Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Two young lovers look through an open house in Tokyo. With only 35 yen between them, Yuzo doesn’t understand why his girlfriend, Masako, bothers pretending they could ever afford a place like this. Yuzo:“We have to face reality to survive in a world like this.” Masako: “This is the kind of world where you need dreams the most.”
The brief tour through the open flat is a good visual representation of the way Akira Kurosawa makes use of space within the film as a whole, but it’s also symbolic of the young couple’s plight, at least for the day. They have little money to spend, but Yuzo’s stubborn practicality borders on depression, meaning he refuses to find joy in the simplest (read: free) pleasures, the ones they will have to rely on just to survive.
This might sound overly fatalistic, but Yuzo’s and Masako’s story is bigger than themselves. The film was made less than two years after the end of World War II, and one of the pivotal scenes, in which the dire Yuzo comes back to life a little, takes place in the ruins of what looks like a bombed out building. The setting goes uncommented upon and is just another aspect of their everyday life, no different than a park bench you walk past every day with little notice.
Yuzo meets Masako at the train station so they can spend the entire Sunday together. When the film ends they have returned to the station, and she heads home for another long week before they can see each other again. Their day together is both personal and grand. They putter around town, looking for things to do and spending most of their time in conversation. In this manner the film is reminiscent of other dialogue-driven films, whether Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy or even something as self-contained as My Dinner With Andre.
It doesn’t matter so much where Yuzo and Masako go within the city. Wherever they wander, they’re limited by their economic class, and the tour of Tokyo just becomes an exhibition in all the things out of their reach. The first example is that open house. She adores the small house which another, older couple scoffs at. When the older husband of that couple mentions a cheap, dirty place for rent nearby, Masako asks for the address.
Yuzo and Masako visit the space where the old man working actively dissuades them from renting it. He used to live there, and he says the place will give them rheumatism and typhus. It’s too cold in the winter and hot in the summer. It doesn’t receive any direct sunlight, and the landlord is something of a dictator. Yuzo and Masako nod their heads, but they’re only waiting for him to stop talking so they can take a look at the place. It doesn’t much matter, though, because the rent is still too high.
Later the young couple will attempt to get into a performance of a Schubert symphony, one they heard on their first date. The man ahead of them buys up all of the remaining cheap tickets, and once again they find themselves locked out.
The attempt to even get into the concert is a victory, however. The inability to get in is merely the second layer of defense to their shared happiness. Before they decide to go, they share a long debate in which Yuzo is reluctant to do much of anything, and Masako is the one desperately pushing him onward. Like with the small room for rent, this is another example of the multiple obstacles to the couple’s happiness.
Later on we will see just how seriously director Akira Kurosawa takes Yuzo’s depression. This isn’t just one of those self-serious male and bubble female stories like the rom-coms with the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Yuzo is very clearly suffering, so much so that he nearly assaults Masako after a lengthy conversation with her trying once more to prop him up. She will leave and soon return, breaking down in tears and forcing him to try and comfort her.
This is a very troubled young couple, and the film seems to attribute the entirety of their sadness to their financial limits and the existential toll the war had on Yuzo. There is one point in the film in which Masako mentions that before the war Yuzo used to dream, and further into the night, when Yuzo does begin to dream again, she will state explicitly that it’s the first time he has expressed such unbridled optimism and determination since he returned from war.
The film ends on a sincere, optimistic note. The couple may be on their own, with no one to help them, but they have the will to keep going, and that’s enough. There is a long sequence of the two of them in an empty amphitheater, determined to make each other happy. First it’s Masako who insists they can imagine the Schubert symphony, and that it will be enough. Yuzo isn’t so sure, but by the end he hears it, and soon Yuzo is throwing himself into the conducting of the magical, invisible orchestra. Sure enough the audience hears it too.
The music swells, and we see earnest close ups of the young lovers’ tear-stricken faces. This is an appeal to the viewer to feel what they feel, to empathize with their struggle and not to forget about them because there are so many others enduring the same or much worse. If that wasn’t already clear it certainly is when the two of them look directly at the camera, and Masako says, “there are many poor young lovers like us… please give us all a big hand… we’re freezing in the cold winds of this world. Do it for poor young lovers everywhere. Please cheer us on. Hell us dream beautiful dreams. Please, a round of applause. Please. Please, applaud. Please! Please, all of you!”
