It is March 2011, and that means that it is time for us to watch and discuss Kurosawa’s 1947 film One Wonderful Sunday in our Akira Kurosawa Film Club.
One Wonderful Sunday is typically considered one of Kurosawa’s lighter works, with descriptions like “sunny, sentimental comedy” (Richie, Japanese Film, 281), a “saccharine view of postwar society” (Cowie, 58) and “a sweet, uncomplicated story” (Galbraith, 87) popping up in the various discussions of the film. It is often contrasted with the film that preceded it, No Regrets for Our Youth, which is seen as a far braver and heavier film, as well as with the film that followed it, Drunken Angel, which is typically considered the first of Kurosawa’s works as a mature director. In other words, One Wonderful Sunday tends to be left in the shadows of Kurosawa’s other works, yet one may want to ask whether more may lurk in those shadows than is given credit to by descriptions like those of Richie, Cowie and Galbraith quoted above.
One Wonderful Sunday was created at a time when Kurosawa’s film studio Toho was undergoing major labour disputes that resulted in the studio splitting into two. The old Toho where Kurosawa stayed continued to be controlled by the labour unionist, while a new company called Shin-Toho (New Toho) was formed by a splinter group, which included most of the studio’s big name stars. This fact is fairly apparent also in Kurosawa’s film, as the two main actors who play the film’s postwar lovers, Isao Numasaki and Chieko Nakakita, were virtual unknowns. Numasaki was apparently cast because he reminded Kurosawa of his friend Ishiro Honda (Galbraith, 87), while Nakakita had already appeared in small roles in The Most Beautiful and No Regrets for Our Youth. For Numasaki, who died in 1953, this would be the only work with Kurosawa, while Nakakita went on to play the role of the nurse in Drunken Angel and to appear in The Quiet Duel as the wife of Nakada, the man who gave Mifune’s Dr Fujisaki syphilis during the war.
Despite the labour strike atmosphere that surrounded its production, on the surface at least One Wonderful Sunday is a fairly light and straightforwardly bittersweet comedy of the kind that the quotes given earlier suggest. Apparently, there was love in the air at the Toho studios in 1947. During that year, playwright Keinosuke Uekusa, Kurosawa’s childhood friend and co-writer for One Wonderful Sunday, also wrote Once More, a wartime romance which placed third on Kinema Junpo’s 1947 list (One Wonderful Sunday was sixth on the list, but Kurosawa won an award for best director), while Kurosawa himself wrote a section for the Toyoda-Naruse-Yamamoto-Kinugasa directed Four Love Stories (eighth on Kinema Junpo’s list and starring Isao Numasaki in one of the segments). (Hirano, Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo, 222-223)
In fact, due to Kurosawa’s other commitments most of the script for One Wonderful Sunday was Uekusa’s. As Kurosawa was working on the script for Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail (which would debut a young actor by the name of Toshiro Mifune) as well as on his segment for Four Love Stories, he left Uekusa to write One Wonderful Sunday after first discussing the intended overall structure with him, and only returned to work on the script for its final draft. (Kurosawa, Autobiography, 151)
The film was influenced by Hollywood works such as those by F.W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, Henry Koster’s One Hundred Men and a Girl, D. W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful, as well as such works by Frank Capra as Lady for a Day, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and It Happened One Night (Galbraith, 90; Richie, 45), the last of which will be our Film Club feature next month. In a nutshell, One Wonderful Sunday is a film about stubbornly trying something until you succeed — a motif that would become very familiar to Kurosawa’s audiences — as well as about dreams, hope and fantasies, both ones that are realistic and those that only function as a sort of escapism from reality itself; again a theme that would be repeated in many of Kurosawa’s later films, most notably in The Lower Depths and Dodesukaden.
The story told by the film was nothing very exotic to its audience. Yoshimoto notes that the kind of Sunday date portrayed in it was altogether typical for postwar couples (Yoshimoto, 135), and Kurosawa’s intention with his relative no-name cast was to portray a perfectly ordinary couple wrestling with perfectly ordinary problems of their day. Technically, the film again shows Kurosawa’s gradual progress as a film maker. Most notable features are Kurosawa’s increased confidence and innovation with his compositions (as discussed in Richie, 45), as well as his experimentation with the possibilities of music and sound effects, not all of which necessarily hit the mark yet.
One Wonderful Sunday is typically considered a flawed or even uninteresting film. Prince considers it one of Kurosawa’s three weakest postwar films (the other two “necessary mediocrities” being The Quiet Duel and Scandal), remarking that these films “have a placid surface that is marked by a general absence of radical formal experimentation”. (Prince, 73-75) In Yoshimoto’s view, “the film as a whole clearly suffers from the discrepancy between Kurosawa’s proclivity for accentuating dramatic tension through the juxtaposition of strong-willed individuals and Uekusa’s more subdued poetic lyricism.” (Yoshimoto 136)
The film’s penultimate scene, the imaginary concert, has attracted the harshest opinions from critics. Richie considers the ending not to work at all, with the scene and Masako’s breaking the fourth wall being “supremely irrelevant to the film” and almost “enough to ruin the entire picture”. (Richie, 46) Yoshimoto, meanwhile, would have preferred Uekusa’s treatment of the scene, where the response to Masako’s speech was not expected from the film’s audience, but was given from hitherto unseen young couples sitting in the darkness of the auditorium benches. Yoshimoto goes on to remark that the fact that Japanese audiences did not react to Masako’s pleas may not have been solely due to the Japanese film viewing audiences being unaccustomed to such things, but rather because “they did not find Yuzo and Masako attractive enough to actively share the fantasy of these fictional characters”. (Yoshimoto, 137)
Personally, I do not fully agree with these assessments, and during this month I hope to be able to flesh out why. It will also be interesting to hear your opinions of the film, including what you think of the concert scene, as I have noticed that surprisingly many of you, like me, consider One Wonderful Sunday among your favourite Kurosawa films. Is that solely for its feel-good factor, or do you see something deeper in its story, something more meaningful that the film is telling us about postwar Japan?
One Wonderful Sunday is also a very special film for us. After two years and ten months, we have finally reached the last item on our Film Club’s first run-through of Kurosawa’s works. We started in May 2008 with Rashomon, jumped around from film to film for a couple of years, and then as Criterion/Eclipse released their new copies of Kurosawa’s early films last summer, began to move through his works chronologically. During these three years, we have had some really great discussions, and we have definitely learnt a lot from each other. It is sad to realise that some people have, due to time or other constraints, dropped out either entirely or nearly completely, but we have also had many new faces joining in during our run. All in all, I am definitely looking forward to our second cycle with its new insights as well as revisits of old discussions!
But that is all in the future. This month belongs to One Wonderful Sunday. Let’s make it one wonderful March, people!