There is a moment near the end of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs when the main character, Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a Tokyo bar hostess, is asked if she loves someone, and her response is: “I neither love him nor hate him.” Keiko has spent so much of her time and strength purging herself of emotion that when real love is finally offered to her, she has no idea what to do with it. For most of her adult life she has perched on barstools next to middle-aged men of all stripes — bankers and office-workers and industrialists — and poured their drinks and pretended to be more wifely to them than their actual wives. She has done this for years out of the hope that maybe she’ll be able to sock away enough money to open up her own bar — which, aside from marriage, is about the most a woman in her situation could expect to find. And, she reasons, who would want to marry her? Surely no one who is entirely honest with themselves.
Not as if Keiko presents a terribly appealing object of affection for any man, either. For years she’s worked this wretched job, pretending to be all things to all people (especially men), only to end up hopelessly in revolving debt. What money she’s been able to glean from it has not gone into saving up for her own place; it’s gone back into flashier kimonos, taxi rides home for her more loyal customers, a swank apartment (that is, swank by postwar Tokyo rabbit-hutch standards), and an apportion of cash sent back home to her mother and her brother. The latter faces prison time if Keiko can’t come up with even more cash to pay for a decent lawyer, and has a polio-crippled son in need of surgery and physical therapy. Keiko spends a month in their house after being hospitalized for an ulcer, but despite the bitterness and recrimination that flows freely between them she ends up covering their needs. If you end up back in debt, there’s always the chance you can work your way out of it; but to burn bridges with family in Japan is anathema.
Keiko's spent five years of her life as a bar hostess, with nothing to look forward to except maybe
starting her own business — hardly a compensation, since she'll have become the things she hates most.
The ultimate irony of her work is that despite being surrounded by men and despite having to be a real-world expert in male psychology — flattery, synthetic sincerity — she’s still just as vulnerable, if not more so, than any of them. One of her regular customers is Sekine (Japanese movie veteran Daisuke Kato), a ruddy, Buddha-happy fellow with money and a touchingly sincere affection for Keiko. She warms up to him in time, especially when he offers to help co-fund the new bar she’s thinking about opening — but then other people approach her with information about him that a woman as street-smart as her should never have to find out second-hand. The film is restrained and sensitive enough in the way it brings all this across that, yes, we believed in him too; we don’t want what we know to be true, either.
There are other men whom she should be closer to, but things have simply not worked out that way. Komatsu (the always-great and hollow-eyed Tatsuya Nakadai), the bar manager and accountant, has kept a watchful eye on Keiko ever since he first met her five years ago, and watched her mature from being just one of the girls to possibly running a place of her own. Like her, he seems too exhausted for love — just being near the profession seems to drain a person dry — but his distance is more feigned than Keiko realizes. When other men serenade her, he stands back and lets bad things happen, if only because he fears he would do worse by actually stepping in and intervening. His reticence will cost him, and it’s all the more ironic since he adopted it for wholly selfless reasons. At one point when his patience is particularly thin, he rather bluntly tells her maybe she’d be better off as an office girl — where at least there’s never the delusion of control over one’s destiny. And time is running out for her either way; the title itself is an euphemism for when a woman has passed the age of being any use to the opposite sex. (Each time Keiko approaches the stairwell leading to her bar, she pauses, then starts to climb, her white socks flashing in the dark hallway like the one good deed in a bad world.)
Komatsu, her accountant / cohort, ought to be closer to her than he is; instead, she earns the affections
of people like Sekine, who seems sincere but has far too much baggage of his own to be any good.
Mikio Naruse, the director, was responsible for almost ninety movies in his lifetime including many of the best movies of Japan’s early cinema (Wife, Be Like A Rose!), and consequently the vast majority of his catalog has gone unseen in the west. Almost all of his films have the same gentle but faintly cynical feel to them: he had the lyricism of someone like Yasujiro Ozu, but always tempered with a far greater sense of how things really unfolded in a world this harsh. Stairs surfaced on VHS in the USA but quickly went out of print, and as my bad luck had it I never managed to see it before the one copy that was at my local video store disappeared (probably into the hands of a like-minded collector who “lost” it). (His adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain has turned up on DVD in the UK, along with Meshi and Nagareru, two other movies from the latter half of his career, but there’s no sign yet we’ll see them there.)
Stairs should have curdled into melodrama at any second, but somehow never does; consequently, a good part of the movie’s success is in its tone. Japan is home to both some of the most restrained and wildly theatrical cinema around, and sometimes you find both tones shoulder-to-shoulder in the same film. Stairs has its fair share of melodrama, but it’s encoded in the film as quiet desperation. The not-very-glamorous job that Keiko took to get out of debt and to support her family has turned into an end in itself, and put her even further into debt. Worse, it has blunted her sensibilities, and not just for men: when one of her colleagues cheerfully tells her she’s considering suicide as a way to get out of her own debt, Keiko doesn’t believe it until the woman turns up quite dead. The other woman’s mother is still prostrated in front of the family altar when the bill collectors show up.
A movie that might normally disintegrate into mere melodrama,
Stairs instead clings fast to the quiet desperation that it's made out of.
But again, the predominant mood in these scenes, though, is not blunt anger or histrionics. It’s a grave sadness — empathy for Keiko, and every other woman whose opportunities in life are limited to this, where the only progress is to become the very thing you hate. That feeling is acute all the way up to the last shot of the film, where Keiko smiles and smiles and smiles, and you know now that such a smile doesn’t even deserve the dignity of being called a mask.