Kurosawa films
Film posters courtesy of Toho Studios

Akira Kurosawa Films 101: 1946 – 1948

Day Two of Akira Kurosawa 101 examines three of his films that address the nature of life in Japan immediately at the end of WWII and the American Occupation.

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

Following a young couple as they spend the day together on limited resources, One Wonderful Sunday (1947) is a work that is at once realist and whimsical, as the lovers’ attempt to use their imaginations to construct what their wallets can’t purchase. Yuzo (Isao Numazaki) and his girlfriend Masako (Chieko Nakakita) play house in a cheap model home, join a baseball game with children on the street, and perform Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” in an empty amphitheater without a single instrument — moments that recall Frank Capra’s (one of Kurosawa’s major influences) populist optimism and belief in the transformative power of the imagination. Yet these are only brief respites. Filmed during the Allied occupation of Japan after the end of World War II, the devastated physical and psychic landscape of postwar Japan is nearly always in Kurosawa’s lens.

As the film opens, Yuzo is waiting on a busy street, contemplating picking up a cigarette butt on the sidewalk in front of him as people rush past. It’s a detail that’s illustrative of the attention that the film pays, both subtly and occasionally dramatically, to its characters desires for modest goods and comforts they can’t afford. When Masako, Yuzo’s girlfriend, shows up, he glumly tells her that he can’t go on a date with her, because he only has ten yen. Ever cheerful, however, she offers to pool her own money with his. So begins a countdown, of sorts, as we’re regularly reminded how much remains of their ever-diminishing funds.

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

With such a budget, even the smallest mishap can be a major upset. When they’re overcharged for coffee and mediocre pastries at a café, Yuzo’s buyer’s remorse is so intense that we can see it progress through stages, much like grief. It’s as if Kurosawa was first perfecting his grasp of the drama of the quotidian, in order to be able to believably craft the emotional whirlwinds of his later epics. Indeed, One Wonderful Sunday is Kurosawa’s only attempt at shomin-geki, a Japanese genre concerned with the everyday life of the middle class.

Not all of this drama of the everyday succeeds, however. In One Wonderful Sunday’s ostensible climax, the scene mentioned above at the empty amphitheater, they decide to create their own concert after failing to see an actual concert after scalpers immediately ahead of them in line bought up all the cheap seats. Later as Yuzo stands onstage trying to conduct an imaginary symphony, he suffers a crisis of belief and hope and is unable to go on.

At this point Masako turns and directly addresses the film audience, begs sympathy for the situation of the young in Japan, who have so little hope, and asks that everyone applaud. Thus emboldened, Yuzo goes on successfully to conduct the “Unfinished Symphony,” just as the lives of Japan’s young adults are unfinished. In Japan and America, the scene is greeted with embarrassment and silence, though in Something Like an Autobiography noted that the scene elicited a response from European audiences. But for many of Kurosawa’s fans, it is perhaps the most embarrassing scene in all of his films.

But for every scene that falls flat, there’s another that soars. After failing to purchase tickets for the concert, for instance, there’s a long scene in Yuzo’s apartment, full of lengthy pauses, that is as devastating as anything in Kurosawa’s better-known works.

For a director famous primarily for his epics, One Wonderful Sunday is a relatively contained story, it’s limited to the titular Sunday in postwar Tokyo. Nevertheless, this single day communicates volumes about the dreams and the despair of postwar Japan. The film is more than a historical relic, though. Kurosawa’s meticulous exploration of economic depression and its effects on individual lives is, unfortunately, still incredibly relevant for audiences around the globe. — Benjamin Pearson