Sunday, October 9, 2011

Japanese Summer: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice & Good Morning

Still riffing on some of the Japanese films I saw this summer...

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) stars one of my favorite Japanese actors of the period - Tatsuya Nakadai. However, the star of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is Hideko Takamine, the schoolteacher in Twenty-Four Eyes, in quite a different role. Here, she is Keiko, a Tokyo Ginza bar hostess who unlike her colleagues, keeps a professional distance from her clients. By professional distance, I mean she doesn't have sex with them. The memory of her late husband may be her motivation but regardless, her professionalism only adds to her allure in the eyes of her customers and bar manager (Nakdadai). It comes at a cost. It seems every bar hostess' dream is to own her own bar. Keiko could get bankrolled by one or more of her clients...if she'd just play the game. Her steadfast refusal establishes her character in a morally ambiguous environment.

Keiko has been saving her money so she can start her own place without any assistance. A former co-worker's failed attempt at starting her own place plants the seed but an illness and extended stay with her no-good brother, shrewish mother and sick nephew pushes her over the edge. Keiko spends her savings bailing out her brother and paying for her nephew's medical care. This defers her dream of opening her own bar...or does it.

In an about face, Keiko first accepts a marriage prosposal from a man who turns out to be fraud (and already married) and later sleeps with a businessman who agrees to bankroll her. He turns out to be a cad as he is being transferred away for work and partially reneges.

After Nakadai admits his lost desire for her and disappointment by her out-of-character actions, Naruse sets up one of the best moments of the film when Keiko goes to the train station to see the businessman off. The man is concerned by her unexpected appearance and worried his wife will find out what happened but Keiko takes the high road by giving him back his money disguised as a present. The film ends with Keiko seemingly back to her old self as she ascends the stairs to the bar she works at and serves as the perfect bar hostess again...just like the film started. However, the audience is more aware of the sadness and disappointment behind Keiko's smile, more impressed with her constantly polite demeanor and a little sad about the life lessons she has learned.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a very effective film. It's very dark at its heart. Keiko's future is very uncertain and her hardened heart will only make it more difficult to change her attitude. Regardless of the inner turmoil, the audience is certain that Keiko will be able to regain the professional detachment she showed earlier in the film. If not for her husband's death, Keiko's life would be much different (presumably better). The film showcases an excellent performance by Takamine. It was an excellent by the acclaimed director Mikio Naruse.

Instead of subtitles on the print, PFA projected laser subtitles and there was a "malfunction." The subtitles became unsynchronized with the film and they had to stop the film. I didn't ruin the experience but it did lessen my enjoyment which was still considerable. That's the second or third time I've seen problem with the laser projector. PFA may want to explore other options with un-subtitled prints are the only ones available.


The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, a 1952 Ozu film, features a married couple for the cinematic hall of fame. Shin Saburi & Michiyo Kogure are Mokichi & Taeko Satake, respectively. Comfortably off, childless & settled in their way, the couple coexist. There doesn't seem to be much passion in their relationship; if there ever was. Taeko is a shrew and not above lying to her husband whom she considers a dullard. Mokichi is taciturn to the point of giving grunts instead of speaking and seems disinterested in his marriage or his wife. Of the two, I found Mokichi more sympathetic but they were quite a pair.

Green Tea Over Rice follows a particularly turbulent period in their lives including a Taeko lying to go on an overight trip to the spa, being tasked with finding a husband for their niece and Mokichi being transferred overseas for his job. Ozu trains his camera on the nuances of marriage or a weary couple. It's not so much a complacent marriage as it is two people living separate live but still married.

The key scene is at the end when Mokichi unexpectedly returns and they share a simple meal as the title indicates. Mokichi has simple tastes which his wife has mocked and criticized throughout the film so her sharing the meal is a pleasant surprise.

Ozu had his finger on the scale though. I think it's obvious his sympathies were with the husband. The only time the wife was a bitch or lying was at the end when she thought he had left for South America. The film may not appeal to everyone as the subject foreign or pedestrian but I thought it was one of the wonderfully narrowly focused films by Ozu. Ozu almost exclusively trained his eye on family dramas. Frequently, the conflicts were generational but in Green Tea it was gender and without the sensationalism of an affair or unrequited love.

