This month has unintentionally been alloted to re-discovering classic Japanese cinema. I forget clearly now how I was introduced to it, though. Might be through the broadcasts of the defunct UHF channel 31 of Kurosawa (and Fellini) movies, or having seen the birth (or early years) of the Eiga Sai Japanese Film Festival back in the mid-90s.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs might be Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse’s finest hour–a delicate, devastating study of a woman, Keiko (played heartbreakingly by Hideko Takamine), who works as a bar hostess in Tokyo’s very modern postwar Ginza district, entertaining businessmen after work. Sly, resourceful, but trapped, Keiko comes to embody the conflicts and struggles of a woman trying to establish her independence in a male-dominated society. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows the largely unsung yet widely beloved master Naruse at his most socially exacting and profoundly emotional. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)
Shortly after seeing that, I found out that Takamine died late last year.
My current mood dictates that I’ll take a rest from period, samurai films, and get something more complex and dramatic than Ozu’s popular work. Naruse fit that bill, who favored Takamine, who looked like a mix of Chanda Romero and Vilma Santos, and Oli noted that she also has Nida Blanca’s features. I do hope my confusing her with another famous actress from that period, Setsuko Hara, will end now.
Two more films done from my viewing queue include Naruse’s Lightning (1952). This was apparently lighter fare, but a wonderful family drama nonetheless. Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty Four Eyes (1954), a film that beat Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to Best Film during its time, was next:
Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes — which beat Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as Kinema Junpo’s Best Film of 1954 and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film in 1955 — is one of Japan’s most beloved films. In 1999 it was picked by Japanese critics as one of the ten best Japanese films of all time. Both a huge commercial and critical success, this deeply affecting anti-war film has, according to the critic Sato Tadao, “wrung more tears out of Japanese audiences than any other post-war film”.
Spanning a twenty-year period, Twenty-Four Eyes tells the story of a bright young teacher, Hisaki Oishi (Hideko Takamine), and the ongoing relationship she has with her first class of twelve children, charmingly played, at various stages of their lives, by non-professional local children and young adults. At first, although the aging schoolmaster (Chishu Ryu) recognizes her talent, Hisaki is mistrusted by the remote island community, however, soon both children and adults fall under the spell of this modern, headstrong, city-girl only to see the impending war irretrievably change their lives for good.
Filming started in 1951 when America was embroiled in the Korean War and Japanese militarism was again on the rise. Twenty-Four Eyes came to redefine Japan’s national identity with its cry for pacifism and its reverence for the innocence of youth. As cherished today as it was in 1954, this film is a sublime, emotionally affecting drama skilfully and gracefully directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. (Youtube blurb/source)
Was it better? Kurosawa’s flick was a meaty action movie, this was a different sort of beast. A long (156 mins) sentimental journey with all the right elements of a historical drama, with one of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I’ve seen. Takamine was perfect in every period the film went through.
On queue: another Naruse, Floating Clouds.
My favorite so far? Its When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, when Takamine was at her most beautiful.