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When a Woman Ascends the Stairs: The Crtierion Collection

During Donald Richie's insightful commentary for Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), he compares the film to the standardized Hollywood "Woman's Picture" (mentioning Humoresque as a bad example). It seems an odd fit, until Richie explicates that this structure is purified by Naruse's working method. And after he says that, the truth of it becomes apparent. To an outsider, Japanese culture and the working methods of bar madams are so foreign that the film seems more of an exposé than what's normally known as a "chick flick," but aligning Naruse with the feminine also points out how male-driven Japanese cinema is, what an anomaly Naruse's gift was, and how low in esteem the woman's picture is usually treated. This then is that type of film par excellence. Hideko Takamine stars as Keiko Yashiro, a bar madam who is older than most of the working girls under her. Though the newer class of employees tend to be more libertine (they're more likely to go home with their clientele), Keiko exists in a rarefied air of fancier dress clothing, a primmer attitude, and she's treated with respect as the head of her bar. But as the picture begins with a coworker's marriage, Keiko is filled with the desire to find the next step of her career, and she's getting to a point where her age is about to work against her. Keiko has a couple of options: She could start her own bar, but to do so would require the patronage of a man, and it would likely turn her into a wife or mistress; and then there's always marriage, which amounts to the same thing. But as well as she keeps herself, her life is mostly hand to mouth, and every penny is counted. There are men, though: Sekine (Daisuke Kato) is a jolly fat patron who makes overtures, but she has a special place for the handsome older gentleman Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori), who treats her the way she wants to be treated. Equally interested in her attentions is the younger bartender Kenichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), who puts her up on a pedestal. But her family needs money, and the life is dragging her down. A fellow madam is drowning in debt and eventually kills herself — Keiko sees the fallout when the recently departed's mother is hounded for her dead daughter's debt and her fancy working clothes are quickly sold off to the vultures. Keiko then decides to take her chances with the men in her life, but one proves to be a liar and another is gets a job reassignment. But whatever comes her way, Keiko soldiers on. The story of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs superficially resembles the old Warner Brothers "Woman's Pictures" in that Keiko's bad decisions tend to drag her down, and her honor is in some ways besmirched, but to reduce it to that is to miss the point. Keiko's character is like most working-class people who are trying to better their lives, and the struggles are enormous for a woman in a male-dominated society who wants to retain her independence. And yet Naruse finds the human heart of the story, suggesting (as the title does) a sense of the character's treadmill existence, constantly in motion and yet unable to get anywhere. His ability to create such empathy for Keiko denotes his master status. The Criterion Collection presents When a Woman Ascends the Stairs in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and both DD 1.0 and Dolby Digital Perspecta 3.0 (left, center, right) audio tracks. Extras include a commentary by renowned Japanese-film scholar Donald Richie, an interview with Tatsuya Nakadai (13 min.), and the film's theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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