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This is the story of Mama, a.k.a. Keiko, a middle-aged bar hostess who must choose to either get married or buy a bar of her own. Her family hounds her for money, her customers for her attention, and she is continually in debt. The life of a bar hostess is examined as well as the way in which the system traps and sometimes kills those in it. Written by
Widowed Tokyo bar hostess Keiko is in her thirties and thinking about her limited choices. She could open her own bar but this would require financial help from clients and perhaps favors she is unwilling to give, or she could get married, but that would mean breaking a vow to her late husband that she would never love another man. Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is an exquisite character study about a woman caught in a trap of financial obligations who is forced to perform a job she dislikes in order to stay afloat. It is both a depiction of one woman's courage and perseverance and a commentary on the limited opportunities for women in Japan with little education or family connections. Hideko Takamine is unforgettable as Keiko, the beleaguered hostess who is affectionately called "mama" by the younger barmaids.
Keiko is a graceful and charming woman who wears a traditional kimono but is under pressure by her devoted manager Kenichi Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai) to modernize her wardrobe and upgrade her living arrangements to keep up with growing Western influences. Of the many men in her life, three monopolize her attention: Mr. Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori), Mr. Sekine (Daisuke Kato), and Mr. Minobe (Ganjiro Nakamura). Each relationship starts out with promise but each leads to severe disappointment. She receives a marriage proposal from Mr. Sekine that turns out to be bogus. She tells Mr. Fujisaki that she loves him but promised her husband she would not remarry. Nonetheless, she is crushed when she learns that he has been transferred to Osaka.
The film complements the dramatic action with Keiko's inner dialogue. Backed by a cool jazz score that evokes the mood of Tokyo streets in the early evening, she contemplates how most women in Tokyo are going to their home when her work is first starting. In another sequence she muses, "Around midnight Tokyo's 16,000 bar women go home. The best go home by car. Second-rate ones by streetcar. The worst go home with their customers." As Keiko struggles financially to help her aging mother, her brother who must pay a lawyer to stay out of prison, and her nephew who needs an operation, she knows that she would be better off if she would relax her standards, but she will not compromise her integrity. The stairs she must climb each night to her bar become a symbol both of her triumphant determination and her personal tragedy.
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