This is unfair. It is true even if we do not agree with its assumptions; for even in real life there are women who are young, pretty and impossibly successful. Such sweet cupcakes! Red petals on a yellow fluffy bed. We watch as dainty fingers cradle little baskets of corrugated paper; and look on as an index finger tickles a red-tipped rim. They seem too nice to eat. The girls can’t decide… So lovely! They laugh. And giggle and flirt with the shop owner, who asks if he may photograph them. He says, whilst mimicking the gesture, slowly open your hands and smile down at your opening palms. It is his turn to chuckle now. He compares them to lotus flowers on lily pads. The girls shout and quiver with uncontainable laughter, and scoff-up his metaphor with their hilarity. We leave them to his crumbs.
There are many wonderful shots in this film. Let us describe one. A grey-green car is parked at the bottom left-hand edge of a very wide widescreen; all of the bonnet and a slice of window point up towards the sky in the direction of a tall building, which stands on the extreme right, a great expanse of emptiness between them. This image is very simple and quietly stark. The colours - mostly light greens, blues and khaki - are restrained and harmonious, and are suggestive of a civilisation where civility and modesty are as natural as breathing; and where beauty isn't so much advertised as inadvertently revealed; the rich, when properly cultivated, producing beautiful and well-mannered people like a skilled potter exquisite vases.
Success (not quite equivalent to wealth) can be aesthetically pleasing too. We want to be successful for the joy it gives us, as well as for the lovely things it can buy.
The car belongs to Akie. There are times when she appears connected to it by an umbilical cord. Two examples will suffice. She drives into the film. She drives out of it at the end; the last scene providing this movie with its title - A Woman’s Uphill Slope. She is leaving her audience behind to drive up the long main street towards a lonely but glittering career. This car is a symbol both of her will and of her destiny: Akie is the successful entrepreneur who rejects the conventional role of women to embrace her own independence. The moment that her fate is revealed is one of incredible beauty that also contains a clumsy error, which we fail to pretend is a (stylistic) comment on materialism (our leftwing past refusing to leave us be).
Akie is young and very modern. She is the only woman who doesn’t wear a kimono: incredibly she wears jumpers and slacks – she is an American in Kyoto. She is extremely attractive and full of energy, and inherits a famous firm, known for its manufacture of traditional sweets. However, Akie is not interested in this product; and when she does visit the business she finds it closed-up and run down. It is old and out of date, and cannot, it seems, be resurrected. And anyway: she tends always to follow her own inclinations - she wants to use the premises to manufacture textiles. She even goes to college to learn the trade.1 Everything will be new! in this city of ancient traditions. Akie, we must not forget, has arrived from Tokyo, the centre of Japanese modernity (and American influence). A 20th century spirit has come to shake-out this conservative town.
There is something extraordinarily attractive about the heroine, and it suggests something of Japan’s (and Britain’s and Europe’s) love affair with America in the 1950s. During that decade there was something disarmingly innocent and charming about the United States; and we not only worshipped at the shrines of its success,2 but we also believed in its propaganda about liberty and progress.3 We were all Americans then! Indeed, we were more American than the Americans. This film capturing those early beliefs and illusions even better than Hollywood itself; a place that while helping to create these fantasies was all too aware of the aggressive and ugly reality, which it would expose from time to time.4
So American! But not totally. Akie is not a shallow cross-cultural imitation of the real thing. Inside our heroine there is much of her mother’s personality; a woman who after a short bohemian life has resigned herself to a respectable marriage. Forced to give up her affair with an artist she married an innkeeper to live a comfortable but dull existence that does not fulfil her. Although she cannot quite resign herself to this life, and still clings to the dream of her former love, hoping to revive it when the opportunity occurs. But it is only a dream, as we shall see, and has no animating power to change her circumstances. Her destiny has already been decided. Defeated by society her rebellion exists only in the past, although her spirit remains alive, turning in on itself rather than fighting against her environment, which she now accepts too easily. Akie shares this same nonconformist spirit. She will also share the same lover; an artist whose attractions suggest something more than the desire for a handsome face and a vigorous groin - his artistic talent appeals to their aesthetic sensibilities. These are women who are more refined than the petty commercialism that rules their home. All of which is brought out in an interesting way.
