Friday, November 20, 2015

CARMEN FROM KAWACHI (1966) - Seijun Suzuki

Despite his reputation as a director of "crazy yakuza movies," Suzuki also turned out quite a few women-centered pictures during his tenure at Nikkatsu. There's Story of a Prostitute, Gate of Flesh and then Pistol Opera towards the end of his career, basically a remake of Branded to Kill with a female assassin in the Jo Shishido role. Carmen from Kawachi is a slightly more whimsical addition to his ladies' canon, treading into modern rom-com and musical realms before turning darker towards the end.

Carmen is a country girl who moves to the city to escape her grim life. Mom sleeps around, dad's an ineffectual drunk, uncle's a perv. She first becomes a "hostess" at an Osaka gentlemen's club then a singer then a model then a businessman's wife and, eventually, a rich widow of said dead businessman. She plows through a series of deadbeat dudes-- some old, some young, some poor, some loaded -- but generally keeps her spirits about her, even while fending off the humorously explicit advances of her predatory lesbian boss. She maintains a sturdy platonic relationship with her eccentric gay painter BFF (pictured above). Blink for a second, and you may think you're watching a black and white 1960s Japanese version of Will and Grace. For its time, Carmen is pretty progressive.

This being Suzuki, the cinematography is much jazzier than any three-camera sit-com. Canted angles, scenes filmed through see-through artworks, repeated use of a fish eye lens. Things get more serious when Carmen returns to Kawachi and the film veers from romance to revenge (that pervy uncle again) during a spectacularly photographed waterfall scene. Somehow Suzuki manages to tap dance effortlessly across these wildly dissonant genres. He spring loads his otherwise buoyant B-movie comedy with a surprise emotional wallop of a climax. Legend has it this trait and this film specifically got him a stern warning to "play it straight from now on" from the Nikkatsu studio brass. Suzuki responded with his greatest stylistic F-U, Tokyo Drifter, as the follow-up to Carmen. Nobody tells Seijun how to direct.

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