Directed by Akira Kurosawa
There is a scene in Akira Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday that seems like it was pulled straight out of an Italian neo-realist film. The two main characters, a young army veteran named Yuzo and his cheerful wife Masako, are standing in line at a theater to buy cheap tickets to a performance of Shubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” It is a rainy Sunday afternoon, the only time that the two are able to be together for the entire week. They only have 35 yen between them, yet they are determined to make it last. Unfortunately, as they approach the front of the line, the remaining tickets are all purchased by two shady characters that immediately start scalping them to the people in line. Infuriated, Yuko calls them out and challenges them for their dishonest practices. But Yuko is easily overpowered and ends up sprawled on the cold ground. Humiliated, Masako and Yuko retreat from the line and reenter the burnt ruins of post-war Tokyo.
Parallels can be drawn to the infamous scene in Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica where Antonio Ricci catches the man who stole his bicycle only for him to be rebuked by the man’s neighbors, who protect him, and the police. Both films feature male protagonists being wronged by an uncaring society living in the bombed out shell of a city reduced to rubble by the assaults of World War Two. Both are desperate to provide for somebody else: Ricci for his son, Yuko for Masako. And finally, both defeated characters take some form of comfort in their companions. But while Bicycle Thieves ends on a tragic note, Kurosawa’s first film during the American Occupation ends on a triumphant note. While it may be disorienting and even outrageous to some cinematic purists, in hindsight the ending of One Wonderful Sunday is an almost eerily accurate prediction of Japan’s future concerning their post-war reconstruction and the subsequent economic miracle that made them the second most powerful economy in the world. Combining Kurosawa’s early passion for neo-realism with his unbendable optimistic humanism that defined his younger years, One Wonderful Sunday remains one of the most important, yet frequently overlooked, films in Kurosawa’s oeuvre.
Much like Kurosawa’s other great film to explore the psyche of post-war Japan (the other being the less than hopeful I Live in Fear), Yuko and Masako inhabit a cold, uninviting world. Filmed less than two years after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see the streets littered with rubble and trash. The presence of Occupational forces is always implied, but never actually shown. We can see expensive clubs and burlesque houses that look freshly built. During one scene where Yuko and Masako window shop for a house that they might one day move into, they run into a wealthy couple wearing chic Western clothes and furs who sniff their noses at the poorer couple. Indeed, the Tokyo that they inhabit is one of two worlds: the Westernized reconstructed city and the desolate remains of the old Tokyo that somehow survived the fire bombings. Yuko and Masako drift between the two as they fantasize about a newer, better life that they might one day lead. They dream of opening a snazzy new coffee house with a victrola playing classical music and large tables for parties and smaller ones for lovers. In the ruins of a leveled building they act out their dream with Masako as the happy hostess and Yuko as the customer. Their joy is cut short when a group of people surround them and they are forced to flee.
They travel to cheap sights all over the city, stopping at parks and the zoo to watch the contented animals that get taken care of better than their fellow humans. They stop to play ball with a group of poor children in front of a tenement building so dilapidated that the concierge pleas with them to not take up a room there. They find a kind of happiness with one another as they share their dreams and aspirations. But their attempts at keeping each others’ morale high takes their toll, and in a devastation scene Yuko decides to go home and curls up in a ball on the floor of his room. He realizes that there isn’t much to hope for. By day, he is a laborer who shares his cramped room and board with a friend. Masako isn’t much better off as she lives in a four-room apartment that she shares with 15 relatives. Their lives are constricted and meager with no sign of hope on the immediate horizon.
But showing such despair was discouraged by the American Occupation and the film happily ends with a heartwarming, if somewhat forced, scene wherein the two lovers enter an empty amphitheater and Yuko pretends that he is conducting an orchestra to play Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” the very performance that they were not able to attend. It isn’t long before Yuko almost collapses with the sheer absurdity of it all in a fit of hopelessness. Here, Kurosawa breaks the fourth wall by having Masako encourage the audience to give Yuko a round of applause. Standing in front of the camera with tears rolling down her face, she pleads, “All you people, applaud. All you young lovers, applaud for your dreams.” In hindsight, the decision to break the fourth wall seems like a poor one. In Japanese theaters Masako’s pleas were met with an awkward silence by the audience that made the film seem surreal and bizarre. But it isn’t long before an unseen orchestra is heard and Yuko finds himself conducting one of the most beautiful compositions ever written. The film ends with the couple lovingly embracing, an unusual move in a Kurosawa film and Japanese cinema in general, but required by the Occupational censors. Kurosawa wisely sidesteps this by showing the embrace from behind the characters, making it unclear whether they are actually kissing or just hugging. But the scene retains its power with Kurosawa utilizing bold crane shots to swoop around the characters in the midst of their passion.
Maybe the addition of such a schmaltzy ending was counterproductive to the film’s desired effect. After all, such happiness is almost unheard of in Italian neo-realism, the genre that Kurosawa openly adored and emulated. But in a way, it gives One Wonderful Sunday its own appeal. It represents a society in the midst of great change and the desire for a better tomorrow that was felt by so many Japanese people. There is something finite about tragic endings. After all, Antonio Ricci clearly doesn’t have any other options at the end of Bicycle Thieves. For all intensive purposes, his story is over when the film ends. But a happy ending suggests the possibility of future endeavors and challenges. While the film may end, it is clear that Yuko and Masako’s story is not over and they have a long future ahead of them. In the decades to come, Kurosawa’s films would get better and he would become more accomplished as a director. So in a way, One Wonderful Sunday not only represents the future development of Japan, but also the progression of Kurosawa’s career. The Occupational years were difficult times, but they resulted in an amazing tomorrow. One Wonderful Sunday seems to predict that and stands as a testament of hope for those who must bear the full brunt of the transition. The times may be harsh, but the flowers and music will always be there for those who try and look.