Review: Carmen Comes Home // カルメン故郷に帰る (1951)

Carmen Comes Home, Japan’s first ever color feature, dwells somewhere on the fault line of provincialism and its lampooning. Featuring heavily the craggy, somber peaks of Mount Asama, one would be tempted at first glance to have considered it just one of the many pastoral dramas that dots the cinematic landscape of post-war Japan, complete with the mournful hymnals that we witness a gaggle of schoolchildren perform while circling a blind man playing the piano. One would have thought that the printers for the film’s posters have gotten it all wrong—the titular Carmen have came and went, and all that’s left is the backdrop she posed against.

It is only about a quarter into the film when we finally get to see Lily Carmen (Hideko Takamine) descend from the train with a friend in tow like a colorful bird returning home to roost—mind you—temporarily before flying off once more. Ostensibly named Okin before she adopted the new name of Lily Carmen after taking off for the stages of Tokyo, Carmen’s homecoming is something of an event for the sleepy village where she grew up.

From strutting around in brightly colored dresses that sharply contrast the drabber palette of the villagers to putting on an impromptu musical number with her companion Maya (Toshiko Kobayashi), the true nature of their artistic escapades in the big city was finally laid bare alongside their bottoms after a couple of misadventures in the countryside. Turns out, our girls were doing burlesque, not Bertolt Brecht.

In between her father’s lamentation that she had always been ‘a little simple ever since she was kicked in the head by a cow’ and the local school principal’s transition from warm encouragement to being outright scandalized when he realized that she was not quite the thespian he thought she was, Carmen and company’s antics were, in a sense, the jolt of fresh air that the villagers needed to inject some change into their stagnancy—the two young women later puts up a show that benefited the village school and returned a defaulted piano to its original owner.

A marvel of its time due to Japan’s late adoption of color cinema, Carmen Comes Home was commissioned by Shochiku back in its heydays to commemorate its 30th anniversary, and was a huge success at the box office despite the fact that the colored version only received limited screening due to the great expenses and long time needed to process the color prints. The interests and earnings that Carmen Comes Home brought in surpassed expectations and subsequently lead to a sequel the following year, Carmen’s Pure Love, which interestingly enough, was back to being in black and white.

While for many the idea of a national classic requires sustenance in the form of some aphoristic teachings or the reinvention of a tragedy, Carmen Comes Home takes instead a different route to timelessness; what with its light hearted take on post-war female emancipation, the age-old quandary of city mouse country mouse, and the ear-worm show tunes that dot the running time. In a most enviable way perhaps, the easy cheer of Carmen Comes Home proved that ageless cinema need not be the stentorian phenotypes that so many seem to believe to be the most important thing captured on film.

- Alfonse Chiu

This film was viewed as a part of the Asian Restored Classics, presented by the Asian Film Archive. The Asian Film Archive is a registered charity and interested members of the public can support it here.
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