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An aging bar hostess (Hideko Takamine) in Tokyo's Ginza district attempts to open her own business without compromising her principles in Mikio Naruse's sleekly stylish contemporary classic.
A knockout, and a film to place alongside Mizoguchi's last, the great Street of Shame. Hideko Takamine plays aging Tokyo hostess Keiko, a childless widow trying to maintain her dignity amid the sleaze and neon of the Ginza bar district. Dreaming of opening her own bar, Keiko charms and courts the rich patrons she needs to finance her venture while attempting to stay aloof from their booze-fuelled advances. As in so much Naruse, the un- and the understated provide a subliminal thrum of unease under the raucous world of the Ginza; the film's subtle accrual of telling social detail makes Keiko's desire to escape the disreputable dive where she must "ascend the stairs" to make a living every night, just as most of Tokyo is heading home from work, reflect a larger, societal entrapment. Splendidly shot in Scope, all dense and congested interiors, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is "the culmination of a run of masterpieces Naruse reeled off in the 1950s. . . . its taste of gin and bitters goes down like a dry martini" (Phillip Lopate).