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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
Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki (1960), directed by Mikio Naruse, was shown in the United States under the title "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs." The film stars Hideko Takamine, Naruse's muse, as Keiko, the Mama-San of a Tokyo bar.
Although the IMDb plot summary says that Keiko is a geisha, that isn't accurate. Geishas do appear briefly in the movie, but Keiko is actually a bar hostess. As portrayed in the movie, bar hostesses are neither geishas nor prostitutes. Geishas still wear the traditional costume, whereas the bar hostesses are dressed in western fashion. The role of the bar hostess is to flatter the male customers and provide company, but not sex. In fact, Keiko has been celibate since the death of her husband.
These women have a fairly good income, but they usually don't have much cash, because they are expected to live and dress fashionably, and most of their money goes for rent or clothes.
The title "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" refers to Keiko's thoughts as she climbs the stairs that lead to the bar at which she works. Although Keiko doesn't hate her work, she doesn't enjoy it either. It's a job, and her options as a woman are limited in the Japanese male-dominated society. (Even though Keiko, as Mama-San, has some authority over the other women, the real power resides in the male owner of the bar and his manager.)
The plot of the film resolves around the choices the protagonist must make as she attempts to achieve some measure of happiness and financial stability. As would be expected, these goals are difficult to accomplish for a woman in her situation.
Director Naruse returns in this film to his favorite theme--working-class women who must choose among options that aren't very palatable. What makes this film his masterpiece--in my opinion--are the courage and depth of character that Keiko demonstrates.
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