GINZA CONSMETICS (銀座化粧, 1951), WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (女が階段を上る時, 1960) … In Mikio Naruse’s films, we meet vulnerable women in psychologically and economically trying situations and, often times, we find them working in Ginza nightclubs. “Hostesses”, as they are called, serve alcohols and entertain male customers in a dark and smoke-filled hall every night while they maneuver themselves to avoid troubles with them. Most of the customers are ‘salarymen’ looking for some flirtation and pseudo-love relationship with young hostesses, who are sometimes 30, 40 years junior. Customer’s logic is “we need consolation after a day of brutal corporate politics”. “Drinking and talking silly things with young pretty girls” does seem to solve many issues for them and such nightclubs have flourished until recently.

It’s a business. “You need to be a pro”, as Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakdai) tells Keiko (Hideko Takamine) in WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS. But the problem is what is a “pro” in such a profession?

Many of Keiko’s customers try to talk her into bed using a variety of means. Goda (Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rich businessman from Osaka and wants her to be his bedtime companion during his stay in Tokyo. He says he can help her to have her own nightclub, if she agrees. She refuses Goda’s offer and tries to raise the money by donation from her clients. After Goda’s tactless approach, Keiko finds Sekine (Daisuke Kato)’s sincere words profoundly touching. Sekine tells her “I don’t think you are made for this kind of profession”, though he is willing to help her rebuild her business. He says he owns a factory and wants Keiko to be his wife and business partner in manufacturing. This sincere proposal turned out to be the biggest disappointment to Keiko: Sekine is a habitual lair. Married with kids, he does own a factory, but much smaller in scale and less successful than he painted it to be. On top of that, he has a long history of marriage fraud. Keiko’s dream was just another one of his misadventures.

Hideko Takamine in WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (1960)

Then again, another bank manager enters the stage. Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori) is a quiet, suave salaryman, who often uses Keiko’s nightclub for his after-hour business meetings. Fujisaki was not only the Keiko’s favorite customer, but also all the hostesses’. One night, Keiko drank herself to a bottommless bottom and finds herself in Fujisaki’s arms. In the morning after, Fujisaki reveals he is promoted to the Branch Manger in Osaka and probably won’t see her again. He leaves an envelope on the table and says “this may help you a little bit”. The message is clear. “I am married and don’t bother me again.” Fujisaki turns out to be one of the cruelest nightmares.

In a note to GINZA COSMETICS, Naruse himself explains:

Many people imagine “hostesses” to be a group of active women who are free-spirited and uninhibited, but these are exceptions. Many of hostesses live by sense of obligation and compassion, have a certain degree of grace and dignity and try to face life very sincerely.
Mikio Naruse

In these muted words, you might read his piecing criticism toward men flirting with hostesses. Do these men have sense of obligation and compassion? Do they even try to maintain a certain degree of grace and dignity? Are they trying to face life sincerely?

Shohei Ooka, the famed novelist of postwar period, published a novel titled “Ka-ei” in 1961 (the novel itself had been serialized on the magazine Chuo-Koron from August 1958 to August 1959). It was based on the real life of Mutsuko Sakamoto, the Ginza hostess who had committed suicide in 1958. Sakamoto was noted for her torturous relationships with many literary figures. When she was waiting tables in cafe in 1930, she was violently raped by Sanjugo Naoki, one of the most popular novelist at the time. She was only fourteen. Naoki made her his mistress for many years. Then Kan Kikuchi. Hideo Kobayashi, Chuya Nakahara, Ango Sakaguchi, and many others tried to propose her. She had been Ooka’s mistress for many years before she committed suicide. “Ka-ei” is a half-fictionized tale of the charming but unhappy hostess, and clearly written from the male point of view. Even if they make considerable money, hostesses face uncertain future as they get old. But the novelists who had known Sakamoto were busy debating who was to blame or how her life was ruined by men. Few were concerned about her “facing life very sincerely”.

In the culture where a matured male is supposed to know how to have “fun” in those nightclubs, gender politics are considered “too serious” or “immature”. In the nation where a rape victim would experience hard time expressing her scar, “idol” business is considered the most lucrative and clever. Bank managers never feels guilt except when caught. You may think bank managers don’t have much power in society, but think again. In the nation where the banks can wield their power over other business, their moral may become the norm. And it shows. No, I’m not talking about 50 years ago. I am talking about today.

Masayuki Mori and Mineko Takamine in WHEN A WOMAN ASCEND THE STAIRS (1960)