In a sequel to Carmen Comes Home, we find Carmen (Hideko Takamine) and her friend Akemi (Toshiko Kobayashi) back living together in Tokyo. Carmen continues to be devoted to “her art” — the striptease. Akemi, however, fell in love and now has a baby while the father is nowhere to be seen.
At first Carmen seems to have become hardened by the life, lecturing Akemi on the evils of men and even trying to get her to abandon the baby. We begin to think we are going to see a darker side to her real life than we saw in her visit to her pastoral home. But soon we find that she is still “loopy” (as the sub-titles have it), just as she was before and we are off into a comedy that is often quite funny. The baby is abandoned outside a wealthy home, whose son is a “modern” artist about to be married to the very rich daughter of a dead general. When Carmen and Akemi come back to reclaim the baby, he asks Carmen to model for him and she falls in love with him, a love unrequited and apparently unrecognized by him. However, the artist also has a mistress with a baby who is blackmailing him, and the fiancée’s mother is running for office. Wanting to avoid all scandal before the election, she steps in to buy off the woman, but gets them all confused. Farcical situations ensue. The moment she realizes she is in love, Carmen becomes shy and modest and can’t bring herself to undress to model for him. Nor can she bring herself to continue stripping. When the politician asks to see a strip show so she knows what to ban if she is elected, they end up at Carmen’s show, where Carmen falls apart and breaks off each number before the real stripping starts. She is fired and forced to take a number of humiliating jobs parading in silly mascot costumes for various businesses. All of the strands come together at last in a political rally where the mistaken identities find Carmen on stage accidentally destroying the rally.
The plot summary above provides plenty of opportunities for jokes and sight gags, and Kinoshita takes advantage of most of those opportunities. Some moments are laugh out loud funny, something I don’t often get to say about Japanese movies. Takamine also suddenly bursts into song, not during her act but while riding in the artist’s sports car, so for a moment we think we might be entering a musical comedy.
We do discover how Carmen got her name: Her act is a stripped down dance version (sorry, couldn’t resist that) of Bizet’s Carmen. We see enough of the act to know she pretty much covers the whole story, but the stripping we actually see is a man in various costumes regularly ripping off her skirt. However, we know that she finished topless in the earlier movie. When she talks in early scenes about stripping, Takamine grabs and bounces her own breast (still inside her blouse), and when she fails to finish her act, the boss orders her to open the curtain, apologize, and “get naked.” She apologizes, but does not “get naked,” so he fires her. The female politician also wants to know when she will “get naked.”* Carmen always regards this as an “art” she must constantly practice, though from what we see the dancing is almost comically awful. It does, however, completely divorce the routine from any idea of sexploitation, and there is not a hint of bump and grind.
She regards prostitution as the lowest way to make a living and refuses to take it up even when things are at their worst, so it is clear she still regards her work as not sexually related.
As portrayed by Takamine, Carmen remains one of the most peculiar characters in film history. The character that most immediately pops to mind as a close comparison is Giulietta Massina’s Cabiria, who has the same innocence of character, but Cabiria is always in hope of something better, which never seems to cross Carmen’s mind. Though she may be loopy, she is not defective; though she thinks her striptease is an art, she is not naive about the rest of the world in any way. Curiously, though we see a pimp trying to get Akemi to work for him, we never see a man make so much as a pass at Carmen, so we don’t know her own attitude to sex or to marriage. She is willing to sacrifice her love so the artist can marry well, but we have no hint about what she would do if there was an offer of marriage from anyone for herself and, despite her act, appears to be virginal.
As so often happens in Kinoshita’s movies, he tries an experiment. In this case, it is tilted camera angles. Every shot is askew, and I can’t find a justification for it, certainly not for the whole movie. The horizon line seems to flatten only for Carmen’s routines. At first it’s interesting, then it’s irritating, but eventually you reach the point where you just ignore it and get back to watching the movie. If it is a comment that the world has gone off-balance, it is carried far beyond what the story seems to justify. He also give us some of the wildest, most cartoonish screen wipes, which work better.
In addition, he adds a layer to the story that is surprising for such a comedy. At the time the film was being made, the first elected post-war government was being formed without the (direct) oversight of the Americans, who had formally ended the Occupation, though their bases were ever-present due to the Korean War.** The female would-be politician is running on a platform of spiritual renewal and military rearmament, which was a potent, very divisive issue at the time.
We even see large “no-rearmament” protest marches. In contrast, the maid at the artist’s house sees everything in terms of the atomic bomb. If someone comes or the phone rings, she announces an atomic bomb has arrived, though without any hint of actual fear. The movie actually concludes not with Carmen but with the maid reading the election results and being so upset she starts accosting strangers on the street. The Japanese at the time would have known what she was worried about; one of the major politicians of the day was Nobusuke Kishi, a convicted war criminal the Americans had released and then supported due to his anti-communist positions, and his party was running on the intention of re-arming Japan. At the time the movie was being made, the election had not yet been held, so Kinoshita was making a prediction. (As it happened, Kishi did not manage to take power until 1955, at which time the Americans and the general public were no longer much interested in openly re-arming Japan.)
There is also a tag saying this is only Part II, and asking what will happen to Carmen next? But no sequel is known to have been made. Given what Kinoshita and Takamine later accomplished, it is a good thing they didn’t get trapped in an assembly line series, but Carmen and Akemi are both left with an unresolved life and story line. Nevertheless, we are left with a funny comedy about a most unusual character, and it is well worth your time to find it.
* “Naked” and “nude” are hard terms to translate or understand from culture to culture. Zola, for example, describes Nana’s first appearance as “nude,” then goes on at length describing the clothes she is wearing. In Mizoguchi’s Five Women Around Utamaro, the “naked” swimmers and the “nude” model all wear undergarments that reveal only bare shoulders. But I think here the meaning is that she should finish each act of the dance at least topless and facing the audience.
** Curiously, Carmen’s audience includes only Japanese men. As in Stray Dog, no Americans seem to be interested in striptease shows, a curious idea to anyone who ever served in the military. I have seen no hint of the strip show in pre-war movies, so I wonder if this was another cultural import provided by the Americans or simply a result of Japanese censorship.