Mikio Naruse is not a household name for European audiences. Eureka’s recent release of a Naruse DVD box-set, in conjunction with a retrospective of his work at the BFI Southbank, which opens on Friday 29 June with the UK premiere of the long awaited When a Woman Ascends the Stairs – all aim at changing that perception. For once, Japanese cinema achieves something that British audiences may perceive as universal, not through intellect (a trend developed by Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi), but primarily through feeling. Watching a Naruse film is unsettling, as he seems a rather unique blend of Douglas Sirk, Michelangelo Antonioni and Billy Wilder, yet his characters, his settings, even his technique are intrinsically ingrained in Japanese cinema.
There is a stunning shot near the beginning of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs in which we see the beautiful Keiko Yashiro – a widow in her early thirties, a bar hostess in the middle of Tokyo, the woman everyone calls endearingly Mama so as to amplify her status as a lady of dignity and as an object of unreachable desirability – walking to work, with a peaceful, undemanding look suggesting faith in the future. This shot, following the actress Hideko Takamine (a Naruse regular, appearing in seventeen of his films) reminds us of the hopeful walk of Maria Ceccarelli (Giulietta Masina) in Fellini’s tribute to his wife’s talent, Le notti di Cabiria [Nights of Cabiria] (1957). In essence, Naruse’s Woman appears like a tribute to Fellini’s Cabiria, as both films look at a single woman who wants to be loved for the lady she truly is, while the men surrounding her rarely see anything more but a piece of meat they’d like to devour. Both women are loose women (prostitute for Europeans, bar hostess for Japanese) through their own choice, based on a wish to survive in a world which allows only men to prosper. Yet, while we sense a future of redemption for Cabiria, we realise that Mama Kieko has lost all chance of becoming the person she wants to be.
Naruse’s film is born of the changing relationships between men and women in Japanese society. The death of the Geisha left space for the bar hostess, caught between two worlds. On one level she seeks status by getting as much money as she can from her men; on another, she still hopes that it is her beauty, her manners, and above all, her spirit, that will ensure success in this business. It is thus not surprising to see Kieko’s losing customers in a modernised late 1950s Tokyo. We also doubt her chances of improving her business by going independent, and establishing a venue run according to her own ideals. She is trying, but investments with doubtful financial (or sexual) returns seem uncomfortably risky for all who respect her, for all who say they love her.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs could have been made as a dramatic story of survival, or a less successful romantic fairytale. Naruse’s decision to go for melodrama seems a risky venture, but it is accomplished with a unique touch of the un-dramatic. Hideko Takamine has no scenes in which she is obviously passing through a psychological breakdown, except a convincing drunkenness, and an inhibited cry at the disappointment that her rich fiancé (a long awaited relationship after the death of her husband) turns out to be just a poor married fellow who can’t help proposing to all the women he lusts after. Otherwise, we see Kieko just living: going to work, talking to her customers and talking them out of bedding her, and hoping that life will not be just a monotonous show of unfelt feelings fuelled by alcohol.
It is surprising that despite the density of the plot, cluttered with a plethora of fully-rounded characters, among whom Tatsuya Nakadai’s bodyguard/manager and Masayuki Mori’s banker/lover are particular achievements, the film centres so much around Takamine’s representation of womanhood, that one can fully understand the intricacies of the story only by submitting to Naruse’s vision. His whole body of work, like those of many of his 1960s European fellow directors, finds in the life of woman a undying source of inspiration. The love the director has for his heroine is heartbreaking in its purity of understanding her completely, of making her appear akin to a goddess demanding respect simply by being.
However, this is not feminist cinema. It is humanist cinema, which puts the principle character at the heart of the society, thus developing a discourse on the roles of individuals within a whole aiming for unity and coherence. Mama Kieko is the victim of society not through her own choice. However, her Darwinian need to progress in both the physical and the sentimental lead her to an existence that appears as the only available choice to her. The horror of the dénouement comes precisely through her rationalisation of her choice as inescapable. For Naruse, the bar hostess’ ascending of stairs towards the place she is deemed to deserve and must accept unconditionally, is nothing more than a demonstration that progress in society is just seen as the dehumanisation of the individual. The theory may be faulty from the start, yet When a Woman Ascends the Stairs makes sure you leave the cinema believing that Naruse’s reasoning is impeccable.