When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki)
Directed by Mikio Naruse
Written by Ryuzo Kikushima
Toho Company
Repeat viewing/FilmStruck


Keiko Yashiro: [Narrating] Women in the Ginza fought desperately for survival. It was a battle I couldn’t afford to lose.

I love this beautiful, heartbreaking and infuriating film.

Keiko (Hideo Takamine) is a widow and the manager of a bar in the Ginza.   It is the kind of club where hostesses drink with businessmen after a long working day.  The other girls call her Mama.

She dreads her climb up the stairs to the bar but is beautiful and fairly good at her work. She does not date customers after hours and cannot bring herself to be nice to certain particularly distasteful clients.  Her business manager (Tetsuyo Nakadai) warns her that she cannot afford to lose the business and should seek to please them all.  He secretly admires her integrity.

Keiko is thirty-something – at the age when she should either open her own bar or marry. An elderly client offers to set her up in business in exchange for an “arrangement”.  She shuns this and seeks loans from subscribers.  She watches a former employee’s dreams of her own club go horribly sour.  Her mother and brother-in-law are parasites.  She must keep an expensive apartment and wardrobe to keep up appearances.  Love seems a remote possibility and she isn’t getting any younger.  With Masayuki Mori as the banker she is most attracted to.

I’ve seen this movie several times and am more impressed with it and saddened by it on each viewing.  Naruse’s compositions are exquisite and he makes Keiko complex and human.  Takamine is perfect in the part.  The story ends with Keiko’s determination to carry on and survive but it’s hard to imagine a really happy future for her.  Highly recommended.


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