To most Japanese, a character like Bizet's Carmen epitomizes wanton sexuality and fiery independence--qualities, often associated with bar girls and prostitutes, that elicit disapproval tempered by pity and grudging respect. With Carmen From Kawachi, one of director Seijun Suzuki's trilogy of women-centered films from the mid-60s, the emotional scale is tilted subtly toward sympathy for the eponymous heroine, who escapes her sordid village upbringing only to be entrapped by the decadence of the urban demimonde. Rather Candide-like in her trusting romantic nature, though haunted by nightmarish memories of a rape, Tsuyuko (Yumiko Nogawa, Suzuki's favorite actress, in a wide-eyed yet weary performance) wanders through a series of jobs and liaisons in Osaka, each more bizarre than the last. Her tawdry and eroticized encounters no doubt fit the specs of the soft-porn potboilers in which Suzuki's studio specialized, but true to form Suzuki adds plenty of black humor and a surreal, ironic edge to most of the scenes--from a businessmen's orgy at Osaka's Club Dada to a seduction attempt by a lesbian dominatrix to Tsuyuko's unwitting participation in a porno loop. The twists and turns of the picaresque plot may seem improbable at times, but together they form a realistic picture of a pulsing, industrializing nation. And by having the resilient Tsuyuko go home to her village only to end up returning to Osaka to ply her trade, he transforms the tragic example of Carmen into an affirming protofeminist fable. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 25, 7:45, and Sunday, August 27, 6:00, 443-3737.