When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

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. Naruse's approach to the world at the top of the stairs, like his protagonist's, is never indelicate yet always unsentimental and direct. In an extraordinary opening few minutes, he lays out all the themes and problems of the film in the quick, telling brushstrokes of a master. But make no mistake: lives are in the balance.

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