The premise is simple: Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) are a couple engaged to be married, but they don’t have the money to wed or even to find a place to live together. They meet only on Sundays, presumably due to work, and Kurosawa has us follow them on a particular Sunday when they have only 35 yen to stretch between them. Yuzo is an ex-soldier whose outlook is disproportionately forlorn, while Masako plays the optimistic sprite. They are introduced to us at a train station. Yuzo is gloomy, he hasn’t had a cigarette for days and he has only 15 yen for their date, while Masako is looking forward to a beautiful Sunday together.
Their various stabs at happiness are thwarted throughout the course of the day. Yuzo’s attempt to see an old friend, owner of a cabaret, is doomed due to his mode of dress and lack of refinement. Yuzo is taken to the basement of the cabaret where the cooks ply their trade and given a free meal which he’s too depressed to partake of as his old friend refuses to see him. A romp in the zoo is deflated by rainfall. A concert of Western classical music is ruined by scalpers, who buy the only tickets the couple can afford; it ends with Yuzo on the losing end of a fist-fight. Yuzo’s forlornness invites sympathy, but it’s equally aggravating. When he’s down you almost want to yell at him to cheer the hell up. His demeanor is so readily affected by external agencies that he forever fails to see the bigger picture as he gets lost in the gloom of the present.
A memorable scene takes place when the couple are looking at an apartment for rent. A man that appears to be the landlord seems totally disinterested in renting the apartment, dividing his attention between the couple and his percolating tea. Then he reveals that he is not the landlord at all, but a former tenant who, having been unable to pay his bills, is being forced to rent apartments for the landlord. He tries to dissuade them by saying it’s a dump, cold in the winter and steamy in the summer. When the landlord pops his head in, this lazy receptionist darts into professional mode and asks them about their credit and what is expected of their tenancy—just as quickly he slouches when the landlord goes back to his compartment. It’s cut very quickly and feels Chaplinesque in its development; the couple too finds the situation amusing. Another scene adjacent to this one captures neighborhood youths playing baseball—makes one wonder why the theme of professional sports was never broached by Kurosawa—and Yuzo invites himself into the game, another small moment of unabated joy for him. This small scene is shot with such panache it almost validates the entire film’s running time. This is expert editing and cinematography, making the game come alive as few films have in just a few brief minutes.
Many film scholars neglect to trace the evolution in Kurosawa’s stylistics; later films are often prefaced by factoids about the difficulties of production or Kurosawa’s biographical circumstances at a given time, and if they do talk about any direct artistic influence on the work it’s always the stylistics or motifs that have been retained in his work from the early films on: wipe cuts, the use of telephoto lens, flat compositions, close-ups, horse-riding, trolley cars, swings, speakers etc.. What is never discussed are the contrasts in his work, the things that enrich particular films and make them unique. Much has been made of the fourth-wall breaking finale. Yes, it’s sappy and overlong, a bold, experimental choice the success of which largely depends upon one’s frame of mind1. But One Wonderful Sunday is really unique for its fluidity.
Kurosawa cuts at rare intervals and some of the smaller edits are intentionally obscured, for instance Masako’s finger-pointing at a distant moon which is then zoomed-in upon, followed by she and Yuzo swinging up and over the moon—Kurosawa has secretly changed his position and depth of field. There is another scene where a circle, the logo of the cabaret seen on a business-card, is transformed into its parent image on the swinging doors of the establishment itself. The trolley car scene offers another propitious example: the camera begins at the couple’s feet side-by-side, then rotates up to reveal their laughing countenances, then it rotates up again to catch the empty car handles side-by-side, being swung to the outside of the car by centrifugal forces. This is simply one of the film’s many clever or amusing juxtapositions. The next cut is a beautiful shot of rain coursing like veins down the trolley window.
Kurosawa’s paean to young love has to be one of the most underrated films in his oeuvre. What is most striking about it is the camera; it moves and sweeps in ways that would rarely be repeated in future films. When the couple is buoyant they sprint from place to place, Kurosawa tracks them through the streets with his telephoto lens and the whole film is buoyed by these fanciful runs in which the audience is asked to participate in the couple’s joy. During one of these runs in the rain the window-chassis of a car can be seen peeking out from the right side of the frame—amusing to me that Kurosawa was dollying with a moving car at this time. The film as a whole is influenced more by the social realist comedies of Capra and the sheer kinetics of Chaplin than any immediate postwar Japanese figure. It also has something of the 1920s German “street” films that revel out of doors. With the exception of a long, yet wonderfully composed denouement that takes place solely within Yuzo’s cramped apartment, much of the film is on the move, running toward happiness… or away from it.
1 According to Kurosawa the conceit didn’t work in Japan, but showed success in Paris where audiences applauded loudly and seemed to affect the outcome of the film. One reason it doesn’t work from a dramatic perspective is that all the intricacies of the plot have already been resolved; there is little impetus for the couple’s renewed calamity.