The thing that I have always appreciated about Japanese films is what I call 'the acting of smiling faces', whatever emotional upheaval characters (especially women) go through, they smile and smile, although we are always aware that under this veneer of smile, there is a hidden sadness, hinted by subtle facial expressions (even at times hinted by actors turning away from camera, trying to get a moment of respite for the characters they play). Its a great metaphor of facade required for everyday life and obviously its stylistic cinematic interpretation may not be taken for general Japanese behavior but it does definitely hint to their culture in particular and human nature in general.
If I try to brief the plot of Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, it will look like a run-of-the-mill melodrama - a tragic story of an epic, unfortunate heroine, misunderstood and unable to get true love, but Naruse's treatment has sensitivity and fluidity that makes a usual story become sublime and evocative document of hopelessness of a woman trapped like our heroine is.
In all its differences, I can't help but say that When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a sister piece to Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. Obviously, Naruse's film is more interested in the scrutiny the post-war Japanese society and the place of women in it, unlike Fellini's heart-felt fascination for primarily one character - Cabiria - and her search for love, it plays more like the story of bar girls . Cabiria is looking for love, and fails, Naruse's heroine, Mama ( played by Naruse's regular Hideko Takamine), who works in a bar in Tokyo's Ginza district, is surrounded by potential suitors, has no dearth of love on the surface, but she too is a woman looking for love, and like Cabiria, unable to find it. Mama, unlike Cabiria, is not gullible and also unlike Cabiria, she is quite a standard character - a graceful polite experienced bar girl, aging and fearful, looking for a career along with love. Naruse's mastery - in part - lies in the fact that he makes such predictable character interesting. Naruse's movie also has the shadows of past, the war-torn economy booming, the economic divide, the so-called modern man caught in traditions and stereotypes, how surface boom and money didn’t translate to happiness in lives - all this serves as the harbinger of modern-urban ennui and alienation which has obsessed the minds and hearts of most modern film makers.
Also, the film is unmistakably a feminist work where heroine goes through all highs and lows, trying to survive by her own, the men around her provide occasional respite or drama but they are more or less extras to her story, and its feminist also in the way it shows that all the wars and progress made and staged by man (or our notion of masculinity) eventually has the toll on women, forcing them to gather a new life from debris every time. Along with Mama, we see several bar girls struck in maze of bars, trying to deal with it in their own ways. Unlike Nights of Cabiria, where the last scene celebrates the human spirit, the last scene of this film is undeniably the celebration (and at the same time crushing also) of the female spirit. Unlike Cabiria, Mama, doesn’t smile though tears, she just smiles the Japanese way, but we know they both mean the same.