Best suited for fans of Ozu or these kinds of films, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice was elegantly simple. I can't quite say it was satisfying because the focused on the couple whereas most Ozu films focus on an extended family & the dynamics at work. By focusing on the couple, Ozu invited the audience to take sides which is uncharacteristic for Ozu.


The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice and Good Morning screened at Viz/New People over Independence Day weekend or two weeks before the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I note the relative dates because the Silent Festival screening I Was Born But... Good Morning (1959) is a loose remake of I Was Born But... (1932). Both films were directed by Ozu. I had not seen either film before the July screenings but I was aware of the relationship between the films.

Having seen both films, I thought Good Morning also bore a strong resemblance to Ozu's Early Summer (1951). In Good Morning, the boys run away from home because their father won't buy a television; in Early Summer they run away because he won't buy more model train tracks.

Trains are a recurring theme in Ozu's later films. Scenes take place on traveling on trains, Ozu uses train stations as establishing and exit shots, people walk along train tracks, exterior shots with moving trains are frequently used, etc..

The television set or lack thereof is the central plot point in Good Morning. The Hayashi family (husband, wife, two sons and their aunt) live in a Tokyo suburb. Their son's primary wish in life is to have television. Their "alternative lifestyle" neighbors (he lounges in his pajamas, she is cabaret singer) have one the boys go over to watch sumo wrestling. The boys pester their parents for a television until the father loses patience with them. In response, the boys go on silent strike. They refuse to speak to anyone until they get a television. They claim that adults say meaningless things and they refuse to grow up into that kind of adult.

Eventually, they run away from home but are found by their English tutor who fancies the boys' aunt. Upon their petulant and forced return, they are delighted to see a television set their father has purchased. What they don't know is that small talk adults engage in is part of a larger set of social customs. It's this same set of customs which accounts for the television. A neighbor gets a new job as a salesman and taps their parents to make a purchase (kind of like being hit up for money at work for coworkers' children's school donation drives). The parents seeing an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, buy a television from him.

Ozu stalwart Chishu Ryu plays the father. Only six years earlier, in Ozu most acclaimed work, Tokyo Story, Ryu portrayed Sugimara's father. Koji Shigaragi, 13 years old at the time, does a masterful job as the eldest child. His younger brother is played by Masahiko Shimazu. Another Ozu regular, Haruko Sugimura, plays the gossipy neighbor who stirs up trouble in the neighborhood.

Primarily a comedy, the film is a slight departure for Ozu in other ways as well. His films are usually internally focused on family dynamics but in Good Morning the attention is drawn to larger societal norms which I associate as secondary or external forces at work on the family. The silent strike sets off gossip in the neighborhood as Sugimura's character interprets the boys' silence as a having their root cause in a disagreement she with their mother. Despite the boys' insistence that small talk is meaningless, a simple "Good morning" serves as a password for social interaction. It's utterance may be reflexive but it's absence is noticeable. The boys' selfishness and youth hinder their understanding of this.

The second major plot point is the television. The father could easily afford a television but he is against it on principle. He considers it an idiot box. Like America a few years earlier, Japan was in the midst of television boom. 1959, the year Good Morning was released, was also the high point for ticket sales in Japan. The next year began a decline in film attendance which was largely attributed to television. The fact that Ryu's character eventually buys the television is a commentary on Japanese society as much ss a plot device. The penetraton of television sets into Japanese households was unstoppable. Regardless, of Ryu's opposition, the boys (like the rest of Japanese society) were clamoring for a television. To deny them would only cause continued strife so Ryu relented.

I have yet to encounter an Ozu film (talkies) that I didn't thoroughly enjoy. I'm not so enamored by his silent films. I notice that Ozu seemed to have a fascination with Western society in his silent films. He seems to have lost that in his films from the 1950s and beyond. In Good Morning, the jazz and TV loving couple next door exhibit signs of Western influence. Ozu portrays them as misfits and looked upon askance by Japanese society. I'm not sure if that reflects Ozu's view of them or if he is relating his own experience through them.

Anyway, Good Morning only burnished my high opinion of Ozu and his films.

No comments: