Mikio Naruse was famously unhappy with most of his ’40s work, believing that his career did not begin to revive until the release of Ginza Cosmetics in 1951. The late ‘40s were indeed a difficult time in terms of the industry as Naruse’s home studio, Toho, became entrenched in a series of labour disputes which eventually led to the creation of new studio “Shin Toho” (lit. “new Toho”). Naruse meanwhile though sympathetic to the cause kept a low profile working in theatre and thereafter with other studios such as Shochiku which is where he made 1950’s Battle of Roses (薔薇合戦, Bara Kassen) .
Perhaps because of its turbulent production genesis, Battle of Roses is a distinctly unpolished and surprisingly reactionary take on female liberation adapted from a newspaper serial following the lives of three sisters pursuing different paths in the complicated post-war society. The action opens with the death of the husband of the eldest sister, Masago (Kuniko Miyake), who had been the head of cosmetics studio White Lily but is currently under-investigation for large-scale embezzlement of which it appears he is almost certainly guilty. After he dies, Masago inherits the company but is pursued by massive debts to the film’s villain, Mogi (Toru Abe), who is also after the most pure hearted of the sisters, Hinako (Setsuko Wakayama). Masago makes some kind of shady arrangement with her husband’s former associate Kasahara (Eitaro Shindo), pays off the debt, and starts her own rival company Nigera where she is the CEO. Youngest sister Chisuzu (Yoko Katsuragi), meanwhile, also works at Nigera but is a fully modern woman who wants “to be free and know everything about life”, resentful of her sister’s authority and planning to move out into her own apartment where she later begins a “trial” marriage with Ejima (Shiro Osaka), a journalist from Fashion and Films magazine who turns out to be no good at all.
The sisters are each, in a sense, punished for a perceived naivety in the way they pursue their goals, the implication being that they are mere women thrown unprepared into a male world they lack the skills to navigate. This is most obviously true of Masago who is shown to be a surprisingly astute business woman but a bad judge of character while also criticised for wielding her femininity by leveraging her business affairs through Kasahara who nevertheless declares that he wants to keep their business and personal relationships separate which is why the original loan comes with interest. Masago then gives an accountancy job to her inexperienced boyfriend who proves up to it, but also creates tension in the office seeing as she is unwilling to go public about their relationship even after they agree to marry while he remains resentful of Kasahara.
After spotting her with Mogi who continues to pursue her despite her obvious dislike of him, Masago contrives to have Hinako marry a trusted assistant, Hinatsu (Mitsuo Nagata), pushing her into a marriage against her will to prove her sisterly loyalty while Hinako herself has taken a liking to divorced advertising executive Sonoike (Koji Tsuruta) who is the film’s only real “good” man. Hinatsu, however, turns out to be less reliable than Masago thought, resentful that his marriage to Hinako while guaranteeing continued employment has actually adversely affected his career prospects with Masago unwilling to promote him for fear of claims of nepotism. To avoid “ending up like Hinako”, Chisuzu agrees to a weird quasi-marriage with Ejima in which she insists that they live separately so that he won’t “meddle” in her life because “men only want to stay in a superior position”.
Chisuzu is later taken to task for attempting a take a “male” role in terms of her sexual agency, Ejima’s wife (Noriko Sengoku) suddenly turning up with a child on her back to refer to her husband as a “male mistress” and demand money from Chisuzu who has already been guilted into handing over vast sums to Ejima to prove her love. Ejima later threatens to blackmail the whole family with a tell all book detailing what he’s learned about the “immoral” lives of the three sisters behind Nigera cosmetics. Meanwhile, Hinako’s marriage has also gone south the extent that Hinatsu eventually tries to steam her to death by locking her in the bathroom and stoking up the fire only to think better of it in the nick of time, causing her a miscarriage and landing her in the hospital for three months during which Sonoike continues to send her flowers while Hinatsu struggles to understand why she might not want to accompany him on the job transfer he is forced to accept after he’s discovered to have committed fraud while having an affair with a woman from sales.
Hinako is punished, essentially, for excessive womanliness in trying to make everyone happy by suppressing her own feelings, rejecting her agency in deference to her sister who is punished for being too “manly” in business while Chisuzu is punished for being sexually liberated and behaving “like a man” in terms of her desire to maintain romantic independence. Sonoike’s ex-wife is seemingly punished for the same thing, desperately trying to win her husband back after cheating on him but is rejected for her transgression in her foolishness at being taken in by a faithless man. The sisters are forced to acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made, making a fresh start with more humble ambitions pushed back towards the feminine norms, e.g. a “small shop” for Masago rather than a big company while Chisuzu returns “home”. Only Hinako is given the possibility of a more positive future in seizing her own agency to follow her heart’s desire, ending her marriage to the adulterous Hinatsu and perhaps finally entering a romance with the patient Sonoike. Somewhat different in style from typical Naruse with its shorter scenes echoing fast paced city life, inelegant cuts and abrupt scene transitions, Battle of Roses lands less as a condemnation of male manipulation and duplicity than a subtle implication that women aren’t equipped for independence and are best defended by “good” men, Sonoike on hand to sort out each of the women’s problems with rational calm, even while offering the sisters the possibility of starting over once the storm has passed.