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One Wonderful Sunday: Reality, make-believe, superficiality and depth

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    As I pointed out in my film club introduction, we can identify two major criticisms that are usually launched at One Wonderful Sunday. One of these has to do with the film’s alleged saccharine qualities, while the other is more precisely targeted at the somewhat experimental penultimate scene, where the film’s couple conduct a make-believe concert with the attempted help of the film’s audience. However, it can be argued that both attacks are flawed at their core, and that One Wonderful Sunday should be seen not as a misstep or even sidestep for Kurosawa, but as a film which is an essential part of the film maker’s career and development.

    Richie, who otherwise seems to have enjoyed the film, considers the concert finale a scene where “the film starts to fall apart” (45) to the point that is almost “enough to ruin the entire picture” (46). It is true that the scene is very striking, but it is not altogether uncommon for Kurosawa as a narrative device. Kurosawa had already earlier in his career toyed with breaking the fourth wall, including in one of the final scenes in his previous film No Regrets for Our Youth, and would arguably do so throughout his career, although the scene in One Wonderful Sunday is obviously less abstracted or intellectualised than similar later scenes for instance in Rashomon.

    Breaking the fourth wall

    Three early examples of Kurosawa’s characters speaking directly to the audience. From left to right: No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Rashomon (all images cropped)

    Richie’s problem, however, is not necessarily with the scene’s execution, but with its meaning. In his view, the make-believe concert during which Masako turns directly to the film’s audience, asking them to cheer up her lover, “is a parody of the philosophy of the film” (46) and lacks the profoundness and complexity needed to successfully portray the kind of humanism that, in his view, the first two-thirds of the film set to communicate. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the logic of Richie’s argument, it makes an assumption about the film’s basic premise that may well be wrong. Kurosawa’s work is often automatically seen as driven by his humanism, yet this can be a dangerous critical approach, as it can cause the viewer to overlook other possible, and perhaps more interesting, insights into his works.

    Richie’s approach to One Wonderful Sunday seems to essentially be that the dreams depicted in it offer a powerful opportunity through which one has the possibility to strive towards a better and happier way of being. However, a more socially and politically minded, and arguably also more fitting approach would be to point out that the dreams and fantasies depicted in the film are not an opportunity, but a pure necessity for the couple, at least as long as they wish to continue to satisfyingly operate in the kind of a world that the film documents. Seen in this light, the imaginary Schubert concert seems like an appropriate ending for the film, not only because it finally brings them happiness, however momentarily, but also because it is the only way in which the couple can experience the piece of art denied from them.

    During the course of the film, we are witness to three staged fantasies performed by the couple, which directly correspond to the three basic needs that they have. Early on in the film, Masako attempts to get Yuzo to imagine that they live in the model house, while later on in the film they act out their fantasy of running a café. With the imaginary concert, the film introduces art as the representative of the third level which is needed for a full human existence. It is a strong statement about postwar Japan that the couple has to imagine all three of these things, instead of actually having them: a place to call home, means of proper sustenance, and creativity or intellectual curiosity. Yet, without these dreams, their fate would probably be similar to that of the orphan that they encounter, a particularly down-to-earth looking fellow whose very appearance suggests that he has given up on those dreams.

    As so often in Kurosawa’s films, this basic thesis is verbalised by one of the characters quite early on in the film, with Masako remarking that “This is the kind of world where you need dreams the most. You can’t live without them. It’d be too painful.” (08:10) In the orphan, Masako later sees just such a case where one has given up dreaming. The orphan terrifies her, not because of his mannerisms or his condition, but because of the fact that she sees the possibility of herself and Yuzo in his shoes.

    It is worth pointing out that the final concert, unlike the couple’s earlier attempts at manufacturing happiness which have all been unsuccessful due to external factors, takes place in almost complete darkness — as if the external world no longer existed. Here, no one can interrupt them, and nothing like the accident with the baseball or the miscalculation at the café can happen. Through their state of isolation, the couple has literally entered the world of art, standing on the stage, and in doing so directly bridging the gap between them and the film’s contemporary audience. This is constructed as a magical space shared by the characters and their audience, and although the film may not be entirely successful in creating the response that it aims for, it does heavily underline the fact that by and large these characters and their viewing audience share not only the same universe, but also the same problems. For the contemporary audience, One Wonderful Sunday stands for what the concert represents to the couple, a chance for make-believe that takes them away from reality. Yet, it just so happens that by pointing out this connection, and by bringing on the screen problems very familiar to the audience, the film fails to be the sort of light escapism that the concert represents to the couple, and what the film is usually labelled as being.

    Fortunately, the film goes beyond a simple illustration of society’s problems, and attempts to pinpoint some reasons for them. Although the most direct and obvious cause for the state of affairs is the war, there is another constant presence in the film on which the actual blame seems to be directly placed: the mafia.

