Step by Step: Hideko Takamine in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs


May 21, 2021

She cannot be paused on the screen of my mind. Faces like Dietrich’s and Hara’s demand a step back and around, to examine them in their stillness as if they were sculptures. But looking at Hideko Takamine—“My face is just circle, circle, circle,” she used to say—you get the sense that she will bite you, ungently, if you try to place her in an exhibit. A long time ago, a boyfriend gave me a framed photograph of her. I don’t have it anymore. Behind glass, she was just another girl. But when Takamine moved on-screen, she made you see how some things can’t be caught in a still: a hesitation, a second wind, a tremor, the fever of a body contemplating whether to stay or to go.

“I’ve been an actress for a hundred years,” Takamine wrote in 1954, when she was thirty. “Photographers took every face I could call my own. Look, I no longer have a face.” I think about that last sentence whenever I watch any of the seventeen films she made with the director Mikio Naruse, most of which feature postwar women fighting for a sense of self at the brink of destitution. Some stars make you want to slip on their style—buy a dress, cut a pose. Look, I no longer have a face. Takamine makes me check myself in the bathroom afterward, to see if I too have lost my face.

As a young girl, I’d watch her and hear the titles of Naruse’s films as I fell asleep: Lightning, Yearning, Flowing, Floating Clouds. Which brings me to my teenage notes, from my first viewing of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Exclamation marks in pencil. More exclamation marks around the name Takamine. Then: “What is going on with Naruse and feet?”

Before we get to the feet, let’s first talk about the life. Hideko Takamine was a child star who began acting when she was four years old (“Was I cute?” Takamine asked Naruse. “No, you were precocious,” he answered. “Annoying”). She started her career as Japan’s Shirley Temple and ended it as an immortal. No writer was better on Takamine than herself. “I was in nearly seven hundred and fifty films,” she wrote in one of her nineteen essay collections, “most of them unpreserved. But I tell foreign reporters that I was in a hundred, so that they can let themselves believe me.” In her memoirs, she writes about working so hard to feed her family that she ran from set to set “forgetting the color of daylight.” She observes the fraught matter-of-factly, as though she grasped early on that to make things interesting was to keep things moving. Even her own name wasn’t hers, she writes (it had been her adopted mother’s stage name). You can almost hear her toss back her curls and laugh: Look, I no longer have a name.

Reading Takamine is sometimes like walking through a cinephile’s Epcot, guided by a solemn, impish girl who was both its ward and warden for much of the twentieth century. “Cheap row houses, clutter, ramen, drab, depressing men and women, and always a wandering musical troupe. No murders,” she writes: “That was Naruse World.” We walk a few steps further, and she observes: “Imported liquor on the shelves, research paper mountaining on the floor, canned goods, pipes, ashtrays, Lipton tea, teacups, tea instruments tumbling about on his worktable. That was Ozu World.”

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