Plot: Middle school student Masao runs a scam by selling pigeons who return to him after three days to provide for his family. One day, he sells his pigeons to high school student and daughter of a successful electronics factory’s CEO, named Kyoko. Masao’s teacher Akiyama Sensei tries to help Masao get a job at the factory, to be able to better provide for his mother and sister.
A Town of Love and Hope is Nagisa Oshima’s first of many feature length films. It is important to note that this film was made while he was still working with the film company Shochiku, which may have arguably restricted some creative liberties he took with the film, but did provide him with a large budget, and access to the A-list actors of the time.
To fully understand A Town of Love and Hope, you need a little bit of background knowledge about what the social and economic climate of Japan was like during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. So, to give a brief background, Japan had experienced what many would call a “miracle growth” in that its economy grew by over 10% for many consecutive years. Which is absolutely huge, especially after having its economy devastated by the results of WWII. So basically, many major companies flourished during this time, and there were a lot of considerably wealthy people living in Japan.
A Town of Love and Hope, however, does a good job in showing that while many in Japan may have greatly benefited from this economic boom, many were still struggling to put food on the table. This is shown within the first minutes of the film, when it shows Masao taking his mother’s spot on the shoeshine line, selling pigeons. It is also important to note that this film, as well as many others of Nagisa Oshima’s films, have a lot of social and economical political commentary about them.
In this review I would like to address a few topics that are of particular literary interest in this film. First being the great metaphor the pigeons play in the film, as well as the Japanese double-standard for the word “pigeon.” Second, the ominous choice of music, that can be recognized the moment the movie starts playing. Also lastly, the reason as to why this film should even be watched and given any attention to it, if there is any such reason at all.
In Japanese, the word for pigeon is はと(hato). However, hato not only means pigeon, but it also means dove. To make matters worse, there is no way to truly distinguish which is the subject of conversation, aside from context. There is a good example of this in the film, that takes place in Masao’s classroom. Some of his classmates are talking about a hato(dove) that one of the boys has. The teacher (Akiyama Sensei) confiscates the dove and sends it home, stating “not everyone has a hato(dove), so let’s all be equals here.” She later confronts Masao who thanks her but says it is okay because he also has hato, except here he means pigeon. While this may be a stretch, I find this to be a sort of symbol used to represent the Japanese people’s thoughts on rich and poor at this time. For example, the word human can be used to describe both a rich and poor person. However, the rich are more of a dove. Clean and beautiful. While the poor are more of a pigeon, dirty and ugly. However, both are indistinguishable as “human.”
I feel as though the pigeons also play a role that is meaningful to each character personally. For Masao, they represent his rise and fall in success. His rise is when he met Kyoko, selling the pigeons to her for the first time. The fall, however, was when he learned that he didn’t get the factory job with Kyoko’s father, due to a background check on him and his scam. To Kyoko, the pigeons represent betrayal. She was unaware at first of the true nature of the pigeon scam, and of how they would continue to return to Masao regardless of how many times they were sold. When she sees Masao selling them for the second time, it is clear that she feels betrayed. It is at this point she purchases the pigeons again, however with the intent to make sure they do not return home.
To Kyoko’s older brother Yuji, an executive in the family business and love interest to Masao’s teacher, the pigeons represent his failed relationship. Because of the pigeon scam, he had to refuse Masao’s hiring at the factory which in turn caused Akiyama Sensei to break up with him. This leads to the end, and what I would consider to be the climax of the film. Kyoko gives Yuji her gun, and asks him if he would be able to hit a bird from their roof. He says he could, an so Kyoko releases the pigeon she bought from Masao, and Yuji shoots it down, thus symbolically ending his and Kyoko’s relationship to Akiyama and Masao. An ending that I think is very powerful, and moving.
The next thing I felt was important is Nagisa Oshima’s choice in music for this film. In particular, the very ominous theme that plays during the intro credits to the film, and repeats a few times throughout. I felt it was important to include, since it seems to play during Masao’s may turning points in the film. It first plays in the intro, where he is shown selling the pigeons to Kyoko the first time. It again plays when he takes his entrance exam into the factory, and finally when he is selling the pigeons for the last time. I felt like the music was a great addition into making these turning points more obvious to the viewer.
Finally, why should this film be watched, and studied? I for one, studied it in a film class in college, but why? I think the answer is quite simple, and that it is because it is an important piece of Japanese literary history, like many of Oshima’s other works. As I said earlier, the film does well with highlighting the economic differences that existed amongst people in Japan, even during one of the worlds highest economic booms. I think the film can help you understand Japanese culture from that time period, which in turn can help better your understanding of contemporary Japanese culture as well. However if those things don’t interest you, you should watch it simply because it is an entertaining film.
It isn’t easy to give this film a numerical rating, so I think I will set a guideline as to how I rate Oshima films from now on. I will rate them from 1-5. 1 being the Oshima films that I like the least, and 5 being the films I like the most. It doesn’t necessarily represent how good the actual films are. I give A Town of Love and Hope a 3/5.
For next month’s Oshima film review, I will be reviewing Man Who left his Will on Film. You can watch these films on Hulu.