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Carmen Comes Home

Posted by martinteller on September 27, 2014

Yuki (Yûko Mochizuki) has just received a letter from her sister Kin (Hideko Takamine), who ran off to Tokyo to pursue a dancing career.  It seems that Kin — now known as “Lily Carmen” — wants to return to her mountainside village, but her father Shoichi (Takeshi Sakamoto) is still reeling from her abrupt departure.  Yuki has her husband Ichiro (Akio Isono), a teacher at the village school, talk to the principal (Chishû Ryû), who convinces Shoichi to open his heart and his home, and that furthermore it would be culturally beneficial to the village to have a successful and admired artist in their midst.  Carmen arrives, with flirtatious friend Maya Akemi (Toshiko Kobayashi) at her side.  While Maya tries to seduce teacher Mr. Ogawa (Keiji Sada), the townspeople are amused by the pair’s city fashions and attitudes.  When it becomes obvious that Carmen and Maya’s dancing is actually striptease, Shoichi is torn before shame and concern for his daughter… but local mogul Maruju (Bontarô Miake) sees an opportunity for profit.

This is an unusual film in many ways.  It is notable for being Japan’s first color film.  Perhaps because the equipment was heavier, there seems to be a little shakiness in some of the camera movement, but the screen pops with the colorful garb of the Tokyo gals against the lush green hillside.  The opening credits, featuring childlike illustrations of scenes to come, suggest a storybook feel, perhaps heralding a new, more charming form of cinema.  The film is also something of a musical, a genre that we Westerners rarely see from Japan.  Characters break into song, although it’s done a very naturalistic way.

What makes the movie more odd is that for much of the running time, it’s hard to figure out where director Keisuke Kinoshita’s sympathies lie.  Are Carmen and Maya corrupt, or perhaps too naïve?  Are the villagers a pack of rubes?  Is Shoichi (and later the principal) too stuffy and close-minded?  When the girls speak of their “art”, are we meant to applaud their feminist slant on their career, or snicker at their pretention and/or cluelessness?  For much of the film, everyone is simultaneously held dear and made the butt of the joke.  Eventually, however, the film settles into a clearly conservative viewpoint, making Shoichi the victim of profound shame and the principal the lone warrior against big city corruption and smut.  Another hero emerges in the figure of Haruo Taguchi (Shûji Sano).  Haruo, a composer made blind by the war, suffers when Maruju confiscates his organ over an unpaid debt, leaving Haruo’s wife Mitsuko (Kuniko Igawa) to be the sole breadwinner.  The idea of demonizing greedy moneylenders is okay with me… demonizing women who choose to strip for a living (and are most likely exploited by men along the way) doesn’t sit well.

And yet, the movie is also kind to the women, at least to some degree.  We never really get a sense of Carmen’s viewpoint, but at times the film seems to side with her.  It’s a frustrating cognitive dissonance, and you can’t tell if the film is progressive for its time or stuck in a conservative, narrow-minded rut.  I can’t help wishing the story was more about Carmen (for one thing, Takamine is always a terrific actress) and less about everyone’s reaction to her.  On the plus side, the photography is beautiful, the songs are very nice, and there are a few excellent moments.  One of the most effective is when Haruo is performing one of his songs (a sentimental ode to the village) at a school festival, and Maya’s garment suddenly falls off, causing the crowd to erupt in laughter.  Haruo’s humiliation and Carmen’s anger at her friend are both pulled off very well.  Kinoshita needs more of these sympathetic moments without a nagging sense of judgment.

There was a sequel the following year, the black and white Carmen Falls in Love.  I have been interested in seeing more by Kinoshita, still hoping for something on the level of Twenty-Four Eyes, but I think I’ll give that one a pass.  Rating: Fair (61)


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