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The Criterion Collection presents
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

"No respectable man would marry me now."
- Keiko (Hideko Takamine)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 19, 2007

Stars: Hideko Takamine, Tatsuya Nakadai, Reiko Dan
Director: Mikio Naruse

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:51m:14s
Release Date: February 20, 2007
UPC: 715515022521
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+AA- B

DVD Review

Japanese film, after the Second World War particularly, has been rightly celebrated and well represented on DVD—Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi are probably the most highly regarded Japanese filmmakers of the period, but this Criterion release makes a persuasive case for Mikio Naruse being on par with them. And aside from the understated and deeply felt work of the director, the film provides a Western audience with a nuanced portrait of a dimly understood aspect of Japanese society. It's hard not to look at the function of the geisha through our prism of sexual politics and conclude that it's an archaic and frequently humiliating practice; certainly the beautiful but empty Memoirs of a Geisha seems to traffic in stereotypes, and wants to equate the geisha with that old Hollywood standby, the hooker with a heart of gold. But there seems to be a whole lot more to it than that, even if the tradition smacks of the worst kind of misogyny.

Hideko Takamine stars as Keiko, known almost universally as Mama; she's the hostess at a bar, and her livelihood depends on cultivating regular customers, businessmen who come in after work to throw back a few drinks and pay for the company of attractive women there to laugh at their jokes and prop up their egos. The intimacies between the regulars and the women more than occasionally go beyond just a few cocktails, and though Mama is famous for her chastity, her profession seems mighty close to prostitution. In fact, all the hostesses seem to harbor one of two dreams: either to open and run a bar of their own, or to snare a rich husband to swoop them up out of the life. It's the Playboy aesthetic with an ancient Japanese pedigree, essentially, but you have to nudge your misgivings aside a little bit, because Keiko is so wonderfully rendered as a character. Naruse reveals her to us slowly, and we come to know her well—being enchanting is her stock in trade, but she's also a harried middle manager, needing to keep the labor force in line, and to collect on invoices from her customers.

Takamine is lovely in the role—there's an undeniable dollop of tartiness to Keiko, and you can't help but wonder what her life would have been like if so many professional avenues had not been closed off to her. Occasionally the movie becomes unrepentantly melodramatic—at one point, for instance, the stress of the job becomes too much for Mama, and she returns to her own mother's house to nurse back to health, but there she encounters the demands of her brother, who's been jilted by his wife and left with Keiko's nephew, who has polio. Can Keiko contribute the necessary yen for an operation so that the little boy can walk again? More characteristic, though, are the interactions between Keiko and the men in her world—Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai) is her business manager hopelessly in love with the boss, but Mama keeps her distance; Minobe is a customer who has defected to another bar, and Keiko's business plan hinges on her bringing him back into the fold; Sekine, a chubby customer, makes big promises, and Keiko, whose life is fostering illusions for others, falls for his. Also notable is Junko (Reiko Dan), who works in the bar and is frank about the monetary transactions for her sexual favors—if Keiko gave up her moral code, this is who she would be.

The story isn't painted on a grand enough canvas to be considered a tragedy, but it is kind of heartbreaking to see all of Keiko's last best hopes turn out badly for her. Naruse portrays her with great empathy, and with a shabby affection for her and her world; she may be a professional coquette, but she's a damn good one. The filmmaking style is frequently lyrical, and even if you've got misgivings about Mama's line of work—or wonder about the inherently Oedipal aspect of her nickname—you'll likely be moved by her story.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion's restoration and transfer are truly beautiful—Tokyo shimmers in the film's lustrous photography, and only an occasional jumpy image late in the run of the picture detract from the video presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The old-fashioned mono track sounds perfectly fine; also available is a 3.0 track, designed to reproduce the original simulated stereo effects of the theatrical release. This one can sound a little thin, though, if your home theater setup is tricked out with lots of speakers.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Donald Richie
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Donald Richie, one of the lions of Japanese cinema studies in English, provides a typically excellent commentary track. He's very good both on providing cultural context for the function of geishas in Japanese society, especially after World War II, and on situating Naruse and his work in the overall narrative of Japanese film history—the director's reputation may not be wide outside of his native land, but at home, he's been rightly lauded as a hero. A 2005 interview (13m:26s) with Tatsuya Nakadai focuses unsurprisingly on the director's work with actors—Naruse was the opposite of tyrannical, quietly coaxing and wheedling subtle performances from his cast. The disc also includes an original trailer and color bars; and the accompanying booklet includes a reminiscence from Takamine, along with three essays comprising a career overview, by Phillip Lopate, Catherine Russell, and Audie Bock.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

The sexual politics of the movie may make you a little queasy, but this is surely a film that Hollywood could never make, and wouldn't want to. On its own terms, it's a very affecting character study, and a multidimensional look at a singular aspect of Japanese culture, and it's a movie made with nuance and grace.


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