I know there are serious cinephiles more experienced and resourceful than me who have had opportunities over the years to discover and appreciate the films of Mikio Naruse on the big screen, projected in a proper theatrical setting, the way they were meant to be seen and enjoyed. But to those of us left (for better or worse) at the mercy of the whims of commercial DVD distributers to see most of the great works of 20th century cinema in the comfort of our homes, Naruse is one of those names that, once we've made acquaintance with Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and a host of more current Japanese filmmakers, has hovered tantalizingly in that limbo-land of "reputedly great but scarcely available, and only at forbidding expense and/or in low-quality."
Just as Criterion finally accomplished their long-awaited breakthrough last month by finally adding a film by Satyajit Ray (The Music Room) into their library, a few years ago they achieved a similar coup by securing the rights to issue their first, and so far only, Naruse film into the Collection proper, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. I recall some of the grateful hubbub surrounding that release, though it took me until just recently to finally get around to watching it. Assuming for fairly obvious reasons that the 2007 edition of this DVD was many viewers' first exposure to Naruse, I decided that I'd take a slightly different approach than what seemed like the conventional route. Given the reputation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs as Naruse's artistic pinnacle, I wanted to build up to seeing him at his best by watching all of the older stuff I could get my hands on. It's a plan that I couldn't have easily followed even last year, but one made conveniently possible in the past several weeks after Criterion dramatically expanded Naruse's reach into the American market through the inclusion on their Hulu Plus channel of several middle-period features he shot in the 1950s. That's in addition to this past spring's release, through their Eclipse subsidiary line, of Silent Naruse, a set of his five oldest films, the only works extant from seventeen he made in the early 1930s before entering the sound era. (I've reviewed a few of them over the past few months at CriterionCast.com.)
What I learned about Naruse over this past ten days or so of semi-immersion into his filmography (he still made many dozens of films which may never see the light of day in this country, what a shame) basically confirms the reports that preceded my actual viewing of his movies: he succeeded in creating an internally consistent and coherent cinematic universe, realistically based in his contemporary Japanese setting, portraying exquisitely vexing dilemmas that offer no easy or clean escape to the hard-pressed individuals, almost invariably women, at the center of these dramas. Treading similar terrain as his peer Kenji Mizoguchi (also under-represented in the Criterion Collection, with only two of his films Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff skewing novice's impressions to see him as primarily a creator of excellent historical costume dramas,) Naruse anchored himself firmly in the lower working class milieu of women whose options typically pivot between working as barkeeps or in geisha houses or giving themselves over to unhappy marriages to unworthy men; the basic choice consisting of which form of exploitation they find the least odious to endure.
As the ragged and brash Expressionist- and Eisenstein-inspired experimentation of his silent films receded into a more refined and polished sensibility in his mature works, Naruse developed his talent for conveying strong dramatic movements through rather subtle and sophisticated gestures: facial expressions, slight nods, averted glances and small bodily movements that said a lot without the need for overwrought music or emotional histrionics executed so routinely in the more conventional weepy melodramas that reached primarily female audiences in the days before TV soap operas captured that crowd. As I learned in the special features included with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, he was notoriously reticent to let others in on his creative vision during the making of his films, amazingly economical in setting up his shots and knowing exactly how they would look and fit together when it came time to edit them into the finished work, and unswervingly determined to depict life's endless ability to disappoint those who dare to hope for the best, despite the depressing situation immediately confronting them.
Which isn't to say that watching a Naruse film is a dismal, joyless affair. Quite the contrary - I found these films quite absorbing and fully worth all the attention I could give them, even though in a compressed time frame of watching them all once through in close proximity, they tend to spill over into each other in memory. That's especially the case, more than most directors, because his films feature fairly minimalist plot lines, more intent on creating atmosphere and intrigue with the characters themselves than in stirring up an emblematic crisis and reeling us in through its resolution, whether happy or sad, according to the standard maneuvers of most popular movies. Naruse's world, if it turns out to be a place one basically enjoys and is curious to learn more about, is an easy place to meander around and get lost. Even after we've spent an hour or two going through life's changes with his characters, we're left with all sorts of nagging doubts as to how things will ultimately wind up with them. This open-ended quality will undoubtedly prove unsatisfying or frustrating to some, but it gives his work a remarkable verisimilitude, and on a purely aesthetic level, Naruse is as impeccable and masterly an auteur as one could ever desire, though flash and sensation are not really part of his repertoire at all.
