Japan’s Warrior Filmmaker: The Films of Akira Kurosawa – One Wonderful Sunday

One Wonderful Sunday (Postwar Kurosawa 2)

  • Starring: Isao Numasaki, CHieko Nakakita

Grade: A

One Wonderful Sunday is a contemporary Kurosawa film set against postwar Japan as it was under allied occupation. It follows a young couple having a date on a tight budget of 35 yen between the two of them. Prior to the war, Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) dreamed of opening their own café with affordable drinks and pastries. However, the war changed things. 

Now, Yuzo battles a dark realist outlook following his time in the war. He no longer dreams and is in a deeply distraught mental state. To combat Yuzo’s despair, Masako maintains a sunny disposition and attempts to inject doses of optimism at every dark turn they face. 

One Wonderful Sunday may wear its postwar Japan subtext on its sleeve (a military vehicle literally interrupts a baseball game as it passes through the street, for instance). But it’s in the characterization of the two leads where the emotion of the era rests. Masako’s attempts to comfort Yuzo are usually a losing battle and she suffers emotionally for it. Where Yuzo’s depressed disposition is born from a fragile pride and extremely low opinion of himself and his place financially and emotionally in occupied Japan. 

At its heart, One Wonderful Sunday is a masterful romantic drama with two highly endearing characters at its center. As Yuzo and Masako traverse the city looking to make the most of their day with very limited funds, the complexity of their circumstances causes drama to play out in such a way that the audience feels invested and highly connected to their love. 

It’s heartbreaking to see Yuzo take the default position of negativity at nearly every turn. Yet, the film doesn’t necessarily position him as the antagonist. On the contrary, his fragile mental state is a force to be reckoned with all its own as Yuzo (and Masako as well) works to uplift himself and free himself from his mental demons. The pain he feels is palpable to the audience and creates a well-rounded and wrenching character all his own without burdening the film by pitting the couple directly against one another. There’s a profound relatability to Yuzo’s mental struggles that elevates One Wonderful Sunday into a more thought-provoking character study than one may suspect going into the film. 

When the film does create a rift between the two lovers which causes them to separate, Kurosawa uses this opportunity to show us what Yuzo meant when he told Masako that she’s all he has left in the world. What follows their separation is a painfully long scene of an isolated and depressed Yuzo scored only by the rainfall outside and the “plop, plop, plop” of a bowl catching drops leaking from the ceiling. The melancholy that surrounds Yuzo in his room as he contemplates what has just gone so wrong is an exercise in masterful visual storytelling. 

Yuzo’s struggle with depression and self-esteem throughout the movie is wisely countered by Masako’s constant optimistic outlook on things. Where Yuzo laments that new “cheap” homes are 100x more expensive than they would have been before the war, Masako sees a free open house as an opportunity for the pair to have some imaginative fun without spending money. When Yuzo notices a hole in Masako’s shoe, she assures him that it just means her shoes will drain quicker if she gets water in them. 

This dynamic of her positivity countering Yuzo’s depression is prominent in the beginning of the film. However, as their story progresses, Kurosawa isn’t forgiving of the ebb and flow of the characters’ moods and emotions. Masako’s patience eventually wears thin at certain points as Yuzo’s depression occasionally gets the better of the day for the pair. This lends such a profound level of care to the relationship at the center of One Wonderful Sunday that when Masako’s attempts to cheer Yuzo up fail, it lands with a devastating thud for the audience. 

At the apex of the drama, Kurosawa gives Masako a soliloquy in an amphitheater. It comes after Yuzo has seemed to have conquered his depression, only to have his imagination momentarily stripped from him again. Masako calls out from the stage and pleads to the imagined audience in the amphitheater’s seats (and those of us watching beyond that fourth wall) that it is them, the young lovers of occupied Japan, who must be supported, applauded, and saved. It’s a plea that is devastating all its own while also making the end of the film hold more power. This also allows for a profound sense of hope for the future of these characters and for Japan by the time the credits roll.

Kurosawa’s handling of the complexity in this relationship of two poor young lovers is incredible. Masako the dreamer, and Yuzo the realist are such brilliantly drawn characters that their love and the tribulations they face can easily bring you to tears. The moments where one or both struggle under the weight of their circumstances (and, by extension, their country) feel authentic and painful. The way Kurosawa lingers on those painful moments is masterful.

One Wonderful Sunday is a beautiful and poignant portrait of young lovers in a new world battling their inner demons that would have them destroyed. It’s one of Kurosawa’s lesser discussed films but also one of the best in his filmography and most endearing. 

One Wonderful Sunday is currently available to stream on Criterion Channel.

Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive ViewerAnthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll. 

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