Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki (1960) Poster

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10/10
A Masterpiece from Naruse
David8 July 2003
Finding Naruse Mikio films has been very, very tough, and after seeing this I'd say it's a tragedy. This is among the most gorgeous dramas I've seen - a brooding and dark melodrama, shot in velvety black and white, with stunning widescreen photography.

Based upon my viewing of this and one other Naruse film (to date), I'd say that Naruse's worldview is considerably more cynical than Ozu or Mizoguchi (both of whom he seems to often draw unfavorable comparisons with, from the relatively few critics to have dug into his work) - the strength of women will be taken for granted, or abused by a hostile world regardless of shrewdness, intellect or beauty, and there is a shy jaded quality to this film that gives it an engaging intensity, that while not nearly as subtle, objective or cerebral as Ozu, IS definitely more passionate. Here, and also in the earlier LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS, Naruse's women are idealized, heroic - symbolic in a larger sense of outsiders or rebels (of any variety) in a social milieu that values discretion and certain forms of conformity above all else.

If you can find this film, I highly recommend it - more of Naruse's work should be made available outside of Japan.
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9/10
The Will of a Woman
jacqui-323 October 1999
This is my first Naruse film and, boy, what a treat it is! Hideko Takamine is simply brilliant in her evocation of a madame in the ginza bar district, where businessmen go in the after-hours for drinks, flattery, and anything else they can get their hands on.

Takamine's Keiko is a woman bound by social constraints: an aging mother who needs allowance from her daughter to get by, a brother who must be saved from prison because he forged legal documents, a nephew who needs money for operation, rich businessmen and corporate owners who want her body in exchange for petty patronage...

Despite all these attempts to stifle her, to drain her body, labor, and emotions for all their worth and resource, Keiko emerges from life's disappointements and heartbreaks the strong individual she tries to be. Her refusal to be defeated by family, men, the institution of the ginza bar and survival itself is reflected in many elements. The playful music, for example, discourages us from reducing the film to yet another tearjerking festival. Keiko herself is an intelligent and sophisticated commentator on her life as a particular kind of "fallen woman". Throughout the film, there are moments of narration and commentary on the ginza bar-mystique. Here we witness a resilence and self-respect so tremendous that the notion of "feminism" of Mizoguchi's women have to be reconsidered.

"Coming back was as bleak as a cold day in Winter. But certain trees bloom...no matter how cold the wind." WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS is a great testament to Takamine's acting wizardry and Naruse's sensitive treatment of the social construction of women - a particular way of brutalizing the individual.
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8/10
Emotionally Brutal Look at a Bar Hostess' Desultory Life from Another Japanese Film Master
Ed Uyeshima24 July 2007
Just as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu seemed destined to be recognized as the troika of classic Japanese cinematic masters, here comes the work of a filmmaker who has been under the radar to Westerners all these years, Mikio Naruse. The Criterion Collection is giving Naruse his due with the release of his provocatively titled 1960 melodrama, a fine piece of work that strikes me as a cross between Ozu's elliptical narrative style and deliberate pacing and Douglas Sirk's sense of Baroque-level dramatic sensibilities.

Sharply written by Ryuzo Kikushima, the net result is a clear-eyed yet humanistic glimpse into the after-hours bar scene in post-WWII Tokyo's Ginza district with the primary focus on Keiko, a hostess to whom colleagues refer affectionately as "Mama". Her existence is a daily struggle as she depends on her companion-seeking businessman clients to finance the bar in which she works, and concurrently, confronts the fear of aging in a highly competitive field, all the while standing on her high moral ground to avoid the unsavory pitfalls of others in her profession. Although she is barely in her thirties, she feels pressured to make an imminent choice between opening her own bar and getting married for security. Even more than Ozu, arguably the most sensitive of Japan's film-making elite, Naruse shows with uncompromising clarity how women are consigned to their subservient roles in a male-dominated society.

As she keeps up appearances as part of not only her job but also as her emotional suit of armor, Keiko faces the temptations of four men in particular, all far from ideal, but each promises some aspect of hope for her to get out of her desultory existence. Meanwhile, she faces the machinations of younger hostesses out to get their share of the money and fulfill their dreams of security. Naruse takes his time in setting up the various character situations in the first half, which makes the film feel a little more plodding than it should be, but the pace and dramatic tension pick up in the second half when Keiko's desperation becomes more palpable. It's fortunate that Naruse cast his longtime leading lady Hideko Takamine in the highly complex role of Keiko, as her multi-layered performance is a model of emotional precision. A beautiful actress with a look of often haunting passivity, she subtly provides the emotional tether among all the vividly rendered characters in her orbit.

