If a viewer watches enough of Yasujirô Ozu’s work, many of the actors become as familiar as old friends. Perhaps it’s something in the nature of his films, in their largely low-key, down-to-earth, everyday quality, or perhaps it’s because the actors who appear in multiple Ozu movies often play similar characters. At any rate, there’s a definite pleasure in seeing certain faces pop up again and again. Along with the iconic Setsuko Hara and the ubiquitous Chishû Ryû, one of the most memorable of these performers is Haruko Sugimura — even if her characters aren’t always particularly pleasant people.
“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.”