position illustrates problems endemic of the country's economy, social structure, and attitude towards women. And a lot about money.
Mikio Naruse was never a wealthy man at any point in his career, unusual even among Japan's great directors like Ozu and Kurosawa. So perhaps this is why there's a definite sense of how money, and the need for money, traps Keiko in a life she doesn't like--early on, she remarks on how much she hates climbing the stairs into the bar every night, becoming the artificial creature for unpleasant men, and being obliged to drink liquor she dislikes. But there is no other option for her--another career could not provide her mother, brother, and nephew, who live in a poorer, industrial district, with the money they need to live. Keiko herself lives in an expensive apartment and wears expensive kimonos, yet, as she observes, she could afford to do no less as it is precisely this superficial glamour that attracts customers.
This set-up could easily have been overblown melodrama, yet Naruse handles it with a beautiful subtlety, the xylophone jazz soundtrack cool with elegant imagery of dark, burnished walls under hazy neon signs. There are few exterior shots, the movie seemingly confined to a beautiful rats' maze as Keiko goes from one man to another variously to collect fees, to pay off debts, or to tactfully request loans. A number of essays I've read on the movie frequently include a quote from Naruse about his characters; "If they move even a little they quickly hit the wall." We see this as Keiko's attempts to escape her world--and there are only two possible avenues for her, to either start her own bar or marry--are continually thwarted. And every thread of plot is constructed with a heartbreaking credibility, until the web prevents Keiko from moving at all.
In the DVD commentary, critic Donald Richie calls Keiko's attitude at the end of the film mono no aware, a Japanese concept having to do with accepting the nature of ones own existence and circumstance. I can't imagine there are many films equally as brilliant illustrating the concept as this one.