The old master sweet-maker, angry at those staff leaving a company they believe is in decline, loses his temper and accidentally kills an employees during a fight. He is sent to prison. It is the end of the firm; for only he knows the secret ingredients. Thus when Akie arrives at the complex (it is both workshop and home) that she has (controversially) inherited there is no business left to save. Indeed, the whole place, which includes extensive living quarters, is empty. Only an old servant remains, who shows her around at night with a lantern. These are odd but beautiful scenes: a young woman, essentially alone in the darkness, is peering into a past that has ceased to exist. Entering one room she sees a strange melody of colours projected onto the closed blinds. It looks otherworldly… Confused, possibly frightened, but curious, she walks across to the window and peers out between the slats. It is an illuminated tower; its neon lights advertising both itself and other goods. Modernity is being broadcast onto this old building. And refracted through the decaying past it looks strange and beautifully attractive.
The sweet-maker is released. In retrospect this is a key scene, and it is filmed majestically: Akie accompanying him to a waiting car walks between two very high walls, all the vivid colour centred upon herself.5 But whom, we will quickly ask ourselves, is leading whom out of prison.6
Akie has already decided to close the business. However, she is attracted to the enthusiasm and charisma of the sweet-maker, who asks her if she has ever eaten the famous Kyoshigure sweets. When she replies in the negative he persuades her to allow him to make a few - just for herself. She agrees. And looks on at the performance of an old craft; fascinated by his skill she is attracted to the beauty of the process; and falls in love with the exquisite packaging; the slow burn of the taste – the longer it lasts the better it gets - seducing her in the end. This business is too beautiful to give up! Akie decides to re-open it, and brings all her modern dynamism to bear on its functioning. Very quickly she is a success. She has charm, beauty, and intelligence, and lots and lots of energy. She is also full of ideas: she starts to invent new kinds of sweets… The sweet-maker approves. Like all true artists he is attracted not to the forms of tradition as such but to their potential to create new things. Akie is of a similar mind. She wants sweets that are well-made and beautiful, and original. She inspires him! He predicts that she will be the best confectioner in Japan.
She has confounded her rival, a distant relative who believed that his family line should have inherited the business, and who thought that a young woman would be incapable of running it. But he has no spark, and is stuck to the old ways – he will remain moderately wealthy but he will not be a star capitalist like Akie. This is symbolised by his clothes, which are very important symbols in this film: he always wears a kimono.
Men are depicted very interestingly in this film. With the exception of the sweet-maker (and the staff he enthuses) the men lack originality and drive. Even when wearing modern clothes they still seem fixed to a past that is leaving them behind; thus the public official who won’t risk marrying his partner, or the friend who only makes traditional pots. Even Akie’s lover, the artist, is too contented with his comfortable life to change it significantly. His conservatism is symbolised by his craft: for his block prints he visits Kyoto, the most traditional of places, to draw its Geisha girls, the most traditional of all Japanese professions. It is here that Yoshimura makes a minor mistake - the symbol is so obvious its meaning shouldn't be made explicit. Strangely for a film that is dominated by beautiful and meaningful imagery the director for once is unable to trust his own pictures. It is a minor glitch. Nothing to worry about.
Yaoi is attractive. He is charming. He has talent. He is also come to stay for a while in Akie’s house. She inevitably falls in love with him, and is slowly transformed into a more passive and traditional woman; a change depicted through her changing clothes: trousers are replaced by a skirt, which is exchanged for a dress whose designs are more Japanese than Western; the transformation complete when she wears a kimono. Now she looks like an old-fashioned Japanese beauty in a scene illuminated by moonlight.
