It'S UNFAIR to judge a filmmaker with almost 90 credits to his name on the basis of just one movie, but that's why I got into this business. This week, the Northwest Film Forum begins its 10-title repertory program Weathering the Storm: The Enduring Cinema of Mikio Naruse, which runs Friday, Jan. 20, through Sunday, Feb. 26 (see movie times page for this week's schedule and future details). Naruse (1905–1969) is less of an art-house name compared to Kurosawa or Ozu; he never quite made the leap into the canon of subtitled auteurs, despite the best efforts of Susan Sontag and Phillip Lopate.
Screened this week, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a late work (from 1960) that's quite accessible, more than a little sad, and a bitch-slap to the fetish pageantry of Memoirs of a Geisha. Thirty-ish widowed barmaid Keiko (Hideko Takamine) is confusingly called "Mama," but there's no maternal significance to the name. She spends most of the film worrying about money: how much to spend on beauty spas, perfume, and kimonos to impress and keep her most loyal clients (who pay for booze, not sex); whether to start her own bar or jump to another saloon in Tokyo's Ginza district; how to support her old mother, ne'er-do-well brother, and polio-afflicted nephew when her manager (secretly in love with her) is so tardy collecting her customers' payments.
"In our business," says Keiko, "you have to treat every man as a lover. You can't just love one man." Yet some of her clients do love her, and marriage would rescue her from the financial grind. Or prostitution, as she mulls in voice-over. Naruse himself spent a lot of time in Ginza bars, and their peculiar dynamic—cash for comfort and company, if not carnality—puts a politer, more formalized veneer on the economic desperation of his youth. Most directors are middle-class with artistic longings; Naruse was born poor, educated little, and only became a studio prop man by luck. Anyone with that background knows how prosperity can quickly fall away, which makes for a tough-minded survivor's attitude, a lack of sentimentality. "I can take whatever happens," says Keiko, and the motto applies to Naruse as well.