The four men are skillfully portrayed by actors familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of classic Japanese cinema - Ganjiro Nakamura ("Floating Weeds") as the aged executive in need of a mistress; Daisuke Katô ("Yojimbo") as the cherubic bachelor who is not what he appears; Tatsuya Nakadai ("Harakiri", "Ran") as the younger bartender/manager who worships Keiko from a distance; and Masayuki Mori ("Rashomon", "Ugetsu") as the married lover unable to leave his family. As intriguing counterpoints to Keiko, Reiko Dan plays the flirtatious Junko with Western-style abandon, and Keiko Awaji makes the ambitious Yuri a tragic, pitiable figure. The film is complemented by a cool, jazz-piano score by Toshirô Mayuzumi, absolutely the right touch for the slightly tawdry urban setting. As with several Criterion releases of classic Japanese cinema (like Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Nakahira's "Crazed Fruit"), film scholar Donald Richie provides rich commentary on an alternate track in the 2007 DVD. There is also an illuminating 2005 interview with Nakadai on Naruse and the film-making process, as well as the original theatrical trailer. Four insightful essays, including a glowing tribute to Naruse by Takamine, are included in a 38-page booklet accompanying the DVD package.
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10/10
An exquisite character study
Howard Schumann6 March 2006
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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9/10
Naruse's masterpiece
Red-1258 July 2006
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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10/10
A masterpiece
liehtzu17 July 1999
Warning: Spoilers
Beautiful film about a ginza bar girl approaching the age of thirty - an age at which, she claims, a girl of her profession can either "get married or open a bar of her own." It is a film about how her quest for one and then the other ends in disappointment. Most significantly, though, it is a vehicle through which filmmaker Naruse expresses his view that life is a vicious cycle of disappointments at every turn, a fate which no human action to fight it can deter. The film is breathtakingly shot in widescreen black and white, adding to the film's already bittersweet poignancy. It's a wonderful piece of cinema - a quietly rewarding and remarkably unforced masterpiece. "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" is, quite simply, a thing of beauty and brilliance, and it is a great work of art.
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10/10
A story of a brave woman...
AkuSokuZan20 August 2001
Keiko, also known as mama, is one of those truly unforgettable characters who you swear must exist somewhere out there in the real world. She is both strong, graceful and intelligent. This film has an outstanding lead and supporting cast, and ofcourse a great story centering on the day by day account of the life of a bar woman who struggles to maintain her pride. Don't worry, this movie's initially slow pace blossoms with enough twists and surprises to captivate and reward modern viewers.

Other characters to compare Keiko to is Junko, a much younger bar girl, who manages to work the system to her financial advantage. Komatsu, Keiko's manager, a young man smitten by Keiko's enchanting beauty and is reduced to just imagining a future alongside his beloved. Both Junko and Komatsu's youth prove to be of great contrast to Keiko and her wisdom of thiry years. Unlike Keiko, Junko can imagine and realize her simple but dead end dream of opening a bar in exchange for her dignity. Komatsu's wishes are as empty as his hands as he plays bartender in a run down club. He, alongside other people who are part of Keiko's life will slowly switch roles from friends, patrons and protector, Komatsu, into those who will contribute to the torture in Keiko's life. Just as rice was the center of Seven Samurai, money is the heart of this film. Ultimately, the heroine can rise above everything, everyone and ascend the stairs to Bar Carton again.
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7/10
A neo-realist feminist drama worth watching
mikeburdick23 September 2014
This film reminded me most of Italian neo-realist films like "Umberto D" and particularly, "Nights of Cabiria," because it focuses on the struggles of average people who are perhaps on the fringes, the subject being a bar hostess. While Keiko's not exactly a prostitute, she is paid to entertain men, a lucrative but soulless career.

As she comes to grips with aging, Keiko struggles to decide between striking out on her own or giving up the business completely. While Fate naturally deals her some ups and downs, I found it to be ultimately quite a cynical story, lacking the hope of "Cabiria." Perhaps that makes it truer to life.

Regardless, there are some outstanding performances by Hideko Takamine and Tatsuya Nakadai. This is the first Naruse film I've seen, and look forward to watching more of his films. Unfortunately, they are quite difficult to get your hands on.
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8/10
Very, very sad....
MartinHafer6 December 2012
While "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" may lack the excitement of many Japanese films, I really enjoyed it and felt it rather profound...as well as profoundly sad. It's the story of a woman, Mama, who has worked as a hostess in a Ginza bar for some time and she longs to leave the life. After all, her job is to be nice to men who come to the bar and get them to drink as well as get them to buy her drinks. It isn't much of a life and the long hours and drinking take their toll. However, despite hating the life, she also tries to uphold her standards and, unlike some hostesses, she doesn't sleep with her clients. But there are many pressures to do so--especially since the job really doesn't pay well. Plus, sleeping with one of these men might enable her to have enough money to buy a place of her own and have a bit of security. But, for every step forward she takes, there is yet another setback. Can she somehow forge a better life for herself before it is too late? While a film about quiet desperation is probably NOT everyone's cup of tea, the film was written, acted and directed exceptionally well. It de-glamorizes these women and helps create a sense of empathy for them--particularly Mama, who the audience can't help but like. Well done.
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9/10
Surely it is time Naruse was discovered in the West
Martin Bradley13 November 2013
The stairs in question are those of a bar in the red-light district of Tokyo and the woman who ascends them is Mama-San, the bar's chief hostess, but the stairs may just as well be those of a brothel for the girls who work these bars are basically prostitutes, (even in Japan in 1960 you could never be that explicit). Of all Japanese directors Mikio Naruse was the one most concerned with the plight of women in contemporary society and he brought to his tales of women fallen on hard times an almost Sirkian sensibility though even Sirk's melodramas stayed clear of the brothel. This may also be the most 'westernized' of all Naruse's films. We could be in the New Orleans of "Walk on the wild side" and even the credits of this film have a touch of the Saul Bass about them. (If only Dmytryk's film could have been this good). There is a naturalism to Naruse's film that American melodramas lack and it's this naturalism that lifts it out of being mere melodrama and into the realms of tragedy. Fundamentally, Mama-San is a woman who hates the life she has chosen but feels powerless to move on and Hideko Takamine, (from "Floating Clouds"), is superb in the role. Yet here is an actress and a director whose work never really traveled beyond Japan and even today Naruse trails in popular opinion well behind the likes of Ozu and Mizoguchi. Hopefully the release of this film in a DVD box set together with "Floating Clouds" and "Late Chrysanthemums" will rectify
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