One of the last and best of Naruse's films, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs showcases the subtle, forceful emotional expression that Naruse was so capable of evoking from his actors. This was written and produced by the great Ryuzo Kikushima, who expertly crafted a story perfectly suited to Naruse's ethos just as he had done many times for Kurosawa. The theme of downtrodden and constrained women in Japan's modern de facto patriarchal society has been exhaustively explored in Japanese film, but this is a cut above the usual exploitive melodramas concerning abused women.
As lovely as ever, Takamine plays a bar hostess in postwar Ginza at the onset of middle age and a crossroads in her life. She hates her job for perfectly good reasons and is forced to provide for others and sustain herself well beyond her means. A seemingly endless string of disappointments and obligations threaten to break our heroine, but her inner determination is as resolute as her life is tragic.
Takamine performs the lead with remarkable grace and charm; even by her standards, this performance was exceptional. On the verge of stardom, a young Tatsuya Nakadai also delivers a morose, ultimately explosive portrayal of an unrequited lover. As with just about everything he's done, the emotional outburst of his final scene is striking.
The ending of the film seems more hopeful and satisfying in retrospect than it did during a first viewing; in leaving matters unresolved, the protagonist's determination is emphasized in a very poignant manner.
Like most Criterion releases, this flick's disc features attractive, tastefully designed packaging and menus, and bonus materials of varying quality: an insipid commentary track by Donald Richie, one rather tacky theatrical trailer and an excellent 2005 interview with Tatsuya Nakadai, in which he discusses his career, his work with Mikio Naruse and experiences involving this picture in particular.
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