Akira Kurosawa: One Wonderful Sunday (1947) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

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The earlier Akira Kurosawa films showed promise to varying degrees.  Some were bad but there were enough factors during their creation we can’t entirely blame the man for the product he finally released.  Last week, it seemed that we were finally there, watching a story unfold with the full weight of what had happened during World War II to Japan and its citizens both young and old.  We watched Kurosawa become fully comfortable behind the camera and make a truly great movie.

This week he finally made something I love.  I am in complete and total adoration of One Wonderful Sunday.  It seems to be the antithesis of The Most Beautiful, portraying absolutely beautiful idealism in the face of such overwhelming hardship that it doesn’t seem likely to survive.  But it doesn’t beat you over the head with harsh reality.  There are enough subtle hints in the background to what’s going on that this film could take place at nearly any time.

It’s for those people who came home after any blow to a society that seems doomed to forget them or to place them up as hopefully forgotten relics of an earlier age.  One shot posits this greatly as Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) manages to find himself at a higher class social banquet.  The people outright ignore him or treat his presence with disgust, and the only time he earns a direct look is when he is framed in the reflection of a mirror framed like a painting.  He will serve as a reminder of what they are ignoring in artistic concept only, not as something that gets to intrude on their dome of high culture.

That biting cynicism in the way Yuzo and his fiancé Masako (Chieko Nakakita) are treated provides a powerful undercurrent to One Wonderful Sunday.  On the one hand you have the reality of their class and financial situation, one inexorably tied with the other, as they are rejected time and time again by people who supposedly know better.  This is played in direct contrast to their love as the two of them, poor as they are and separated by circumstance, plan to make the best of their only Sunday together that they will have in some time.

Without that bite every so often the saccharine bits might seem a bit too much to stomach.  But each moment is either tethered to the ground by the reality of postwar Japan, just filled with people unwilling to give in.  Another early scene with Yuzo shows this as he enjoys a game of baseball with a bunch of kids amongst the debris and wreckage of a Japanese town.  These people have barely had time to pick themselves up but still want to accommodate some kids with their dreams.  Then everything comes to a stop when an emaciated cow, carrying barrels of some kind of unlabeled substance, brings the game and accompanying soundtrack to a complete halt. No Regrets for Our Youth did not deal with the fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but One Wonderful Sunday seems absolutely consumed by it.   No matter where Yuzo and Masako go they are reminded of pollution and decay.  There are bombed out buildings and scarred children everywhere.  Kurosawa does not name the plague directly, but still suggests it by referencing Yuzo’s addiction to cigarettes every so often.  There’s a plague at work, slowly eating away at the young, and it’s clear the outcome of the recent war is a direct result of this.

But still they trudge on, in a way that reminded me that Kurosawa still learned his craft from some of the American greats.  He adored John Ford, but his influence does not seem as readily evident in the films we watched previously.  This film reminded me of another American contemporary who was still hard at work – Frank Capra.  One Wonderful Sunday was like a Japanese reflection of some of the same issues which were at work in Capra’s fictions.  Most relevant is Meet John Doe, which centers around a suicide note sent to a newspaper from John Doe, saying that he’s going to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve.   A man is hired by a corporation to play John Doe, but becomes so overwhelmed with what it means to represent the common man that he eventually tries to commit suicide and the newspapers still get their story.

It’s brutally cynical, but the kind of melodramatic touch he brings to the story is almost identical to what Kurosawa does in this film.  The same class divide is there, as well as the same kind of dejection and sorrow around what it means to go on living.  This sets up the centerpiece of One Wonderful Sunday, which equals the best moments in Ikiru with ease, when Yuzo conducts a silent symphony for Masako.  There is no one in the empty outdoor theater but those two, the bombed out buildings are in the background, leaves and trash are falling onstage, and all Yuzo can hear when he’s trying to drum up some hope for his lover.

The positioning of this moment is brilliant as, not a moment ago, we saw the young couple standing on swing sets that threatened to hurl them into the clear abyss.  They were able to laugh that off but when they have to listen to the world around them neither one are able to take it.  The only reason they are able to survive at all is because it’s fiction, and in a moment as wonderful as it is ridiculous, they borrow a page from Peter Pan’splaybook and are able to escape to the promise of another Sunday.

They aren’t married, or any closer, but they’ve survived another week with the promise of the next to come.  I absolutely adored this movie and, while there are certainly faults, it operated on a melodramatic level Kurosawa rarely worked on after this point. I agree it's interesting to see Kurosawa working in such a different vein, and certainly this is better than the others we've discussed so far (with the exception of last week's No Regrets for Our Youth), but something about the pacing here didn't work for me. I appreciated what he's doing, but ultimately it felt more like a series of vignettes than a coherent film. That's not altogether a bad thing, as nearly all of these sequences work— from the charming scene of the couple at the zoo to the climactic scene you mention in the amphitheater—but I can't help but wonder how much the power of that last scene would have been intensified if the movie was a little bit tighter structurally.

My main issue is that a scene of powerful desperation and defeat around the midpoint grinds the film to a halt, only to have the second half repeat the same formula as the first. After their day out, Yuzo and Masako return to Yuzo's apartment, and he is overcome with despair at their situation. Completely surrendered to his sadness, he wallows until Masako can't take it anymore and leaves. She returns, there is a breakdown/confrontation, and in an effort to lift her spirits he suggests they go out and get tea.

