J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Jazz Score: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Many Hollywood film composers experimented with jazz elements, including figures represented in MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective, like Alex North, Henry Mancini, and Elmer Bernstein. Though celebrated as a leading figure of Japanese classical and electronic music, Toshirô Mayuzumi composed several jazz-influenced soundtracks, including Black Sun, a collaboration with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and Mikio Naruse’s Criterion Collection worthy When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, screening this week as part of Jazz Score.

Featuring xylophone and piano, Mayuzumi’s score has a chamber jazz vibe that brings to mind the film work of the MJQ’s John Lewis. His xylophone passages bear a similarity to Lewis’s use of Milt Jackson’s vibraphone, and both composers partially shared a classical aesthetic. How well Mayuzumi’s Ascend would stand on its own remains an open question, but his themes hauntingly enhance the on-screen drama, which is considerable in Ascend (the trailer here is not particularly representative of the soundtrack).

Ascend takes its title from the walk Keiko must make every night up to her job as a hostess at a Ginza bar. Keiko, or Mama-san, ranks hostesses in the following terms: the best go home each night by car, the not so good must walk home, whereas the worst go home with clients. Not everyone in her line of work concurs with her hierarchy though, making it impossible for her to get ahead while simultaneously maintaining her integrity.

Stress is literally tearing Keiko apart. As a hostess, she must maintain the clothes and trappings of luxury, or risk deflating her clients’ idealized fantasies. At the same time, she must support an ungrateful mother, an idiot brother, and a nephew in need of treatment for polio. To play the game, she could take a “patron” (read: sugar-daddy), but she refuses out of principle and love for her late husband. Keiko is filled with past regrets, wishing she had treated her husband better while he was alive, so now refuses to do anything she might later repent. Yet, in her situation, she is nearly doomed to failure, as she takes the stairs up to the Carton Bar each night.

Hideko Takamine’s performance as Keiko is heartbreaking, vividly portraying the desperation barely contained beneath her carefully controlled, beautiful exterior. Naruse leaves little doubt the world of Ginza is not fair, particularly to a woman as sensitive as Keiko. Tragic and naturalistic, Ascend has a sad beauty, effectively amplified by Mayuzumi’s score, making it a nice addition to MoMA Jazz Score series. It screens at MoMA this Friday and also July3 at Film Forum as part of a Tatsuya Nakadai retrospective.

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