Hideko Takamine lined up with her uncle at the Shochiku studio for an audition for the Hotei Nomura film Haha (Mother, 1929). Already adorable at the age of five, she got the part, the film became a hit, and a career was born. When she appeared in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo no gassho (Tokyo Chorus, 1931), her earliest film a modern Westerner is likely to have seen, she was already a veteran of more than a dozen shoots, more often than not playing a boy named something like Ichiro or Taro. It was not an idyllic childhood, as young actors had none of the protections afforded today, and Takamine received minimal schooling and hated the painful ritual of applying hot make-up to her face before every day’s filming (1).
At the age of nine she played a chauffeur’s daughter in Yasujiro Shimazu’s Hoho o yosureba (My Cheek Near Yours, 1933). Shooting her teary face in close-up was the first assignment of a 21-year-old cameraman with ambitions of becoming a director (2). By the time Keisuke Kinoshita was promoted to that position a decade later, Takamine had left Shochiku for the newly-founded Toho Studios, which promised to pay for her education, and been launched as a bona fide teen star in Kajiro Yamamoto’s Tsuzurikata kyoshitsu (Composition Class, 1938). She took the lead role in the majority of her films at this time, often playing a young woman named Hideko. Or, as in Mikio Naruse’s Hideko no Shasho-san (Hideko, the Bus Conductress, 1941), playing a character called Okoma but finding her name in the film title anyway, a few years before Bud Abbott and Lou Costello started pulling a similar trick in Hollywood.
Kinoshita remained at Shochiku for virtually his entire career. He helmed 17 films before he had the opportunity to write and direct the perfect comedic part for the superstar he’d first photographed back in 1933. In 1950, Takamine became the first actor in Japan to break with her studio (by now Shintoho) and go freelance. This risky calculation paid off, as by 1955 she’d have a higher salary than any other female actor in the nation (3). Her new mobility also allowed her to work with some of the best directors working at any studio.
Ironically, Takamine’s return to the company where she got her start involved very little filming at Shochiku’s actual studio in Ofuna. In order to celebrate the company’s 30th year of operation, Karumen kokyo ni kaeru (Carmen Comes Home, 1951) was to be Japan’s first feature film shot entirely in colour (4), and Fujifilm technicians advised that the still-experimental process would work best when photographing in outdoor locations. Kinoshita invented a perfect scenario given this restriction: Takamine would play Lily Carmen, a star of Tokyo striptease shows of the kind encouraged by the American occupation forces after World War II. Having returned to the sleepy village of her birth, nestled under a volcano near the border of Nagano and Gunma Prefectures, she and her friend Maya (Toshiko Kobayashi) disrupt local traditions and hierarchies with their colourful clothes (or lack thereof), putting the town under a kind of spell (5) but shaming nearly all of the men they care about. The inevitable performance for slack-jawed farmers while Carmen’s father tries to find nobility in his embarrassment by staying home and getting drunk is the only exception in a film shot almost exclusively under bright, clear, mountain skies.
Conforming to Fuji’s recommendations did not make Carmen Comes Home an easy shoot, however. As a precaution, a monochromatic version of the film was produced at the same time as the full-colour one, which meant that each shot had to be recreated by the actors for a second camera after it had already been captured by the first. This may also have necessitated the constant re-application of make-up, as early Fujicolor stock is said to have required actors to wear reddish make-up in order for their skin tones to register naturally on film, and red tones would surely have played havoc with black-and-white filming. Because Maya and Carmen were prone to showing skin, Kobayashi and Takamine had to apply this pore-clogging greasepaint not only to their faces but also to their entire bodies for certain scenes. As the latter wrote: “At one point, I really thought that this film would kill me” (6). A six-month vacation in Paris, where she was unknown, helped her recover from the experience. It was a rare hiatus in her 27-year-career up to that point, and when she returned she entered her most creatively productive period, anchoring masterpieces like Kinoshita’s Nijushi no hitomi (The Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954), and Naruse’s Ukigumo (Floating Clouds, 1955) and Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960).
Shochiku’s Fujicolour experiment for Carmen Comes Home was a success – to a point. Only two colour prints were made for the initial release of the film because of the time and expense involved in making them: it took a month to hand-process each colour print, and cost eight times as much as it did to make a black-and-white print, so most theatres screened the latter version (7). The film recouped its cost and the Carmen character became popular enough to inspire Kinoshita and Takamine to reprise her in a Tokyo-set sequel, Karumen junjo su (Carmen’s Pure Love, 1952), filmed in black-and-white and full of canted angles that emphasized character-based comedy. Shochiku’s next foray into full-colour filmmaking would be with Noboru Nakamura’s Natsuko no Boken (Natsuko’s Adventures, 1953), based on a Yukio Mishima novel.
If the Carmen films marked a homecoming for Takamine, perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of her return to Shochiku for contemporary fans of Japanese cinema is her reunion with that studio’s familiar character actors, most playing in a more broadly comic mode than we’ve seen them when working with Naruse or Ozu. Takeshi Sakamoto plays Carmen’s father as an affectionate grump rather than the happy-go-lucky Kihachi character of Ozu films. Chishu Ryu is more stentorian and garrulous than ever as the village’s school principal. Only Shuji Sano, who plays Carmen’s old flame, injured in the war and now married to a pure-hearted cart driver, manages to stay above the comic fray, maintaining composure in the face of the stripper’s innocently flirtatious ways. It’s as if Kinoshita knows that only a blind man wouldn’t recognize the momentousness of Takamine’s return to the company she grew up with.
- From an interview with Takamine quoted in Phyllis Birnbaum, “The Odor of Pickled Radishes”, Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women, Columbia University Press, New York, 1999, p. 213.
- Kinoshita quoted in Birnbaum, p. 236.
- Catherine Russell, “Three Japanese Actresses of the 1950s: Modernity, Femininity and the Performance of Everyday Life”, CineAction no.60, 2003, p. 41.
- “This ‘Fujicolor’ process was first experimentally used for the title scene for Juichi-ninno jogakusei (Eleven Girl Students) in 1946 by Toho (under the direction of Motoyoshi Oda). Then it was used for over twenty works made between 1946 and 1950, before Carmen Comes Home, such as special newsreels, sponsored films, part-color features, and records of famous kabuki actors’ performances.” Quotation from Hisashi Okajima, “Color Film Restoration in Japan: Some Examples”, Journal of Film Preservation no. 66, 2003, pp. 32-36.
- It’s worth noting that the name “Carmen” is derived from the Latin word for chant, spell, or prayer, from which the word “charm” also derives.
- Takamine quoted in Birnbaum, p. 239.
- Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, Grove Press, New York, 1960, pp. 233-234.
Karumen kokyo ni kaeru/Carmen Comes Home (1951 Japan 86 mins)
Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Kiyoshi Takamura Dir, Scr: Keisuke Kinoshita Phot: Hiroyuki Kusuda Ed: Yoshi Sugihara Prod Des: Motoji Kojima Mus: Chuji Kinoshita, Toshiro Mayuzumi
Cast: Hideko Takamine, Shuji Sano, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Igawa, Takeshi Sakamototo, Bontaro Miake, Toshiko Kobayashi