Then the second half of the story watches Yuzo slowly fall once again into despair before Masako once again brings him back up. While this monotonous repetition evokes how depression works with impressive accuracy, it doesn't necessarily make the story more engaging. As Masako cries and pleads for the audience to clap for all the young lovers in the world fighting to embrace their dreams, it begins to seem more like a manic episode than the impassioned, desperately genuine moment it should feel like.Again, none of this is to say that the movie is a failure—there are more interesting and genuinely haunting moments dealing with the the couple's idealism confronting the (literally) bombed out reality that surrounds them than could possibly be absorbed in a single viewing—but it seems one short step away from the movie it wanted to be.

That said, it is visually stunning on a level that no other film we've watched thus far has been. There were moments showcasing Kurosawa's incredible eye for the organization and framing of a shot in No Regrets for Our Youth, but that talent is on full display here. The way the couple can never quite escape the visual display of wreckage and decay keeps their moments of fantasy grounded in a bittersweet way, and the scene in which Yuzo describes the cafe they are going to build on the grounds of a demolished building, only to find themselves surrounded by the homeless and impoverished of the town is haunting.

I also like how Kurosawa carries over the theme of inheriting the sins of a previous generation, this time slightly shifted to the higher class, which is equated with gangsters and the black market. You're right about the film having a timeless quality, and much of the characters' complaints with their contemporary society could be applied to any society ranging all the way up to today. It will be interesting to see how Kurosawa continues to deal with these social postwar tensions. I have a sneaking feeling it won't be through means so triumphant as grand fantasy concerts.I wouldn't call the concert at the end triumphant, but I do share your apathy as far as the middle section is concerned.  I was charmed and curious at what was right around the corner but when they finally break down in that little room it was wearying as a viewer but not very engaging.  The entire sequence stretches on for almost ten minutes and, while I appreciate Kurosawa's use of silence, it was too much of a pacing shift and too soon.

That said, I'm a bit surprised you feel the second half is retreading the first.  Once their painful feelings are out in the open the films visual strategy shifts from one presenting their resilience as part of the youth to them where they know they're fading but haven't gotten around to dealing with it.  Another contemporary example of the shift would be the optimism of Richard Linklater's films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

The first half is all about standing strong.  Yuzo and Masako find support in their surroundings in spite of all the devastation.  The baseball game and lunch aftermath are good examples of this.  The generation Yuzo fought to raise is still providing some reason to go on and they find new ways to use old materials that have been blown to hell.  That second half is all structured around them having nothing to grab onto except each other, which they're only now getting around to realize may be a lie.  This is wonderfully encapsulated in that swing set scene I mentioned.  They each fade in and out of view of the camera, one literally being pulled back by the other when it seems they may go too far, then take turns lying on stage to each other and to us.Some of the scenes in the first half would better serve this dichotomy and that's where the editing issues come into play.  The moment with the hungry child is a direct contrast to the baseball game the lovers enjoyed earlier and would be better situated in the second half.  Then there's the matter of that breakdown scene which, while essential, almost breaks the delicate assembly of the film.

My heart still wins out in the battle against any other structural flaws in the film, and I can't wait to compare the way the themes of these last two films come to a dark conclusion next week.I'm glad you brought up the Linklater movies, as I was thinking about those fairly often throughout. There's definitely something going on with how each character mirrors the other, and that provided for some interesting moments. In the first set of scenes, the movie seemed to be about counterparts—Yuzo and Masako, wartime and peace, rich upper class and poor lower class, etc. There's a nice shot of the two of them sitting on a rock looking out at the horizon; he's in dark colors and she's in white, and when he asks something about what they'll do if it snows, she replies, “we'll make two snowmen.”

She seems to be the positive counterpoint to his world-weary realism. This shifts slightly later, as they both take turns lifting the other up (Masako offering to make tea for Yuzo, Yuzo constructing an energetic fantasy about how they will start a cafe amid the wreckage, Masako appealing to the audience to clap for Yuzo, Yuzo “conducting” the orchestra for Masako). As the movie goes on their efforts seem more out of desperation to stay afloat than engrained personality traits, and that makes them more interesting.

So you are right—the two halves aren't so much repetitive as they are mirrors of each other. The first sets up the idea of strong, entrenched contrasts while the second has the couple circling each other and inhabiting the role required of them by the other. It's a movie that's grown in my mind the more I've sat with it. I think the pacing issue in the center becomes less important as the whole impression of the story sets in. It's also interesting that even in a walk-and-talk film like this, comprised mostly of dialogue between just two characters, we can't accuse Kurosawa of settling for anything less than the grandiose.

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Next week: we'll be introduced to Kurosawa's breakout star and learn a happy lesson about brotherhood.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Uncommonly insightful this week, guys.

  2. one of Kurosawa’s best, though i doubt if i would find too many who would agree with me… touching and tender… somewhere out there, in the celluloid ether, i’m certain that the Hyacinth Cafe is open for business… and the tea is being served on small tables too – for lovers… “for it is important to create a quiet ambience”…

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