Monday, August 31, 2015

Japan Society Monthly Classic: Carmen Comes Home

It will be a clash of small town and big city values—and boy, will the small town enjoy it. The prodigal daughter once known as Kin Aoyama apparently found fame and fortune dancing in Tokyo under the name Lily Carmen. She is an artiste, but her art involves G-strings. That does not mean she and her comrade Maya Akemi can’t be scrupulously serious about their dance. They are indomitably upbeat, but their visit might be more than her staid father can handle in Keisuke Kinoshita’s big screen musical Carmen Comes Home (trailers here), the very first Japanese color feature, which screens this Friday at the Japan Society, as part of their newly re-launched Monthly Classics series.

Even if Carmen/Aoyama has not amassed a fortune per se, she has made enough of a go of it to periodically send money and gifts home to her family. Her loyal sister Yuki is in awe of her, but old man Shoichi Aoyama instinctively distrusts the modern western influences she has no doubt absorbed. However, thanks to the intercession of the school principal, an ardent advocate for Japanese culture, he reluctantly consents to her visit. Nobody could miss Lily Carmen when she arrives. She is the one wearing the bright red dress. Clearly, Kinoshita was going to get his color film’s worth from the wardrobe and spectacular mountain scenery.

Naturally, Carmen and Akemi attract all kinds of attention in town, including the leering local mogul. Yet, the two women are more drawn to more plebeian townsmen, like the young school teacher Akemi impulsively falls for. Similarly, Carmen admits she still carries a torch for the now married Haruo Taguchi, who was blinded during the war. As the composer of dirge like odes to his small town, Taguchi is more in line with the Principal’s idea of a real Japanese artist. Unfortunately, Carmen and Akemi’s va-va-voom will inadvertently disrupt Haruo’s grand premiere performance, causing no end of angst.

Hideko Takamine was one the greatest screen actresses in the history of cinema, but she is best known for achingly tragic films like Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Yearning, as well as Kobayshi’s The Human Condition, so it is nice to see her get the chance to kick up her heels a little. She is utterly charming as the bizarrely naïve Lily Carmen. Yet, underneath the goofy joy, she gives the subtlest hints of sadness. Nobody else could have pulled that off.

In a way, Carmen Comes Home is like a cross between Oklahoma and Gypsy, with all their slow or maudlin parts discarded. Still, it is clear Carmen and Akemi can never really go home again. The men will only see them as sex objects and the women will fear them as rivals. Despite their pluck and verve, it is ultimately quite a bittersweet film, but that is what makes it so distinctive, along with Takamine’s endearing performance. Recommended for fans of Takamine and movie musicals, the freshly restored Carmen Comes Home screens this Friday (9/4) and look for Go Takamine’s Paradise View in early October (10/2), as part of the Japan Society’s Monthly Classics series.