Like Nights of Cabiria, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is about a woman who entertains men for a living and struggles to carve out her own happiness in life. Cabiria, of course, was a prostitute, while Keiko is merely a bar girl, the professional flirters (and potential mistresses) of Japanese executives in post-war Tokyo. Though "Mama," as she is called, takes a much more innocent approach to her task, the main purpose is the same: sublimate your own desires and preferences in order to satisfy the customer. Cabiria, too, was famously low-class, while Keiko must, in appearance anyway, be the image of luxury, the perfect mix of sexuality and capitalism. The comparison becomes especially apparent in both films' turning points, when (and this is quite the spoiler) a man each was depending on to lift her out of her situation is revealed as a false hope - in Cabiria's case a con-artist and thief, in Keiko's case a pathetic, married liar.
Despite two great performances from Hideko Takamine (who just passed away at the end of 2010) and the great Tatsuya Nakadai, the star of the film is director Mikio Naruse. The tone and pacing are simultaneously lyrical and hard-boiled, like Taxi Driver minus the crazy. The editing and shot selection is almost superhuman in its ability to deliver striking and meaningful moments in key pockets of the film without resorting to needlessly flashy moments elsewhere. This delivers what might be thought of as a traditionally Japanese aesthetic, but this is not a Ozu film. Instead, it's a full poem where a haiku would have been, fully aware of the noir, melodrama, and social message films that came before it, but not especially interested in belonging to any of them.
This is not to say that the film only works on a technical level. The emotional content here is very strong, and some parts will be especially sad for some people. Keiko's relationships are extremely broken - yet are they any more broken than the average relationships? The final scene in which Keiko returns to her job at the bar, finally resigned to her fate as a cog in the machine that will one day be discarded and replaced gives the film an ending that raises its aspirations to modern-day tragedy. Yet the irony of the moment is that what Keiko has endured isn't nearly as soul-crushing as what Cabiria has been through, and in fact Keiko has a much stronger potential to still come out on top at the end. After all, she is still relatively young and beautiful, and her moment to find a husband or make enough money to open her own bar isn't entirely out of reach. But because Fellini chooses to end his film on one of the great optimistic moments in film history, somehow we see the positive side of Cabiria's experience.With Keiko, it took me a few hours before I said, "Hey, she's not that much worse off than she was at the beginning of this thing."
This is probably due to the different approaches of the two filmmakers to their content, and the different contexts and intentions of the material. Nights of Cabiria is really just about one character, not about Rome or prostitutes or women (though because it's done so well, it's sort of about all of these things). When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is steeped in its time and place, almost totally eclipsed by gender dynamics, and often focused on its character's unique position in society. Keiko doesn't have hope at the end not because she isn't getting out of the system, but because the system continues. That's why the film cuts away so frequently to documentary-style shots of the normal geisha day and mindset, narrated by Takamine. These segments aren't to understand Keiko more thoroughly, but to understand this world completely. When Cabiria turns to the camera and smiles, it is the resiliency of humanity, its undying hope we see in her eyes. In this way, the two films are the reverse of their narrative focuses. Nights of Cabiria is universal, while When a Woman Ascends the Stairs remains singular, precise, and eternally in the present tense.