In 1948, Max Ophüls came to America from Germany to explore his penchant for female narratives in a large studio setting at MGM. Ten years later Mikio Naruse’s long-spanning oeuvre (he completed over 90 films in his lifetime) crystallized in “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.” Despite bearing striking similarities in both plot and characters, it’s astounding to consider what ten years can accomplish in the way the cinema of the West and the East treated women.
In “Caught,” Leonora Eames (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) is a lower-class woman seeking the attention of a rich suitor who will pave the way for her career as a happy housewife. When she finds the millionaire tycoon Smith Ohlrig (a play-on the word “oil-rig”), she swoons him and they get hitched. However, Smith is a brazen patriarch who locks her into his world, by contract, as another faceless employee. “As my wife, you are to stay in my company and that means being hostess in this house,” he instructs. She manages to escape his grasp and lands into the arms of Larry Quinada (James Mason), a pediatrician on the Lower East Side.
“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” is the story of Keiko Takamine working as a bar hostess, entering thirty-hood. Torn between buying and starting her own bar or marrying a wealthy Japanese businessman and living comfortably, she finds herself in constant limbo. In a small pocket of Tokyo, she is referred to as Mama, a name alluding to her dignified and approachable disposition. Many bar patrons love her but, like in “Caught,” men are generally deceptive, callous.
When Keiko gets charmed by one of the many gentlemen who frequent her bar (he gifts her with a bottle of her favourite fragrance: Black Narcissus), she decides to accept his proposal for marriage. Except he’s already married. And he already has a family.
Both Ophüls and Naruse paint men as stern, unwavering bodies of charm and wealth on the outside, but they’re all morally indecisive, messy and internally bankrupt (with the exception of the all-too-perfect Dr. Quinada in “Caught”). On the other hand, their female counterparts appear to be demure and indecisive, seemingly not knowing what they want and yet, inherently solid on the inside.
Where Leonora’s character is almost immune to criticism (she abandons her life of materialism to work as a receptionist for the Doctor), Keiko’s character isn’t quite as infallible. She has moments where you simply can’t side with her. When her mother asks for money to keep her brother out of jail, she refuses. When her nephew has polio and her brother beckons for financial help, she coldly declines. Pairing this with the sparse nature of Keiko’s distant voiceover narration, Naruse masterfully dodges the popular melodrama so common in 1950s cinema.
Structurally, Ryuzo Kikushima’s (the longtime collaborator with Akira Kurosawa, responsible arguably for his best films) script is leaps and bounds ahead of Arthur Laurents, who primarily worked as a musical playwright in his career. He was responsible for wonderful stories like Gypsy, which succeeded in acutely capturing an overbearing stage mother. But when adapted for the screen, his sense of structure and rhythm feels stagey where Kikushima’s is sculpted effortlessly. And where Naruse’s narrative proves to be more evolved than Ophüls’ reveals itself in their third acts.
“Caught” trips into a formulaic and rather unbelievable ending when the powerful Ohlrig is crushed by a pinball machine (a silly analogy for his own games being the root cause of his demise), while Leonara sits by and watches. Eventually espousing some guilt in the last scene (god forbid she’d remorselessly kill a man!), she inevitably ends up with the handsome doctor. It’s a rather parochial Postwar sermon on the virtue of abandoning any form of materialist ethos.
In Naruse’s story, Keiko doesn’t get what she wants because she doesn’t know what she wants.
This is a creative freedom lent to very few characters, albeit strong ones (Bob Rafaelson wrote a similar character ten years later with the lauded Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces). The sophistication of his storytelling is the confidence in painting fully fleshed out and realized females, yet still allowing them to have doubt and fear. This doesn’t detract from their strength, quite the contrary. It reminds us there’s a falseness behind the certainties of moral characters. That to persevere with doubt may be more resolute a character trait than concluding with absolute moral vindication.
There is a scene in Naruse’s film where Keiko, after being lied to by yet another businessman, is comforted by her bar manager Kenichi (played wonderfully by Tatsua Nakadai). He swoops in expectedly as the man who saves the day (much like the character Mason embodies in “Caught”). He hugs her, consoles her, and offers his hand in marriage and a partnership to start a bar together. It’s a solution that seemingly reconciles both material and moral woes. But she says no. Why?
It’s a question I still ask myself after multiple viewings. Is it her stubbornness? Is he not rich enough? Or is it simply that she doesn’t love him? This is where the dichotomy of the two women is so poignant. Keiko doesn’t have to choose between the love of a man and their money. Because in Naruse’s world, there’s neither. Her solitude and strength isn’t found in the contrived morality or a male suitor or in the emptiness of commerce. It’s found in the obstacles she can choose to place herself in - it’s the Sisyphean staircase.
Very few films approach the female narrative earnestly. “Caught” was a far cry from our current characterization, for the most part. But not really. Nearly seventy years later and many films portray women choosing between real love or the rich guy. They ultimately choose real love, giving them a sense of moral purpose. That love conquers all kind of stuff.
The very same year Naruse released this film, John Cassavetes gave way to the same kind of female narrative in “Shadows” (1960)in the U.S. His reflection on the subject of women in film is rather prophetic:
“I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.”
In considering the dreams of women, Naruse’s work is challenging because it defiantly resolves in saying, from a male perspective, “I don’t know.” He relishes in the mystery and in his refusal to distill Keiko into the dull framework of some Manichean duality, he radically redshifts the priorities of a man telling a woman’s story. A woman choosing herself over any man? Over money? Over, even, love?
It is a triumph of not only Japanese cinema, but international cinema. Where “Caught” is Ophüls clearly trying to paint within the lines drawn by the studio heads at MGM, “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” is Naruse reshaping the page he’s drawing on. Ophüls returned to Germany a year later, completing some of his strongest works of his career - all of which featuring female leads.