Saturday, April 10, 2021

Review - A Street of Love and Hope

April 10, 2021

A Street of Love and Hope – Japan, 1968

I wish that this were the film, or at the very least the kind of film, that Nagisa Oshima was known for. Instead, his name will forever be linked to his controversial, frequently banned 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses, a part of a genre of Japanese films known more for its adult content than social commentary. And yet it is in the social commentary genre that Oshima began his career in 1959 with a simple, yet poignant film called A Street of Love and Hope.

Like other films of its time, in particular, those directed by Kenji Mizuguchi, Oshima meant his film to be a wake-up call, a siren calling attention to the divisions that existed in post-war Japan and proclaiming national unity to be a myth. The Japan that Oshima sees is one in which upward movement, both social and economical, is determined not by passion or determination, but by whether one meets the deceptively simple standards of the better off. And their condition seems to be this: “If we could do it the ‘right way,’ you should be able to, too.” So much for empathy.

Early on in the film, we meet a young girl named Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga) from a wealthy family. On her way home, she comes across Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), a young boy selling his family’s pet pigeon. Knowing that pigeons can be expensive and that selling a pet is unusual, Kyoko buys it, ostensibly as a gift for her younger brother. When she asks why Masao is parting with it, his honesty takes her aback: “I need money.

We soon learn that Masao is a pretty decent kid. He is polite, studies hard, and has the grades to get into senior high school. On that last matter, he is realistic, though. In an early scene, we learn that the government assistance the family depends on will be reduced once Masao advances, and he knows they can’t survive on the money his mother makes shining shoes. So, while his mother pleads with him to stay in school, he decides to enter the workforce. Fortunately, two people – Kyoko and Masao’s high school English teacher, Ms. Akiyama (Kakuko Chino) – decide to take up his cause. Ms. Akiyama goes so far as to arrange a meeting with officials from a local factory to try to secure Masao a chance at employment.

And were this a Hollywood film from the same time period, I have no doubt he would get it. However, Oshima has no intention of giving us the kind of ending forced upon so many American films during the 1950’s. Instead, we get a gradual unraveling that is quite revealing, for it lifts the curtain on a kind of classist, one-strike-and-you’re-out philosophy employed by the upper class to deny those less fortunate opportunities to move up. This way of thinking is justified – as such attitudes often are – with stereotypes about the dishonesty of city boys and the belief that broken families produce crooked students. This last remark is spouted by Kyoko’s older brother, despite the fact that his own mother died when Kyoko was very young.

Since watching the film, two scenes in particular have remained in my mind. In the first one, Masao has just been told by a policeman that he cannot shine shoes without a license. As he prepares to leave, the woman working next to him, much older and possibly in poorer health, reaches over and puts a few coins in his cup - empathy from someone who can least afford it. The second occurs after a few neighborhood bullies incur Masao’s wrath by taunting him as he is walking Kyoko home. A skirmish ensues, and after the two youngsters have made their escape, they wind up lying on a rocky, gravel-covered incline, their heads facing each other, their eyes locked, laughter filling the air. You would be forgiven for thinking to yourself that Cupid couldn’t pick a better moment to strike, yet look at the way Oshima films the two characters, Kyoto to the far right, Masao to the far left, in between them a wide gulf. I’d say the message is pretty clear. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars

*A Street of Love and Hope is in Japanese with English subtitles. The subtitles were occasionally problematic.

*A Street of Love and Hope is also known as A Town of Love and Hope.

*Prior to making this film, Oshima made a short film entitled Tomorrow’s Sun.

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