Every afternoon, a young widow named Keiko (Hideko Takamine) walks from her modest apartment to her job as a senior hostess in a Ginza bar. Compassionate and courteous, she is affectionately called “mama” by the younger hostesses who see her graciousness and charm as an unattainable ideal. At a glance, the beautiful and demure Keiko, impeccably dressed in a traditional kimono, seems unsuited for her profession. The bar manager, Kenichi (Tatsuya Nakadai) further supports her virtuous reputation by recounting an episode, revealed in confidence, of Keiko’s pleas to the burial priest to have her love letter placed with the body of her late husband. Kenichi is devoted to Keiko, but keeps his respectful distance and instead, has a meaningless affair with a brash, ambitious young barmaid named Junko (Reiko Dan). The times are rapidly changing, and although other bars have resorted to unpalatable tactics in order to attract business in the increasingly competitive market, Keiko refuses to succumb to the trend of resorting to modern attire or welcoming the unwanted advances of patrons. As Keiko narrates with dispassionate reflection the daily routine of a bar hostess, it is clear that her dignity and perseverance separate her from the other hostesses in the Ginza district: “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.” However, at the relative “old age” of thirty and burdened with increasing financial responsibilities for her aging mother and hapless brother, Keiko is at a personal and professional crossroads. To open her own bar requires financial assistance from clients who, in turn, undoubtedly expect reprehensible favors in return. To remarry is to break her solemn vow to her beloved husband.
Mikio Naruse creates an exquisitely realized, somber, and deeply affecting portrait of dignity and perseverance in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Using the recurring image of Keiko ascending the stairs that lead to the bar, Naruse reflects Keiko’s symbolic transcendence from her increasingly disreputable profession. It is a strength of character that is reflected in her early narrative: “After it gets dark, I have to climb the stairs, and that’s what I hate. But once I’m up, I can take whatever happens.” Inevitably, the daunting stairs provide a reassuring ritual from crushing disillusionment and personal tragedy – a validation of courage and resilience in facing the unknown – a quiet triumph of the human spirit.
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