Let me get this out of the way right up front; I really enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha. Now, I am certainly smart enough to understand that the film was not entirely realistic, and there were some plot developments that pushed suspension of disbelief pretty far, but I wound it charming and entertaining. It was so charming, in fact, that it was often times easy to forget that you were essentially watching a movie about whores. You can romance it all you want, but at the end of the day a Geisha is really nothing mo…e than a high-paid escort.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is sort of the realistic companion piece to Memoirs. The story here revolves around a modern-day Geisha, where the lifestyle has moved out of the Geisha-houses and into the bars. The lifestyle is still basically the same; women are “companions” to wealthy male bar patrons, making long-term relationships with one woman. The women pay a portion of their income to the owner of the bar, and keep the rest for themselves (though most of it is spent on kimonos and personal upkeep). Our heroine, Mama, is a Geisha that is well-respected amongst her peers, but she is starting to feel the pressure of age. As she is advancing in years, she is not able to rely as much on her youthful good looks. The time has come for her to either get married or open a bar of her own. As she is so well liked, it is not too long until she has suitors offering to pay for her own bar. Now she must decide how she is to proceed with the rest of her life.
This is a fantastic film that put an entirely new spin on the women’s rights movement of the 60’s. When I think about women’s rights, Japan is just about the last place that comes to mind. Yet, this traditional society is the perfect place to set this struggle, as the lines are so clearly defined. In America, the struggle could so easily have looked like selfishness, as our entire society is built on the idea that all persons are created equal. In Japan’s Geisha community, however, the women are subservient and have great power at the same time. A film such as this one has great lessons to teach the world about equal rights even today.
Viewers have two choices of audio here, which is actually pretty interesting. When originally released in theaters, this film featured a Perspecta audio track, which was a format used to simulate stereo surround sound. The idea was that the entire film was presented in Mono, but that sounds that should pan across the front of the house would be presented in stereo. That technology has been duplicated here for hoe viewers through Dolby Digital 3.0. The entire film soundtrack comes through the center channel, while the special “stereo” effects are panned across the left and right speakers. I was very impressed that Criterion went to the time and trouble to present this soundtrack style, as it really helps the home viewer to experience what it would have been like to have seen the film in the theater.
The film is also presented with the standard Mono track that has accompanied the piece since its original theatrical release. These two options really create a special experience on a film that would have otherwise have had nothing special going on with regards to the audio.
The video quality on this disc is very impressive. It’s always great to see when directors take full advantage of the big 2.35:1 format. It is especially impressive wen you are talking about a black-and-white foreign film from 1960. This one looks fantastic. Black levels are deep, and whites are bright, with no unwanted bleed-over between the two. Images are sharp, also, with no grain, scratches or dust to be seen. Clearly, the restoration that Criterion gave this material was an overwhelming success. The only thing holding this back from a perfect 5.0 score are some rarely-occurring problems with screen flicker. Overall, however, this is a really fantastic looking classic film.
There are not an overwhelming number of special features here, but the quality is high. The film’s theatrical trailer is here, as is a 37-page booklet so substantial that it includes a table of contents. There are three essays included in the booklet, which has become a Criterion staple. As usual, they are well-written pieces that really help to put the film in the proper perspective and illuminate new ways of interpreting the film that the viewer may not have thought of on their own.
There is also a wonderful commentary track by Japanese film historian Donald Richie. Richie is a very well respected film historian that is considered the preeminent mind on the subject of Japanese film. It is an honor to have him provide his insight into this remarkable film. The extras wrap up with an interview with actor Tatsuya Nakadai which was shot specifically for this DVD release. You really have to hand it to Criterion; they always put out an amazing amount of effort with their DVD releases, and this one is certainly no different.
While Memoirs of a Geisha may have been a beautiful film to look at, it didn’t have the substance that this work has. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is an excellent film that deserves to be seen. Its views on sexism and the glass ceiling are profound, even by modern American standards. Criterion has yet again pulled a spectacular film from the archives of Janus Films and presented it in amazing quality. Viewers owe it to themselves to at least give this fantastic film a rental. For me, it’s definitely a keeper.
Special Features List
- Commentary by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie
- New video interview with Tatsuya Nakadai
- Theatrical Trailer
- Booklet with three essays