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Japanese Divas

Saturday, July 9, 2011
8:20 p.m. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Mikio Naruse (Japan, 1960)

(Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki). Hideko Takamine portrays the consummate Naruse heroine: high-minded, determined, and out of her element in a sordid world. Here it is the back-street bars of Tokyo's Ginza district, which Naruse re-creates in all its busy detail and nighttime poetry. Keiko is a mama-san, or bar hostess, a modern, lower-scale incarnation of the geisha. A widow at thirty, and exploited by her selfish family, she realizes that she must either remarry or strike out on her own in the face of furious competition from other mama-sans. A devastating courtship with a longtime customer only reveals the true vulnerability of Keiko's position. As she prepares to climb the stairs to her customers once again, in a haunting final scene, she expresses the sad litany of her life: "Then it gets dark . . . I hate to climb the stairs. But once I'm up, I trust to luck."

—Judy Bloch

• Written by Ryuzo Kikushima. Photographed by Masao Tamai. With Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Reiko Dan, Tatsuya Nakadai. (110 mins, In Japanese with English subtitles, B&W, 35mm, 'Scope, PFA Collection, permission Janus Films/Criterion Collection)