Written by Roger Mauge, produced by environmentalist Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and directed by Edmond Séchan, who had cinematographed Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (1956), Histoire d’un poisson rouge is the story of a Japanese immigrant boy and the spectacular goldfish to which he is attached. The title translates to Story of the Red Fish, but the film is known as The Golden Fish in the States, where it won an Oscar as best live-action short subject.
The fish appears fated to be owned by the young schoolboy, who wins him on a gamble at a carnival booth. How he comes to have money enough for the play suggests the aura of serendipity surrounding the child. The boy’s mother had given him money to buy milk on his way home from school. But apparently he has had his eye on one of the goldfish (among—pardon—Pacific Asian-looking catfish), and he drops by the carnival booth to see whether it is still in the tank from which winners choose. First instance of serendipity: the fish refused to be netted after being chosen by a seeming giant, who has to settle on one of the catfish in the tank. Second instance of serendipity: the giant accidentally knocks over the boy’s bottle of milk. This leads to the giant’s paying for the breakage—money with which, instead of replacing the milk, the boy gambles for the fish, and wins. The goldfish is easily netted so that the boy can take him home.
This good fortune adjusts the context of Parisian immigrant life. The boy’s mother, a single parent, slaves in an industrial sweatshop, and her son, perhaps treated as a pariah by French-born children, is all alone when his mother is at work. His life is filled, then, by two pets: a singing bird; the new goldfish. These pets exemplify sheer joyous life. The bird perpetually sings while twirling around its caged perch; the fish leaps out of its glass bowl, plopping back in with gusto.
But there is an ominous giant of a gray cat roaming the neighborhood—a transmutation of the gigantic patron at carnival. When the goldfish misses its mark on one of its leaps and lands on the table, the creature seems headed for extinction. The boy, on his way home from school, is delayed; he stops off to buy his new pet a gift. The cat comes in through the window. Missing the fish’s stressful predicament, the cat is drawn to the bird in its protective cage. Finally, Cat notices Fish. Cat rescues Fish by gently picking it up and dropping it into its bowl. Cat leaves through the window; when he arrives home, the boy is none the wiser about the good fortune that surrounds him. Whence the poignancy? We realize that the film’s present tense cannot account for the film’s rush of feeling. The boy, grown, must be looking back over time and realizing how blessed he was when he was thoughtless and oblivious; he may also be seeing for the first time how hard his mother worked so that they could have a life.
Enchanting, unaffected and moving, The Golden Fish aims to educate the hearts of children (and their elders) about the humanity and beauty of different-looking folks in their midst.
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