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January 5, 2012

Japanese Film: "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" (1960) by Naruse

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960; Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki) by Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) is a film set in the milieu of bars and hostesses, and the men who visit such bars. Keiko (Takamine Hideko) is a beautiful hostess who manages a bar in Tokyo's Ginza district as the "mama-san" although she does not own it. In her behavior, she is demure and conservative, seldom showing her feelings; she is always impeccably dressed in kimono. She is in her thirties (she is a widow) and it is therefore time to settle down, by either acquiring an establishment of her own, or by leaving the water trade through a second marriage. Her present bar is on the second floor, and every evening she has to climb the stairs (today, there are elevators in even the smallest buildings!). She hates the look of those steep stairs, and the grind work that awaits her at the top of them, but once she is inside her bar, she shows an impenetrable smiling face - a professional accessory - and can take everything that comes her way. She also keeps her style. In her own words: "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."

Keiko's search for happiness is not an easy one. The work is hard: every night showing a friendly, smiling face and courteously flattering the guests with disregard for her own personality, even if they talk nonsense (which is most of the time). Her poor family, a good-for-nothing brother and an aging mother, depend on her financial assistance, but they give little back.

Other disasters happen. Her most popular hostess leaves to start her own bar, and pulls along many clients. Keiko also tries to get money together for her own bar by selling "subscriptions" to her most favorite customers, but the amounts they are willing to invest are pitifully insufficient. She could of course look for one, sole financier, but then he would "own" her and also expect other, repugnant services from her. She wants to keep her independence.

When the subscription plan doesn't come off the ground, she tries to find a man to marry. There is a wealthy, soft-spoken man who showers her with presents and proposes marriage. But just in time Keiko finds out that he is an impostor, and known for such proposals to other women as well. She secretly loves a handsome (and married) banker, but after they spend the night together - she breaks her own rules here - he tells her he will be transferred out of Tokyo the next day, showing that she has been used by him. She takes revenge by going to Tokyo Station to say goodbye to him while he sits in the train with his wife and child.

This event also means the break-up with her bar manager Komatsu (Nakadai Tatsuya). Komatsu always kept in the background, taking care of the bar with a strong guiding hand, but secretly was in love with her. But he despises her now she has fallen for a customer (or is just jealous).

So, with each man in her life deserting or disappointing her, in the evening, resigned but tenacious, she again climbs the stairs to her bar to spend another night serving selfish and exploitative customers. The human spirit can be strong. Although Keiko is not a prostitute and a very different character from a very different culture, I was reminded of Fellini's Cabiria, which ends on the same note.

The B/W film is imbued with a gentle sadness, and fittingly filmed in noirish tones. Dialogues are minimal, non-verbal communication plays a large role. The camera-work is unobtrusive. Naruse is the least known of the great, classical directors, even in Japan, but it is heartening to see that in recent years his fame is worldwide on the increase.

Some cultural points:
  • The night-time entertainment business of snack bars, bars, and cabarets where hostesses provide entertainment, is called "water trade" (mizu shobai) in Japan. 
  • "Mama" is not a name or designation for a particular person, as is wrongly implied in the IMDB and several reviews. It is not a "special term of honor" for Keiko in this film! Rather, "Mama" or more politely "Mama-san" is the general designation for all (tens of thousands) of women who are the manager of an establishment in the "water trade." Although this designation may have originated in the sentimental whimperings of male visitors, who wanted to pour out their hearts to a surrogate mother, it now is just a title, for example like "Shacho" for "Company President." Not only the clients, but also the women and other staff working in the bar as well as caterers, etc., will call the owner by this title.
  • The modern bar hostess is an entertainer like the geisha of old: she sits with her guests and serves the drinks and snacks, but more importantly, it is her task to create a pleasant atmosphere and keep the conversation going. This means she has to do a lot of flattering of the egos of her customers. She may also dance or sing karaoke with the clients. Although sexual innuendo is used in the conversations, especially from the side of the male customers, providing such services is not part of her job. 
  • The Ginza area in the film is the district in Tokyo were countless hostess bars of various types can be found (in the side streets and streets running parallel to the main street) - it is regarded today as the most classy such area. The Ginza is also one of the few areas in Tokyo where you still find some hostesses in kimono (like Keiko in the film, but that was in 1960). 
  • There are usually many bars in one building, even several on the same floor. You can tell their presence by the many colorful neon advertisements outside on the building. 
  • Persons working in the water trade will go to work in the early evening and then greet each other with "Ohayo gozaimasu," "Good morning!"
  • Customers come to bars after their dinner, which is always early in Japan: starting at five or six and finishing around eight or nine. The bars are open till the small hours of the morning. 
  • Most customers are businessmen, either owners of companies (the wealthiest sort) or corporate managers with an expense account. 
  • Some bars are only for members, others refuse foreigners if only out of fear of language problems, and on the other hand there are also shady bars, so visitors to Japan are advised not to explore on their own, but only go when invited by a Japanese business partner.