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With: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Reiko Dan, Tatsuya Nakadai, Daisuke Katô, Ganjiro Nakamura, Eitarô Ozawa, Keiko Awaji
Written by: Ryuzo Kikushima
Directed by: Mikio Naruse
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 111
Date: 01/15/1960

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Bar Girls

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) was a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, but for some reason never received the same kind of international recognition. Last year an acclaimed retrospective of his films toured New York, the Bay Area and other cities, and now the Criterion Collection has released this, Naruse's first film to find its way to DVD. In his 1998 book Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, Phillip Lopate admitted that it's difficult after only one viewing of one film to discover a style in Naruse, unlike his three colleagues. Moreover, his subject matter, melodramatic stories about women, is not as flashy or as noble as other masterworks. But even a casual viewing of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows what a gifted humanist Naruse was. The film is set in Japan's post-war Ginza district, where unmarried women had two choices: either work in a bar, getting paid to flirt with drunken men, or open a bar of their own. Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a popular "mama" at one bar, watches as her younger colleagues leave for other jobs, drawing all the customers away. Keiko is still beautiful, but she's not getting any younger, and the suggestion is that it's time for her to open her own bar. The trouble is, to raise money, she has to suck up to her wealthy male patrons. As the film opens, she ascends the stairs to the bar, explaining in voiceover how much she disdains it. Naruse paints Keiko as a traditional, steady swatch in the middle of a modernized Japan, surrounded by booze, lights and men who adore her, but remaining sober and rebuffing them all (except one). His style is not dissimilar to that of Ozu -- straight on, long shots -- but Naruse's focus is more specific. In When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Naruse is more about capturing the psychological realism of his lead woman, rather than Ozu's family dynamics. Ultimately Keiko is alone, with all odds stacked against her, but she keeps trying. She keeps ascending the stairs.

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection's 2007 DVD is a real thing of beauty. The 38-page booklet comes with a new essay by Lopate, an excerpt from a new book on Naruse by Catherine Russell, an older essay by Japanese film enthusiast, translator and politician Audie Bock, and an essay by actress Takamine. The black-and-white 'Scope transfer is dazzling, and the subtitles clear and legible. Japanese film expert Donald Richie provides a running commentary track, and there's a trailer and an interview with actor Tatsuya Nakadai. Viewers also have the option to select between a mono soundtrack and the "Perspecta" soundtrack, which simulates a stereo effect.

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