Screening Report: CARMEN COMES HOME (1951) at Film Society of Lincoln Center

Tonight, the Film Society of Lincoln Center kicked off a nine-day, fifteen-film retrospective of the work of Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita (1912-1998) with a screening of CARMEN COMES HOME (1951, aka KARMEN KYOKO NE KAERU) at the Howard Gilman Theater. The film has been digitally restored by the Imagica Corporation, and was projected in DCP, with support from the Japan Foundation.

The first Japanese feature ever shot in color, CARMEN is a wonderfully odd hybrid of shomin-geki (common people’s drama) and the sort of bright and bubbly musicals MGM was churning out under producer Arthur Freed. Hideko Takamine is Aoyama Kin, a Tokyo “dancer” who hops off the train in a bright red dress and turns the rural village of her birth upside down. Much to the dismay of her farmer father Shoichi (Takeshi Sakamoto), the former runaway now known as “Lily Carmen” and her gum-snapping friend Akemi (Toshiko Kobayashi) charm the town with their flamboyant fashions and big city attitudes, but there’s a heart of gold under the chain-smoking bravado.

“If only you could see me now,” Carmen boasts to childhood crush Haruo Taguchi (Shuji Sano), who was blinded in battle in World War II. “I’m so beautiful.”

Ouch. But the quiet heroism of her former teacher’s life unexpectedly touches Carmen, just as her self-centered vapidity reminds Haruo how lucky he is to have a wife (Kuniko Igawa) who supports and loves him unconditionally. After being welcomed as a returning celebrity, Carmen decides to stage a burlesque show – ostensibly to make some cash off the local rubes, but secretly to help support her long-suffering father.

“I’d rather look at horses and pigs,” Shoichi protests, but he relents when Carmen hands over the proceeds of her prurient performance.

“It may be dirty money, but my girl earned it,” he says, donating the cash to the principal of the village school. “And, if you make good use of it, it will be worth it.”

With some greasing from Carmen, money-lender Maruju (Bontaro Miake) returns Haruo’s repossessed piano to the school. He accompanies the school kids in a solemn song about their beloved village in the shadow of the mighty Mount Asama, as Carmen and Akemi board the train back to the city, giggling and singing all the way.

Produced by the Shochiku Company and originally released in the United States in 1959, CARMEN COMES HOME is a delightful musical comedy with some deeply powerful undertones. Like many Japanese films of this era, the ghosts of war haunt this otherwise light-hearted farce, providing a gravitas you might not find in an American fish-out-of-water story. Hideko Takamine, the former child actor who went on to star in twelve films for legendary director Mikio Naruse, gives a nuanced performance as Carmen, a character who grows from shallow and silly to deeply sympathetic in 86 minutes. Kinoshita’s

CARMEN COMES HOME was filmed in Eastman Color the year Eastman Kodak first introduced the 35 mm color motion picture negative film for commercial use, and it looks stunning. While it doesn’t have the wow factor of three-strip Technicolor, the color is rich and vibrant and the DCP print looked flawless, save for what appeared to be occasional video stuttering.

If you enjoyed the Film Society’s tribute to Nikkatsu during the 2011 New York Film Festival, or if you think Japanese movies only involve giant monsters destroying Tokyo, I encourage you to check out this series.

For more information on the Films of Keisuke Kinoshita, click here. 

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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