When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Naruse, 1960)

My first Mikio Naruse picture and it’s a fine introduction to a director obviously in love with character. Naruse definitely has a fondness for balanced widescreen two shots and melancholy close-ups. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs moves at a leisurely pace, following “Mama”, played with a calm but worried demeanor by Hideko Takamine, an aging geisha (at thirty she’s still a stunner) moving through the perilous social nightlife of her profession. Using a soft, minimal voice-over to express it’s female protagonist’s thoughts, the film establishes a longing for completeness, in this instance found through either a husband or a step up as a bar owner. Naruse’s filmmaking style is as smooth as star Takamine’s skin, his camera often stable, but positioned in the corner of a room to see the widest possible angle. As a drama, When a Woman… has it’s best moments at the beginning and end, getting lost sometimes in the middle through repetitive character use and overwhelming melodrama. Naruse sets up a really interesting dichotomy between reality and illusion, especially in the form of certain supporting characters. People who are supposed to be wealthy turn out to have money issues, while other’s who seem stupid end up making the shrewdest professional moves. Mama, often lost in the shuffle between this faux reality and the world of debt, lovers, and aspirations, is not entirely a lost soul. Her character arc is a little fluffy, which makes for a somewhat unsatisfying ending. All the same, Naruse is a fascinating director, and like his heroine’s relationship with her future, appears to be caught somewhere between the poetic grandness of Kurosawa and the lyrical realism of Ozu, both Japanese compatriots working during the same time. Not a bad place to reside if you ask me.

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