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a direct, sincere acknowledgement of the audience in a movie before. So often breaking the fourth wall is a way of distancing us from the story, calling attention to the medium or winking at something within the story. It’s a device that reminds us this isn’t real, and yet in One Wonderful Sunday it’s a technique meant to bring us closer to these characters, to remember that even though Yuzo and Masako are fiction, they might as well be real. They are faces to put on the large numbers of invisible people barely hanging on. They are that young child the coulee comes across earlier in the film or the silhouettes they hurry away from in the burned ruins of whatever those buildings once were. They are soldiers, civilians and those already dead.
This is as sincere a story as I’ve ever really seen. It’s on the nose at times, but it damn well should be. This was a film made less than two years after two atomic bombs devastated parts of the country. It’s a film keenly aware of our own mortality but also our humanity, a story that acknowledges the painful truths that there aren’t always happy endings but one that celebrates the determination to make one of our own. It’s a film that believes in its characters and its audience.
It’s hard not to love these two characters. There’s something recognizable in both of them, in Yuzo’s practical nature and real despondence as well as in Masako’s bubbly determination. One is sadness, the other joy, but soon we’re made to see that they’re really feeling the same things, only they express it differently.
It’s a touching portrait, and the moment that sticks out to me the most takes place about 32 minutes into the film. Sitting on a bench somewhere, Yuzo begins testing Masako, trying to identify the limits of her optimism. He points out her shoes which we previously saw were falling apart. She says the hole is okay because that means the shoes will drain faster when it rains.
“Our first time here, the cherry blossoms were blooming.”
“It’ll be Spring again soon.”
“But it’s getting colder. What if it snows?”
“We can make two snowmen.”
“Do you have a winter coat?”
“This raincoat is thick enough.”
“I saw your shoes.”
“You mean the big hole? They drain quicker that way if they get wet…… what’s wrong, are you angry?”
“No. I just feel worthless, that’s all.”
It’s a wonderfully tender scene, complete with what sounds like the soft stringing of a harp in the background. It’s playful in it’s own way, even as it remains quite tragic. These are two kids, really, who are in love, and yet one of them insists on trying to push around the other. I think what I find so painful but heartwarming about it is the way they recognize each other, the way they truly see each other.
In the span of under a minute we see their opposing ways of dealing with harsh circumstances before they acknowledge what’s rally going on. She’s not bothered by his attempts to undermine the pep in her step, an attempt which feels very personal when he calls attention to her shoes. This comes after that early scene in which we saw him examine her shoes with a sadness that felt somehow criminal, like he genuinely pitied her. It’s this determination to expose another’s sadness that feels quite brutal.
But she knows it’s not malicious, and by the end of that short exchange she understands that he’s in pain. He’s vulnerable enough with her to accept that as well and not to continue lashing out. She acknowledges his pain, and he acknowledges the core of the problem.
There are moments of intense despair within the film but also moments of intense joy. It feels like a deliberate effort by Kurosawa to repeatedly show the extremes of human emotion and the small amount of time that might bridge these extremes. Not long before that above conversation, there is a moment of pure elation as Yuzo impulsively jumps into a game of children playing baseball. There are close ups of the joy shared between Yuzo and Masako as well as amongst the children whom we don’t know well but about whom we can gather certain truths about their ways of life.
There is a huge contrast between these happy children and the beggar they come across later. Well, he’s not exactly a beggar, but his appearance and isolation suggest he’s an orphan living on his own. He asks Masako for a rice ball and offers her ten yen in return. When Masako understandably turns down the money, his response is, “don’t be stupid.”
This is a kid that’s seen some sh*t and knows what’s up. Masako will insist he take the rice ball for free, and he will but their interaction ends with him telling them to worry only about themselves. Masako cries, saying she’s going to dream about that poor child that night, but within a matter of minutes she composes herself and flatly says, “I’m over it,” in a way that is very much to be believed.
One moment these characters are suffering, and the next they’re ecstatic. It’s not so much the intensity of those two extremes that stands out as much as the fatigue of going from one to the other so quickly.
And by the end they are surely burnt out, but through it all they settle on happiness, holding onto the dreams their shared love allows them to have. Maybe the next week will come, and the cycle will play out all over again, but Kurosawa chose to end this on an optimistic note, and that decision tells us how he wants us to feel about Yuzo and Masako and all the people they represent.
This is a film about the determined joy of two characters pressed with misfortune. They have seen the worst, witnessed awful destruction, and yet they feel a little like the phoenix rising from the ashes. As they putter, stumble, saunter and dance around the visible destruction surrounding them, they hold onto the idea that, “you can create worlds in your dreams, right?”
Up Next: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), The Sunset Limited (2011), The Great Dictator (1940)