Netflix suggested that ‘I might like’ to watch When A Woman Ascends The Stairs by Mikio Naruse They were right. Ever since, I have made a study of that underappreciated master. Unfortunately, all that was available in Region 1 format was the aforementioned masterpiece as well as five silent films, all from Criterion. I read longingly of films that I despaired of ever seeing, films with intriguing titles like Floating Clouds, The Sound of the Mountain and Lightning. I kept watching When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, amazed at how such a work of genius was hardly known, and foisting it on anyone who would sit still for it.
Much to my amazement, this past winter, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films programmed a series featuring the collaboration of Naruse with his muse, the actress Hideko Takemine, who so reluctantly ascends those stairs. Week after week, I sat in the Max Palevsky Theater transfixed. I was also thrilled that the theater was packed every week. Since those glorious ten weeks, I was able to get my hands on copies of some of the films shown in the series, as well as others I had only read about.
Which brings me to Meshi. The film stars the legendary Setsuko Hara, who was the muse of Yasujiro Ozu. It subtly depicts the unraveling of a marriage. After soul-crushing years of cooking and cleaning for her husband in Osaka, Hara reaches a breaking point and returns on what seems like a permanent visit to her mother and siblings in Tokyo. After some time, the husband appears in Tokyo. The two of them stroll the streets, discussing what their future might be.
Their conversation is interrupted by a bunch of young men in some kind of costume, playing music, circling an ornate box of some kind and generally making a large commotion. Husband and wife look at each other, smile and begin the mending of the relationship.
This incident which was so well understood by the characters baffled me. Of course, I was able to say to myself : ‘This ceremony is well known to a Japanese audience and either its significance or the nostalgia it evokes creates a healing bond between the characters. Don’t worry about the specifics.’ I remained engrossed until the end of the picture.
I have immersed myself in all things Japanese for several years now, with a special concentration on Japanese film. Good background reading, ranging from the wonderful Criterion Collection liner notes to Donald Richie’s magisterial A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, has been my Baedeker’s on my journey into Japanese culture and history. However, this scene jolted me. I felt face to face with the unknowable. Sure, I could intellectualize the import of what I saw, but I would never know it on a gut level the way a Japanese audience would. That thought made feel that a full-scale assault on Japanese film was doomed. The world I was intoxicated with was just too vast and too ‘other’ for me to completely lose myself in.
This began to seem a little too dramatic to me, so I began to think of similar experiences in other films. I remembered the scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when the Dana Andrews character is working as a soda jerk and his service in the war is belittled by a yahoo wearing a prominently displayed American Flag pin. After making Andrews feel like a chump for his war service, the guy flashes the pin with a knowing smirk and Andrews goes ballistic. And I have no idea what that pin signifies. Once again, in the moment of watching the film I can tell myself ‘OK, this is some kind of isolationist jerk who clearly does not understand what our hero has been through. That’s enough for now’. And of course it is. The audience of 1946 probably would know automatically what the pin and the guy wearing it signify. The immediacy of that knowledge has receded with time. Just like the immediacy of the ceremony in Meshi recedes behind a cultural mist.
The moral of the story is that you do assimilate by understanding the best you can. One’s inconclusive attempts at understanding do bring you close to a kind of truth.