“Who’d ever want to work in a bar? Drinking ’til I’m sick, being a plaything for men. I haven’t enjoyed a single day since I started.”
Mikio Naruse’s 1960 film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs depicts several months in the life of Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine), a hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Night after night, she climbs a steep staircase and enters the bar at the top, where her job is to flirt with the customers, encourage them to buy drinks and keep them coming back for more. Although it’s not full-fledged prostitution, many of the hostesses do have patrons, wealthy men who pay for their rent and other expenses in exchange for sex. Keiko — or “Mama,” as she’s known to her co-workers — is an exception, even after five long and difficult years in the profession. “A woman shouldn’t be loose. That’s one rule I’ve followed,” she tells a younger hostess named Junko (Reiko Dan). “I’m not a prude, but if I let go once, it’d be too hard to stop.”
At one time, Keiko led a very different sort of life. Shortly after high school, she married a man ten years her senior, a good, kind husband whom she didn’t appreciate until it was too late. “I caused him such grief with my selfishness. He died so soon. I wish I’d been nicer,” she reflects. His sudden death in a bus accident forced her to make her own way in the world, not to mention providing financial support to her mother, her hard-luck brother and her polio-afflicted nephew. She was eking out a meager existence as a cashier when she met Kenichi Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai), a bar manager who recruited her as a hostess. Whatever her preconceived notions about the job, the pay was significantly higher than what she was earning behind the cash register, and for lack of anything better, she accepted his offer.
As she quickly discovered, her new line of work necessitated radical changes to her entire way of living, even in private. “Customers come to the Ginza for a taste of luxury,” she explains to her mother, who criticizes her so-called extravagance and her decision to waste money on an apartment instead of residing with her family in a much less fashionable neighborhood. “Satisfying that craving is what we’re paid for. Apartments beyond our means, taxis, expensive perfumes — it all serves that purpose. Men wouldn’t be interested if they knew I lived in a place like this.” Despite the additional income, these constant expenses leave her little better off than she was before, although the difference is still significant enough that taking an ordinary job simply isn’t viable in her circumstances. Naturally, too, a life of luxury has its pleasures — provided that Keiko can get her mind off of her bills long enough to enjoy them.
That said, taxis and expensive perfumes are small recompense for the many other drawbacks of being a bar hostess. Over and over, Keiko has to fend off unwanted advances — everything from dinner invitations to intoxicated men putting their arms around her and propositioning her — all while keeping a smile on her face, flattering these men, drinking with them. Because she hates liquor, having to drink to the point of tipsiness every night is positively loathsome, but she knows that a teetotaling hostess isn’t part of the customers’ expectations; thus, she imbibes, lest her bosses complain that she’s hurting their business. She’s even responsible for making sure that her personal customers pay off their debts, as if her own debts aren’t enough of a burden.
A woman who wants to break free from this system has few alternatives. Taking a lower paying job and becoming someone’s mistress are both out as far as Keiko is concerned. She could remarry, but it’s nearly impossible to find a decent man who’s willing to marry a bar hostess; besides, she’s devoted to her late husband’s memory, reluctant though she is to reveal this romantic side of herself to the people around her. Her other option is opening her own bar. While this would give her a measure of freedom, such a venture requires far more money than she can ever hope to save. The only way to get it is by soliciting loans from her wealthiest customers, making herself beholden to them for the foreseeable future. Plus, assuming that she does raise the necessary funds, there’s no guarantee that her bar won’t fail and leave her worse off than before, as an acquaintance’s tragic experience proves. “Even a man who works his whole life can’t be sure of success. How much harder for a woman on her own,” the girl’s mother laments.
Fortunately for Keiko, her strength and integrity help her to withstand the vast majority of the challenges that come her way. For example, when Junko suggests that a customer might try to seduce Keiko while she visits him to collect his payment, she replies, “They try all the time, but it can only work if I let them.” This is a woman in control of her life, at least so far as she can be. Komatsu finds these qualities, along with her fidelity to her late husband, highly admirable, and he sets her apart from the other hostesses in his mind. “You can’t succeed as a manager here if you fiddle with the goods,” he says, but he ends up sleeping with Junko, who calls him out on his hypocrisy. “That only applies to women like Mama,” he replies, adding, “There aren’t many like her in the Ginza.” His dichotomous view of the female sex is as unfair to Keiko as it is to the women he looks down on, because he holds her up to too high a standard, failing to allow for her humanity and fallibility; consequently, when she does stumble, he can’t accept it.
Strong as she is, Keiko is no emotionless robot, and her customary restraint makes the moments when her feelings take over all the more powerful. She spends much of the film quietly admiring Nobuhiko Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori), a married, affluent banker with a gentlemanly air about him, different from most of the customers she meets, but she never allows herself to go beyond that until a series of troubles and disappointments breaks down her self-control. When her facade crumbles, so does his, and he proves to be no better than the others. It seems that in Keiko’s world, everyone pretends.
Five years prior to When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori co-starred in Naruse’s Floating Clouds. As in the later film, Takamine’s character in Floating Clouds is in love with Mori’s, but his weak-willed, self-centered nature and the fact that he’s already married make lasting happiness between them impossible. There, however, Takamine’s character is destroyed by her ill-starred affair; Keiko, in contrast, manages to pull herself together and salvage as much of her dignity as she possibly can.
In a 2005 interview for the Criterion Collection edition of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Tatsuya Nakadai discussed the type of role that Takamine frequently played for Naruse, Keiko being a sterling example:
Naruse’s other films also have women as their main focus. They’re about strong women, and the actress who represented that was Hideko Takamine. I think Naruse loved to portray that kind of woman. It wasn’t merely her beauty or charm or attractiveness as a woman, though she was, of course, an attractive woman. It was rather a certain quality in a woman. Seeing the movie again, I realize it was something like nihilism. That’s what Naruse sensed most strongly in Takamine, and that’s why he hired her for his films. ‘Nihilism’ may be too strong a word, but something like a woman’s resignation to her fate. And even as she resigns herself to it, she faces it head-on, courageously.
For all of the literal climbing she does up that too-familiar staircase, Keiko never really manages to get anywhere. She describes her business as “a vicious circle” at one point, which is a much apter image — not steady progress toward a goal, but an exercise in futility. Still, hopeless as her situation seems and may well be, she grits her teeth and carries on. “I hated climbing those stairs more than anything,” she says. “But once I was up, I would take each day as it came.”