With its instance on being lighthearted and charming, it’s difficult for one to critically evaluate Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home without sounding like a kill joy. It’s a gloriously photographed film, Japan’s first in color, but the novelty of the photography eventually weighs on the actual content. While I frequently criticize Kinoshita for forcing the pathos in his films, he doesn’t even bother to try here in this film. There’s the same, drippy melodramatic tearjearker touches one comes to expect from him, but the tone of the experience is too jovial for that to make the film feel particularly overwrought. Instead, the probably here lies in his complete lack of interest in his characters. His ambition is not nearly as great as it is in a film like Twenty-four Eyes, but the result feels similarly empty.
Lily Carmen is a famous dancer in Tokyo. However, the locals in her hometown recall fondly her days as a youth. Her father, who experiences some difficulty walking, is ashamed of his daughter’s profession. The fact that she’s never returned home is preferable to him, as he shows no interest in ever confronting her about what he understands to be a dirty profession. Carmen and her friend, Akemi Maya arrive in the village to much fanfare. However, Carmen’s father is still resistant to speaking with her. He intentionally hides whenever the two girls gleefully announce their presence. Upset with his refusal to listen to her, Carmen and Maya decide to put on a show for the entire village. They do it in the name of the art of dancing, but the villagers are attracted by the potential for nudity.
Kinoshita’s script paints with rather broad strokes, establishing a binary immediately between rural and urban life. To his credit, we never see Carmen and Maya’s life in Tokyo so all of this characterization of city life might be a inward critique of the small village’s own ignorance of it. On the other hand, that would be giving Kinoshita too much credit when he continually sympathizes and places himself with the perspective of the villagers. It’s the same characterization made in Murnau’s Sunrise. The city and its materialism represents evil and decadence. The rural village is return to the simple, idyllic life that we should aspire towards. To Murnau’s credit, he critiqued this himself in his own film, City Girl, which paints both spaces as having their strengths and weaknesses. The reality comes in what you yourself do with the space your given, which sounds like some neoliberal “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” rhetoric, but it’s not. To be more blunt, this type of binary isn’t exactly false (farm life is different from city life, sure) but it is instead represented in such a one-dimensional way that it becomes characterization tools for the actual characters in the film.
There is an awful lot to like in the titular character, Lily Carmen. Of course, Hideko Takamine is fantastic in a role that requires her to channel a bubbly personality, one that would seem to be the antithesis to the women she played in most of Mikio Naruse’s films. One important similarity would be the connection of sexwork, always at least happening on the periphery in Naruse’s world, if not in the center. Naruse’ stoic, broken (physically and mentally), and sad women immediately register as worthy of our attention and sympathy. Carmen, however, is constantly trying to earn this and its because Kinoshita’s script limits her in some sort of obstacle course that seems designed with the intention to only see her fall and have us laugh at the conceited big city girl. She repeatedly refers to her work as a dancer as art but that word is greeted with only smirks and giggles by the men of the village, all of whom’s condescension Kinoshita aligns with. Like the men of the village, he sees this art as merely smut and Maya and Carmen as victims of a society that thrives off of such work. Any pride they take in their profession is unmasked and pulled out to the center of a horny public who classifies their pride as stupid.
In the end, Carmen and Maya do put on a show for the village and yes, they willingly display their bodies in a crowded makeshift theater. This final act doesn’t really tie things up. Carmen’s father accepts the money made from his daughter, but he still sees it as tainted. The blind music teacher who Carmen once loved gets back his accordion because the new owner, still drunk from the show, gives it away in an act of good will via personal intoxication. Most importantly, Carmen and Maya control their show, controlled their sexuality, and can now happily return to their normal lives in the city. It all feels a bit too cute, especially when the consequences are kind of amazing. Carmen’s father still sort of hates her, and Kinoshita glossing over this detail is weirdly poignant. Also, Carmen’s lyrics celebrating the “dapper man beside me” are matched visually with only her female best friend. It could be a celebration of personal independence in a world whose foundation is in heterosexual coupling.
The conclusion still feels cheap and unearned, if not uninteresting. Maybe there is something feminist about Kinoshita’s discourse here, but the conclusion is only reached through the most simplistic and contrived of manners that I hesitate to connect with his work as truly revolutionary, or hell, even interesting. He provides an intriguing narrative for his protagonist, but there’s not enough of her. Instead, the film ends with a weirdly fascist sentiment, celebrating the blind Mr. Taguchi as the model Japanese citizen, because of his commitment to the military during the war. Carmen’s unrequited love for him is ignored and instead, the village, perhaps a shade less conservative, can move with its typical routine. There’s a subtext here, however illusive, that evokes something absolutely heartbreaking. Kinoshita’s ignorance of it isn’t transgressive, but instead an oversight by a filmmaker who was more interested in the easiest elements of his scenario. It’s a shame, someone as driven and likable as Lily Carmen probably deserved a better director.