Yaoi was her mother’s lover. After all these years she is still in love with him. Indeed, it is she that recommends he stay with Akie while he sketches the Geishas. Does her love blind her to reality, and the probability that he will fall for her daughter? Or, believing he still reciprocates her feelings, does she expect to meet him there? This seems the most probable explanation. Nevertheless, it is an odd interlude, full of unresolved matters that add a layer of unexplained depth to the film – we are not going to be told everything about these characters.
Akie and Yaoi have an affair. When her mother finds out she breaks down – her daughter has stolen her dream.
Here is yet another woman whose hopes have been destroyed by the men they love. So much of their happiness depends upon lovers and husbands over whom they have little control. For one friend the dream is of an idyllic honeymoon full of sweet feelings and vigorous sex. For another it is the emotional security of marriage. The former seems happy, but has lost her independence, which is symbolised by her marriage ceremony, where the bride is decorated in traditional Japanese style. The latter friend, who always wears a kimono, is not so lucky. Her boyfriend refuses to marry because of his family’s displeasure at the relationship. The only way they can be together is to die in a suicide pact. Independence here means extinction.
The message is clear: love is dangerous, especially for a woman. It either forces them to submit to their environment, which in Kyoto means acquiescing to a traditional way of life, or they have to rebel against it, which results in almost certain defeat; with death a real possibility. Akie too is lost to love, and is prepared to sacrifice her liberty for her lover - there are no half measures with this woman! Luckily Yaoi lacks her strength of will. Nor does he have her independence: he is prepared to sacrifice his love to an unhappy compromise, just as he did with her mother - he wants both Akie and his family. He wants it all. He wants freedom and security.
It is a moment of supreme vulnerability for our heroine. To submit to love? To rise above it? This is the choice she has to make. Akie is a tremendous character with an immense will which is suffused with profound feeling. She is just the kind of person a love affair can destroy. Faced with this dilemma Akie pleads to the moon in full Japanese costume. And then she utters the clumsy line: “I will become the greatest confectioner in Japan”. It sounds comical, and feels out of place, although it does express the naivety of her young soul. It is just the kind of thing a young person struggling to control her feelings might say. True to life then? Yes, in retrospect, I believe it is; though it is not true to art - we think of the slogans of Socialist Realism and the cliches of American adverts. Never mind. All powerful people have a touch of the caricature about them (always they are too self-consciously themselves), so we forgive her, and struggle to forget…
This is the moment when she seems about to fall; and return to the old ways of her mother. But Akie is no ordinary person. By an act of will she overcomes her love; she refuses to submit to a shoddy compromise and so rejects Yaoi. She puts on her jumper and trousers, and returns to the business, which had slackened without her energetic presence. Of course she revives it again. Everything once more speeds up! In our last sighting of Akie she drives up a long incline, delivering sweets to her customers. Wracked with the pain of love she is strong enough to master she will, we are sure, one day drive all the way to Tokyo.
Review: A Woman’s Uphill Slope (Onna no saka)
1. This is in fact a quite complex statement. After the war the expectation of the Americans was that Japan would develop its comparative advantage in cheap textiles. The Japanese state rejected this idea, and developed an ambitious programme of managed development into high value industrial products – cars, ships, later electronics etc. This decision is reflected in the film. Her rival wants to own the Kyoshigure business to sell his own lower quality sweets under its name; thus acquiring the kudos without the quality. He wants to take the easy way out.
2. It is no accident that the car features so prominently in this movie – Akie’s less successful mother tends to travel by train.
3. This is nicely caught in Herman's conversation with Kathrin in Die Zweite Heimat.
4. Brilliantly captured by Vicente Minnelli. See in particular The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town.
5. One of the many attractions of this film is the restrained use of colour, against which the red jumper and black trousers of Akie stand out in all their modern glory.
6. Do I need to be explicit? I do? You think that, perhaps, I do know what I say? Ok. The prison of the past: the old sweet-maker. The prison of the present: young Akie. The shop owner likes this explanation, and taps me on the shoulder in what I assume is a friendly gesture.