I was sad to learn, via a Facebook buddy, of the death of the Japanese actress Hideko Takamine on 28th December. A former child star dubbed "Japan's Shirley Temple," Takamine is best known for the compelling melodramas that she made for the director Mikio Naruse in the 1950s and 1960s, notably Floating Clouds (1955) and When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960). I wrote the following short piece on her performance in When A Woman... for PopMatters's second Essential Film Performances series last year.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – Hideko Takamine
In the West at least, the films of Mikio Naruse have never quite received the same level of interest or acclaim as those of other celebrated Japanese auteurs such as Ozu and Kurosawa. The cinema scholar Freda Freiberg places the blame for this, in part, upon the responses of American male critics who “failing to find either the boyish playfulness of Ozu or the macho histrionics of Kurosawa [in Naruse’s cinema] treated him as second-rate.” But Naruse’s finely detailed films are ripe for rediscovery, not least for the stunning performances that the director coaxes from his actresses. As Freiberg points out, the focus of Naruse’s best work tends to be on “single women on the fringes of Japanese society battling to make a living and keep their self-respect.”
The modernist melodrama When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, with its beautiful black-and-white Cinemascope photography and cool jazz score, exemplifies this interest. The film centres on the widowed Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a bar hostess in Tokyo ’s Ginza district. As Keiko assesses the very limited options available to her as a woman in this society – suicide, remarriage, opening a bar of her own – the film develops into both a feminist social critique and an intimate portrait of one woman’s emotional life. Takamine’s beautifully modulated and deeply affecting performance captures both Keiko’s professionalism – her smiling compliance with her clientele - and her frustrations, fears and regrets. But Keiko is no one-dimensional victim: rather, Takamine invests the character with humour, stoicism and moral strength, so that her final walk up the stairs to the job that she despises feels less like a pathetic surrender to circumstance than a valiant commitment to endurance. “Life is a battle for the women here,” Keiko recognises. “A battle I must not lose.” The mixture of vulnerability and strength in Takamine’s great performance conveys precisely that.