Director Mikio Naruse focuses middle-aged (i.e. 30 year old) “Mama” who navigates the “water trade” of Tokyo’s Ginza bars and their elegant hostesses in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Acutely aware that her looks are fading, Mama’s at a crossroads. She must either find a husband or buy her own bar if she’s going to survive. Because of a strong devotion to her late husband, Mama doesn’t want to marry again. Yet she doesn’t have the funds to buy a bar. Thus she must convince wealthy customers to back her. It’s a delicate balance as relying on one man too heavily comes with too many obligations.
These bars, with their doting hostesses, are fascinating aspect of Japanese culture. The relationship between the rich business men and the women, all of whom have different objectives and desires and the attitude people have towards them is complex. The women aren’t shunned as they would be in the West. Yet they aren’t revered. These women aren’t Geishas. They aren’t trained in dance and singing. Some can be bought for after hours entertainment, but not all. Mama is one who doesn’t sell out.
While it’s a good idea, buying a bar is far from easy, as Mama learns through her friend and former, younger colleague, Yuri whose new bar siphons off several of Mama’s customers. The new bar appears to be a success, but Yuri’s been borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Yuri stages suicide which she hoped would force her creditors to back down. That plan fails miserably.
Like Kabei: Our Mother I enjoyed the little glimpses into Japan of an earlier time (here 1960). When Mama visits her mother I was surprised to see her traditional kimono-wearing mother light up a cigarette. I was surprised that Mama’s apartment’s decor was so Western. This milieu has its downsides, but it’s more civilized and in its own way proper than what we’d have in the U.S. in 1960.
I highly recommend When a Woman Ascends the Stairs to anyone interested in Japanese culture.