I happened across this film years ago on the video shelves of a local library and checked it out on a whim. Engrossed from start to finish, I immediately fell in love with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and declared it one of my absolute favorites. That status has not changed after multiple viewings.
In Mama-san, Hideko Takamine creates one of film's most memorable characters. Her facial expressions tell the whole story, her warmth, dreams, cynicism, disappointments, most of all her quiet, subtle desperation centering on wanting to do something with her life before it becomes too late(making her a typical Naruse heroine). Watch the final closeup of Takemine before the film fades to black and try not to be moved. Her performance is the film's greatest strength, but she is ably supported by an all star cast which includes Masayuki Mori, Tatsuya Nakadai and Reiko Dan. Naruse's direction is also a major asset, creating atmosphere via wonderful performances(already mentioned), a jazzy, downbeat soundtrack, several establishing shots of the Ginza which create a relentless feeling of urban alienation, a "dark" look which establishes a nighttime mood, all of these factors enhanced by the director's use of widescreen Tohoscope.
Naruse's film seems to be modeled after Hollywood melodramas and "women's pictures" of the 1950's, as many critics have pointed out, but it is also somewhat similar to the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria which was made a few years earlier. Both films are episodic, both deal with "working girls," although at different levels, both have a sympathetic heroine even though she works in an industry that isn't respected by society at large, both heroines are tricked, or almost tricked, into false marriages, the music scores for both movies are similar, quirky, inspired by American music but with touches distinct for each composer, and finally, and most importantly, both films end with devastating closeups of the heroines' faces backed by musical crescendos, creating two of the most moving endings in film history, and two of the most indelible images. There is even a Ginza bar called Cabiria seen in the background when Mama and her manager visit the establishment they are thinking about buying. Perhaps this was intended as an homage?
At any rate, my only complaint about the video is that the picture quality is imperfect. I recently saw this film on the big screen as part of a Mikio Naruse retrospective playing at a Columbus arts center, and it appeared to have been remastered, the picture quality was pristine, making the film even more lovely and the viewing experience that much more fulfilling. Hopefully this restored print will inspire a DVD release of this little known classic so that its reputation, and impact, will become deservedly more widespread. In the meantime, though, I hope the video only format doesn't deter any potential viewers, because this is truly one of the all-time greats, not only of Japanese cinema but of cinema in general.