Working for the Man

29 Oct 2013: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (DVD, 1960, Mikio Naruse)

However recycled many of its conventions feel – the hardboiled (albeit female) narration, the tough-but-playful wise-girl repartee, the undifferentiated earnestness of many of the performances, the smoky barrooms – the content and some of the stylistic choices set this movie apart from others to which it bears resemblance. Though dealing with the slightly seedy milieux and situations of hostess bars and their struggling employees, there’s an Ozu-like humane and familial feel to the characters sketched that does without Ozu’s borderline gooiness and goofiness and goopiness and even goodness. People do play with each other, but their dramas and letdowns are never softened by light, non-diegetic music or cushioned by warm spacious head-on compositions. The main character’s angst and disappointment, while not at Fassbinder levels of extremity, tears at us as much as herself, with medium shots or close-ups that show her face contorting itself to maintain composure. The best and last promise she has of lifting herself out of her socioeconomic hole ends up destroyed in a strange, near-surreal shot confronting another woman in a desolate waste in the factory district, coming on the heels of a procession of painful burdens and reflections (so many women with the same dream, like buying their own bars), yet like Sisyphus she carries on anyway and shows no signs of giving up. Though it would be nice to delve more into the particulars of the economics around her travails, it’s rare enough to see any film tackling as honestly the tragedies and three-dimensional emotions of working people, and working women in particular.

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