“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (1960)

Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs sucked me in with its second or third line: “Bars in the daytime are like women without makeup”. Truly great study of a bar hostess in the Ginza who’s trying to become independent—preferably as owner of her own bar, though the more realistic possibility of marrying one of her customers is constantly dangled before her. Hostesses weren’t required to sleep with their “clients”, but the businessmen kept coming back with the understanding that a certain amount of mauling would take place; the movie, through a dozen or so detailed secondary characters, puts forth just about every type of both customer and hostess imaginable. It’s also striking because Naruse, who at 55 was the veteran of scores of movies, was still fresh both stylistically and temperamentally. The film reeks of what feels like a young man’s knowledge of bar life, beginning with the title cards which contain small graphic illustrations of barroom interiors; combined with the quiet jazz xylophone score the tone resembles the cool chicness of Mad Men. When a Woman also contains a couple of rueful post-coital scenes that could’ve been shot yesterday, and in one passage the hostess (the deceptively innocent-looking, fantastically talented Hideko Takamine), having just been dealt one bad hand too many, gets bombed in her own bar; her ensuing tantrum is one of the truest bits of sad drunken foolishness I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s not too much to call it a Japanese Nights of Cabiria.

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