I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) the greatest of film-makers anywhere/ever, which is why I have begun this blog with reviews of his earliest movies, but in 1947, when he wrote and directed “Subarashiki nichiyobi” (One Wonderful Sunday, 1947) he was not yet making “Kurosawa films.” (“Drunken Angel” the next year is his first masterwork IMO.)
In its “eclipse series” (without bonus features), Criterion has just released five early Kurosawa films (No Regrets for Our Youth is the one earlier than “Sunday,” also the earlier one I’ve seen). The print transferred has a lot of imperfections, but, given Criterion’s track record, must be the best one available.
Watching the movie about a young couple in immediately post-war Tokyo who are too poor to marry, I was surprised to see what I thought were echoes of the early sound films of René Clair (Le Million, A nous la liberté). Kurosawa told Donald Richie that his conscious influence was the tear-jerkers of D. W. Griffith (Broken Blossoms, Way Down East) and resilient characters in Frank Capra movies.
At the start, rangy young male factory worker, Yuzo (Numazaki Isao) a male factory worker is waiting on a corner, eyeing a discarded cigarette on the pavement. As soon as he picks it up, his date, the short and somewhat pudgy Masako (Nakakita Chieko [Yama no oto]) shows up. Embarrassed, he explains that he has not had a smoke in three days (and doesn’t have one during the movie, BTW).
He is very depressed, because he only has 15 yen, and can’t afford much of anything for their weekly date. She is higher spirited and suggests they look at a model house (free), then visit the zoo (admission one yen each). Yuzo thinks the animals look depressed.
Masako sees a sign for a concert in which Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony is being played and recalls that their very first date was a concert with that on the program. They dash through the rain (there are no light rains in Kurosawa films!) and are frustrated.
Back at his room (his roommates are out), Yuko finally brings Masako down, but there is a reprieve (or two or three). There is a hideous direct appeal to the audience by Masako, and an ending with some of the optimism in the face of degradation (reality) of Capra and Griffith — and we get to hear the opening movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony after all (other Schubert is on the soundtrack, as early as the opening credits). Fantasy triumphs over the depressing reality of their poverty and bombed out Tokyo. She says, “If you don’t believe in dreams, you cannot live,” and, like Giulietta Masina in the somewhat later Fellini masterpieces or Jean Arthur in Capra movies from the 1930s, she is able to cheer up others and make them forget their stomachs are empty.
The movie is very episodic, slight (though running 108 minutes), with the last parts shot in very phony-looking studio sets. Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai (who shot many later Kurosawa films including Seven Samurai, Ikiru, High and Low, Red Beard, Dersu Uzala, and Ran) managed some interesting compositions (and dissolves).
“One Wonderful Sunday” should appeal to those who don’t find Capra movies corny and Kurosawa completists. Kurosawa made other films set in the (then-) present day (including Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low — all of them better than “Sunday”). But for focus on female characters — and sympathetic ones at that! — this and “No Regrets for Our Youth” (from 1946) are pretty much it (and maybe the girl in “Red Beard”).
©2016 Stephen O. Murray
An English-subtitled DVD is available in the Criterion Collection Eclipse Postwar Kurosawa set.