Carmen Comes Home, 1951

Perhaps it is postwar filmmaker’s Keisuke Kinoshita’s reputation as a director of old-fashioned, “women’s pictures” coupled with his penchant for depicting simple, uncorrupted innocence that have rendered his work (particularly with the advent of the Japanese New Wave) vulnerable to criticisms of outmoded sentimentality. However, while these generalizations are rooted in the intrinsic elements of unabashed compassion and idealism that pervade his films, such cursory observations fail to adequately capture the irreverence, incisive social commentary, and profound humanity that also shape his work. This seemingly disparate fusion of effervescent comedy and subversive satire is particularly evident in Carmen Comes Home, the first all-color Japanese feature film (although an alternate, black and white version was simultaneously filmed). Made under nebulous instructions to shoot as many outdoor sequences as possible because of the then-unknown properties of the new medium, the film follows the misadventures of a dim-witted, self-described artist – and in reality, a burlesque dancer – from Tokyo named Okin (Hideko Takamine) who goes by the stage name Lily Carmen, and her equally oblivious colleague Maja Akemi (Toshiko Kobayashi) as they descend upon Okin’s unsuspecting rural hometown on the foothills of Mount Asama for a self-instigated, attention-seeking homecoming celebration after achieving some measure of success in the big city with their popular striptease act.

Taking a cue from his mentor Yasujiro Shimazu, a master of the shomin-geki (for whom he served as cinematographer), Kinoshita introduces a finely rendered ensemble cast of characters to create a rich portrait of everyday life in the insular community: a blinded veteran and former music teacher Taguchi (Shuji Sano) who bides time in the school yard waiting for an opportunity to practice his elegiac compositions on the school’s harmonium; Taguchi’s self-sacrificing wife Mitsuko (Kuniko Ikawa) who ekes out a living as a hired cart driver to support her family; Okin’s tormented father Shoichi (Takeshi Sakamoto) who struggles with contradicting feelings of love, responsibility, pity, and humiliation at his daughter’s outrageous conduct and demeaning livelihood; Okin’s sister Yuki (Yûko Mochizuki) who strives to bring about a reconciliation between estranged father and prodigal daughter (perhaps, in part, because of the financial support Okin’s dubious career provides); the aging, well-intentioned schoolmaster (Chishu Ryu) who tries to bring progressive ideas to the isolated village even as he betrays a penchant for the nostalgia of fading, old world culture (and perhaps feels overwhelmed by the rapid transformation of his country); a moneylender and businessman named Maruju (Bontarô Miyake) who is quick to exploit the town’s gullibility and the curious spectacle surrounding Okin’s sensationalized homecoming. But beyond the seeming recipe for trite melodrama or facile “fish out of water” comedy as the flamboyant and interminably cheerful pair of transplanted city women attempt to assimilate into the bucolic, traditional life of the country, Carmen Comes Home is also a wry allegorical for the cost of Japan’s postwar recovery.

Filmed in 1952 at the end of American occupation, Kinoshita presents a thoughtful, humorous, and (still) relevant commentary on the legacy of cultural imperialism enabled by the Occupation. Within this framework, the tongue-in-cheek characterization of a naïve, scatterbrained heroine (whose near death childhood injuries from a cow kick may have led to her simplemindedness) serves as an acerbic metaphor for the nation’s collective amnesia in the aftermath of the Pacific War, where opportunism, exploitation, and suppression of indigenous identity represent the inevitable compromise and cultural toll of the country’s movement toward national recovery, modernization, and international re-emergence. Moreover, it is through this cultural context that Okin’s assumed foreign stage name of Lily Carmen may be seen, not as a naïve young woman’s flighty notions of artistic exoticism to complement a “modern dance” act, but rather, as a subconscious erasure of identity – and implicitly, nationality – the denial of one’s native roots from the rural province (from the country) in order to prosper in the modern (and increasingly vulgarized) world. (Note the especially subversive, tongue-in-cheek image of the children competing to break a plain white colored, piñata-like vessel that is filmed such that the foregrounded object visually recedes relative to the brightly colored international flags that line the playground, giving the appearance that the children are throwing play rocks at the flags themselves.) It is this conflicting, unreconciled sentiment of resentment and gratitude, affection and alienation that inevitably suffuses the seemingly lighthearted, whimsical tone of the film with a palpable, bittersweet melancholy: the critical portrait of a wounded nation at a crossroads, struggling to preserve its indigenous cultural identity even as it re-evaluates its isolated, self-destructive history in the wake of humiliation, gaudy imitation, and marginalization.

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