“You must sell your pigeons or you can’t survive in this world” a less progressive figure than he first seemed eventually admits in Nagisa Oshima’s ironically titled debut feature Street of Love and Hope (愛と希望の街, Ai to Kibo no Machi). As might be expected given the director’s later trajectory, there is precious little love or hope on offer and it seems his particular brand of grumpy pessimism ruffled studio feathers from the very beginning earning him a sixth month directing ban with a top executive complaining “this film is saying the rich and poor can never join hands”. The executive may have had a point in the increasing inequalities of the post-war society in which humanist hypocrisy offers only entrenched division and inevitable class conflict.
As the film opens, the hero, Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), is selling his sister’s beloved pet pigeons because, as his social worker later explains, welfare payments are not enough to live on and his mother Kuniko (Yuko Mochizuki), who usually shines shoes for a living, has TB which leaves her unable to work. Kuniko is keen for Masao to stay in education and attend high school, but he acutely feels the burden on his mother and intends to work while attending evening classes. The trouble begins when Masao sells his pigeons to a wealthy young lady, Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga), who is the teenage daughter of an electronics factory boss.
Well-meaning as she is, Kyoko tries to give Masao the change from her purchase after he explains he’s selling the birds because he needs money. Ironically she gives one of them to her sickly younger brother, but the problem is that Masao is effectively running a scam. The birds are homing pigeons. Assuming the new owners don’t cage them in properly, the birds will fly right back home and he can sell them again. He’s already done this a couple of times and is at least conflicted about it, especially as it upsets his sister Yasue (Michio Ito) so much, though what else really is he supposed to do?
This central question is the one that eventually comes between Masao’s progressive schoolteacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino) and Kyoko’s sympathetic older brother Yuji (Fumio Watanabe) who works in HR at his father’s factory. Another of Oshima’s mismatched, ideologically opposed frustrated couples, Miss Akiyama and Yuji find themselves on either side of a divide. It seems that the factory does not ordinarily employ city boys, preferring to recruit from the countryside and house employees in dorms because the boss is convinced rural youth is less corrupted by amoral urbanity. Hoping to help Masao, Kyoko and Miss Akiyama team up to convince him to change his mind and give Masao a chance, but they eventually fail him during the exam because it accidentally uncovers his pigeon scam and therefore proves the boss’ point.
That isn’t all it exposes, however, as even the seemingly progressive Yuji expresses some extremely outdated, quite offensive prejudices even as he insists they didn’t fail Masao because he comes from a single-parent family. According to the boss, children of “broken families” become “twisted human beings” which is unfortunate because “corporations value stability”. Even while not disagreeing with his father’s logic, Yuji explains that he can’t employ Masao not because of his fatherless status but because he’s fundamentally dishonest as proved by his pigeon scam. Miss Akiyama who’d previously described him as the kind of boy who never lies, is shocked but later reflects on his circumstances and her own. In its own ways, her life is also hard and she can see how it might happen that she too may have to “sell her pigeons” (a handy piece of wordplay hingeing on the fact the Japanese for pigeon, “hato”, sounds similar to the English word “heart”) in order to survive. She can forgive Masao for doing the same in the knowledge he had no other choice, but believes Yuji wouldn’t nor would he forgive her if he discovered that she too had sold herself. She cannot be in a relationship with a man who is so “heartless” and unforgiving and it is this which creates the unbreachable gulf between them itself informed by their differing socioeconomic circumstances.
These differences in standing are also brought out in the youthful idealism of Kyoko who wholeheartedly believes she can help Masao by giving him money and then trying to improve his circumstances by getting him a job in her father’s factory. Both her father and her brother dismiss her altruistic desire to help as childish, Yuji pointing out that there are millions of poor people not just one and you can’t help them all, while their cynicism is eventually validated in the exposure of Masao’s “fraud” which accidentally brands those living in difficult economic circumstances as duplicitous criminals even as it directly implies that it is an unfair society which turns honest boys like Masao who never lie and just want to take care of their mothers into “heartless” bird traffickers. You can see why Shochiku didn’t like it, the hope of the post-war era shot down by the gun of a conflicted industrialist.