Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a quintessentially Japanese film. It's also quintessentially of the 1960s and yet strikingly cosmopolitan. I watched this movie as part of my ongoing project of exploring the Japanese masters. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a beautiful, subtle film that's also a melodrama and a bittersweet homage to Fellini's Nights of Cabiria.
The film is actually a kind of Japanese remake of Cabiria, a connection I might not have even noticed had not director Naruse explicitly referenced Cabiria in the first ten minutes of the film. (Naruse also references Pressburger & Powell's Black Narcissus.)
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is about a woman working as a hostess in a bar (a kind of lower-rent geisha) who is trying to make ends meet and support her louse of a brother back home. It's an old story about the prostitute with a heart of gold, but Naruse's film has the ability to transcend the melodramatic plot and really take both a feminist stance and criticize the dominant political system in Japan. It becomes a film with relevant social commentary as well as a serious drama.