Bara kassen / Battle of Roses (1950)

4 08 2013

Who’s to say there was anything wrong with Mikio Naruse in 1950, but his output from this year presents a major stylistic difference from the rest of his work in the decade. He’s still working in the same thematic territory here, but the results feel like American B-pictures. That’s not to say they are bad or look cheap, but instead that they match the sensationalist tone of such a picture. The content in films like this one and White Beast fits the presentation, but the result ends up feeling a little cheap. These films are Naruse at his loudest, but also his sloppiest. They’re perversely entertaining when viewed, but lacking in the power of his best films.

1

Satomi’s husband dies while his cosmetics company is in the middle of a embezzlement investigation. Satomi inherits the company, but quickly loses it due to her husband’s debts. She joins a rival company and finds herself in charge. Meanwhile, her younger sisters, Hinako and Chisuzu, continue to struggle with their love lives. Hinako is blackmailed into marrying Satomi’s rival, which Satomi sees as an act of rebellion. Chisuzu, the youngest of the three, is star-struck and becomes infatuated with a local pimp because of his ties to the film industry.

2

Having to write a plot synopsis for this film is quite a headache, the exposition is plentiful and Naruse moves it along very quickly. Even if he were to pad things out, the story would still be frustrating simply because it is too much. It’s amusing, to me at least, that someone could accuse a more typical Naruse film of being boring on the grounds that the plot is too thin. Here, we have too much plot and film begins to feel like something of a chore. Perhaps, to the film’s benefit, it begins to resemble a conventional Hollywood melodrama, complete with sharp musical cues and ellipses that skip the “boring” parts.

3

I still find something very vital in Naruse’s films from 1950. They’re not great, and probably not even good, but they introduce a different presentation of his themes. This film in particular (paired with White Beast) represents the subtext of Naruse’s world being presented as text. In reality, these characters are too thin and simple to be the subjects of the filmmaker’s detailed portraits. Instead, they act out the ideology that is hinted at in better films. For example, one of the sisters has a particularly frank discussion with her boyfriend about the patriarchy and another talks about her sexual agency.

4

This all sounds really exciting to read, and it’s absolutely joyous to watch but the film never elevates itself beyond these moments where the performers seem to become mouth pieces. It’s a pretty classic example of showing compared to telling, the women here are telling about their oppression but the showing feels less like pathos and more like the narrative mechanics of a melodrama. It’s not that one will struggle to feel for the sisters, it’s that one will struggle to believe in their reality. To his credit, Naruse tries, but the film’s origins as a newspaper serial (written by a man) are highly visible. It’s another curiosity for Naruse fans and even non-fans might be charmed by it’s slickness, but it feels a little hollow.

5

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