A somber and unassuming adolescent named Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), still dressed in his school uniform, pensively sits on the sidewalk of a high-traffic metropolitan park watching over a ventilated wooden crate. An affable, wealthy young woman named Yoko Kuhara (Yuki Tominaga), the daughter of a company director at Koyo Electric, curiously peeks inside to discover the two pigeons that the boy has put up for sale. Touched by the reticent Masao’s desperate circumstances that led him to sacrifice ownership of his pets, she offers to pay full price for the birds. Humbled by her generosity, but too proud to accept charity, he is adamant about returning her change by inserting the money inside the coop – an act of integrity that further captivates the well-intentioned Yoko. However, Masao’s noble display of honesty proves to be tenuous when he explains to his younger sister, Yasue (Michio Ito) that the birds are away visiting their sick mother and will return home in a few days. A subsequent conversation with his ailing mother, Kuniko (Yûko Mochizuki), reveals his guilt at having to repeatedly sell the homing pigeons to make ends meet, knowing they will eventually return.
One day, Masao’s teacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino) sets free a stray white pigeon that has wandered into the classroom, and tacitly explains to him that she is reluctant to have pets in the classroom because some of the children cannot afford them. Masao attempts to her alleviate her concerns over his family’s financial straits by boasting that he also owns birds, a claim that he later reluctantly acknowledges is a fabrication when Yoko coincidentally encounters them on a street and inquires if a pigeon that had escaped from the Kuhara residence had returned to his home instead. The fateful meeting would prove to be a turning point in Masao’s life, as Yoko and Miss Akiyama, equally concerned with the limited opportunities that are available to the diligent and responsible young man after graduation, attempt to secure an entry level position for him at Koyo Electric.
Nagisa Oshima presents a searing and provocative examination of the socially enabled, self-perpetuating interrelation between poverty and crime in A Town of Love and Hope. As a novice filmmaker, Oshima worked with members of the cast and crew of veteran director, Keisuke Kinoshita, whose 1950s sentimental “women’s” pictures for Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio embodied the Ofuna flavor, which Audie Bock describes as “subscribing to myths of human goodness, romantic love, and maternal righteousness” in Japanese Film Directors. However, Oshima would subvert the familiar elements of the Ofuna melodrama (ushering an artistic direction that encouraged non-traditonal creativity and experimentation that would define the Ofuna new wave) with dispassionate and muted expression (particularly evident in Masao and Yasuo’s seeming emotional detachment) and character framing in predominantly medium and long shots that create a sense of distance and objectivity. It is interesting to note that Yasue’s morbid obsession with dead animals (a childhood trauma similarly portrayed in Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games) bears an imprint of what would become a recurring element in Oshima’s films: a repressed, deeply rooted psychological aberration that manifests in incomprehensible, often destructive behavior (most notably in Violence at Noon, In the Realm of the Senses, and even in later films such as Gohatto). By paralleling the predictably repetitive, instinctual behavior of the homing pigeons with Masao’s patternistic, morally reprehensible sale of the birds, the film serves as a harsh and unsentimental realist document on the disparity of social class and inescapability of poverty.
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