So with all that long preamble, let me offer a few thoughts on When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. I can easily see why Criterion chose to release this one over Ginza Cosmetics, Mother, Wife or Flowing, the four 1950s films currently available on Hulu Plus that each preceded this film over the course of that decade. Working in widescreen Tohoscope, with a swanky space-age cocktail bar soundtrack and the brilliantly charismatic Hideko Takamine at the center of the story, I doubt that Naruse made any films more instantly appealing to a Western audience. Rather than unfolding in the mysterious and increasingly archaic setting of a geisha house in decline, as in Flowing, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is set in the upscale surface glamor of Tokyo's Ginza district, where rich businessmen gathered in bars after hours to make deals, flirt with and be flattered by pretty young women and find temporary solace from the pressures of life through free-flowing servings of alcohol. It's an attractive set-up, both exotic and accessible without much need for explanation or acclimation to understand what's going on.
The story, such as it is, concerns Keiko, referred to as Mama with affection and admiration by the customers and employees of Bar Carton, where she works as the lead hostess. She's a widow who lost her husband years ago when he was hit by a truck (a favorite Naruse device, so I've learned) and now is trapped by circumstances in a role she hates but cannot escape. Her particular dilemma is that she's on the verge of turning 30, almost to the point of being too old for marriage to anyone respectable and stable, and also getting a bit over-aged to simply be an employee rather than the owner of a bar. Furthermore, both options entail a loss of independence and self-sufficiency that offer her the primary satisfaction she finds in her lot. She doesn't want to resign into a mundane wifely routine, especially given the compromised choice of men she has to choose from (too old, too chubby, too domineering or simply too contentedly married and settled to break up a happy home to be with her.) Nor does she want to concede her principles to become a kept woman, the mistress of some lecherous old tycoon who would gladly put up the cash she needs to underwrite her own business in exchange for free access to her personal intimacies. Keiko has maintained a degree of purity that, along with her charming manners and beauty, help her to stand out distinctly in her boozy and crass environs.
Besides Naruse's technical prowess, much of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs' pleasures derive from watching Mama navigate her way with crisp precision and intelligent skill through the numerous financial, amorous and psychological hazards surrounding her, from rivals, friends and would-be lovers alike, though the strains clearly take their toll on her over the course of the film. Rounding it all out is a wonderful ensemble cast, including then-rising star Tatsuya Nakadai, stepping away briefly from his massive performance in the first two installments of The Human Condition (part three would arrive in 1961, and he'd go on to greater heights in Harakiri the following year.) He plays the bar manager with a barely-contained yearning for Keiko that builds to a satisfying outburst for them both at the end. And a crew of eye-pleasing barmaids give evidence of the growing Westernization of Japan, as we see, in contrast to Keiko's stubborn yet elegant traditionalism, fashionably modern young women sporting hairstyles and wardrobe choices of a decidedly Sixties-ish cut, even if we're just into the earliest weeks of that decade when this film was released.
Like just about every other Naruse film I've watched over the past week, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs concludes with our protagonist not all that far removed from where she began the film, with little more than a bittersweet burden of dashed hopes and discouragement to process through before regrouping to face whatever her next bout with adversity turns out to be. Thus I can't really find the right words to wrap up this review; there's no pithy moral to the story, no patented wisdom or life lessons to be gleaned from this film, at least none that would fail to strike me as facile platitudes, given the nuance and delicacy with which Naruse and his talented cast paint their portraits. Just a challenge to persevere in standing up to our own troubles, since we're undoubtedly surrounded by people going through even tougher situations. Consider this review an invitation to take a similar journey as I did and just plunge into a steady stream of Naruse's films. Maybe if enough of us clog up the Hulu Plus bandwidth, we'll get another Eclipse set of his to explore, or better yet some well-deserved releases of films I've read about like Late Chrysanthemums or any of his "meteorological" films: Summer Clouds, Floating Clouds, Scattered Clouds, Sudden Rain, Lightning... Hmmm, it seems that, as Ozu was to the seasons of the year, Naruse was to the weather of a temperamental day.