Starring: Hideko Takamine, Tatsuya Nakadai, Masayuki Mori
Director: Mikio Naruse
Running Time: 111 mins
When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is a Japanese film about a bar hostess in Tokyo’s luxurious Ginza district who encounters a variety of social challenges as she meets with her family, her friends, and a wide range of customers.
This is an interesting film, largely because it takes place at a time of great upheaval in modern culture, and yet retains enough of a sense of the classic world to make both sides work really well together. Although a little slow throughout, and often lacking the real emotional power necessary to make for a totally engrossing watch, there’s still a lot to be impressed by with When A Woman Ascends The Stairs.
If there is one thing that I really loved about this movie, then it’s the fantastic central performance given by Hideko Takamine. As with any of her other performances, this is another demonstration of her excellent acting ability, only bringing more depth and intrigue to her character than ever before.
While I can’t say that the majority of this film had me fully enthralled at any point, I was dazzled by Takamine’s impressively layered yet very natural turn throughout. It’s a performance that’s full of depth, as she portrays a very smiley and polite bar hostess with deep-seated problems surrounding her on a constant basis. Balancing those two polar opposites of personality, she manages to bring everything about her character to life in stunning fashion through the simplest expressions and demeanour, making for a particularly elegant and endlessly impressive performance that I couldn’t take my eyes off.
Having said that, the rest of the cast doesn’t really hold a candle to Takamine’s brilliance here. Although a couple of supporting stars do hold a decent presence alongside, I have to say that most of the actors just don’t have the charisma or power to really engross you in their characters as Takamine does, and that is unfortunately problematic when you’re trying to bring some more attention and focus to the people bringing about so many of our main character’s problems, rather than simply seeing how she responds to them.
Now, the biggest reason that I really didn’t find this film as riveting as I would have liked is largely due to the fact that it is a rather slow affair that doesn’t have the dramatic intensity I felt was necessary to really help the story hit home.
Of course, I’m not looking for melodrama, but there are elements of this movie that do feel a little muted in comparison to the drama of the events that are actually unfolding, and that means it’s difficult to really respond to the story in the way that it’s trying to make you, which was a little disappointing to see.
However, that leads me into one of the more interesting and unique things about When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, and the part of the movie that was easily most memorable for me.
Although it isn’t the principal theme of the film, the clash between traditional and modern culture and values is a constant presence throughout this movie. On the one hand, you can see it in the contrast between the way that Hideko Takamine’s character acts in comparison to her younger colleagues, or in the difference between the pure and elegant nature of her character when working as a hostess (a more traditional role), and the more stressed and frustrated air that arises when dealing with difficulties in her life.
And on the other hand, this film was made right at the time when cinema was completely changing. Japanese cinema in the 1950s was full of radical ideas, but it still retained an overwhelmingly traditional air, the sort that we look at today and immediately identify as ‘old movies’. However, the 1960s saw the coming of the New Wave, alongside the movement in European countries like France and Italy, and this film sits right in the middle of those two distinct styles, and that is heavily reflected throughout.
So, while there is still a strong air of traditional cinema throughout this film, there is always an underlying element of more cool, free-thinking attitudes to filmmaking and screenwriting, something that I found a particularly intriguing and unique characteristic of this film.
Overall, I found When A Woman Ascends The Stairs an interesting, albeit not exceptional watch. While it features a fantastic lead performance from Hideko Takamine, as well as some interesting and unique cinematic characteristics, it doesn’t quite have the power or deep intrigue to make for a particularly enthralling watch, owing to an unfortunately slow and unbalanced story throughout, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.2.