    Gagsters, indeed, seem to be everywhere in the film, although not quite at the forefront. There is the strong implication that Yuzo’s friend who has made it big with his cabaret business, is deeply involved with the mafia. At the real Schubert concert, gangsters buy up all the cheap tickets and sell them out on inflated prices. When Yuzo protests, they beat him up. At the café, after Yuzo pays what they have and leaves his coat as a guarantee that he will come back later to pay the rest, there is a gang member, assumedly offering protection to the café, instantly ready to follow him up to shake the rest out of him. Finally, in a twist of roles, there is even the suggestion that the bun seller, whose property Yuzo accidentally damages with the baseball, may initially be ready to forget about the whole thing when he sees Yuzo approaching the shop with the baseball bat — a figure easily mistaken for a yakuza gangster. It is only because of Yuzo’s honesty that he offers to pay for the damages.

    The problem goes higher up in the society, however. Early on (16:40), reflecting on their financial troubles, Masako remarks that “black marketeering passes for ‘lawful’ these days. We’re the exception because we’re honest.” She then goes on to offer a direct, albeit slightly muted criticism of the powers in charge of Japan’s postwar recovery: “I wish people in big houses thought about people like us sometimes”, to which Yuzo responds with a more direct accusation: “You think they care? They only care about themselves.” This observation is repeated at the zoo, where the animals become representatives of postwar society. In the case of the pig (41:20), Masako calls out “Look! Pigs in the lion’s cage!”, to which Yuzo remarks: “The world these days is run by pigs who’ve gotten fat on the black market.” Japan, in other words, would be in need of a lion.

    In spite of this, Yuzo and Masako continue to hold on to the hope that one day honesty and kindness will again be rewarded. This is most pronounced in the way in which the couple’s dream café would operate. Their “honest, affordable shop” would, in their fantasy, put the over-charging ones “out of business” (1:21:30). It would be a “fair” café, a “café for the masses”, not quite a hard cold capitalist enterprise, but not really a socialist experiment, either. However, in the society depicted in One Wonderful Sunday, only the crooks seem to profit, and honesty is not rewarded.

    This is the issue that One Wonderful Sunday so well problematises: how to be decent in a society which does not reward decency, and how can such a society ever develop into a properly functioning one? The initiative for change, it suggests, must come from the decision makers. The common people are powerless in that regard.

    Yet, this is not to say that everyone doesn’t have their part to play. Yuzo refuses to take the dirty cabaret money. Similarly, his rejection of the cigarette which bookends the film seems to symbolically suggest that any thoughts that he may have had at the beginning of the film about moving into the more lucrative black market world are now gone, and he chooses dignity instead. It is furthermore probably significant that this final scene has him standing next to a trash bin which is labelled “Trash” in English. It is as if Yuzo was symbolically sending the cigarette, and with it the corruption, to the English speaking domain, representing the American led occupation. His movements in this brief final scene seem to support this interpretation, especially as his leaving the trash bin is further emphasised by the soundtrack’s booming final theme. As we fade away into the end title card, Yuzo is looking away from the trash and into the city, into Japan and into the future, having left the offending “Trash” behind.

    One Wonderful Sunday was Kurosawa’s second postwar film, but the first one that actually took postwar Japan as its direct subject. It is sometimes considered a “safe” film when compared to No Regrets for Our Youth, but even if one subscribes to a view where No Regrets is a masterfully hidden criticism of the new occupation era, it is difficult to see how One Wonderful Sunday, as a fairly direct and ultimately depressing look at postwar Japan, could be any safer film than the one which, at least on the surface, fairly straightforwardly seems to denounce the war and in doing so also tick a fair number of boxes from what the occupation censors were ordering from Japanese film makers. (Sorensen, 87-88, 218)

    One Wonderful Sunday arguably fulfils slightly fewer of the censorship’s requirements, and also appears to go directly against some of them, as for instance by showing parts of the city devastated by Allied bombing during the war, which was prohibited. (see for instance Hirano, Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo, 54) This is of course not to say that it is a truly rebellious film — it certainly would not have made it through the censorship if it had been — and there are many instances where it also corresponds with occupation wishes.

    One of these fulfilled requirements is embodied in the character of Masako, who may not be quite as liberated and individualistic as the strong-willed heroine of No Regrets for Our Youth, but is nevertheless clearly in control of her life. Despite missing from most lists of Kurosawa’s heroines, Masako is in fact the driving force of the film, as it is she who through her insistence on dreams lifts Yuzo from his negativity and feeling of hopelessness that engulfs him throughout most of the film.

    Masako is also a master of her own body. Earlier on, I identified three basic needs that Masako and Yuzo have to fulfil, yet can do so only by dreaming and fantasising. There is, however, also a fourth fundamental need, and it is one that runs at the background throughout the film, and creates most of the conflict between the two characters. This is the need for sexuality.

    One Wonderful Sunday, made in 1947, came out at a time when the Japanese film industry was putting out so-called “kissing films”. Starting in 1946, the American censors had begun to encourage film studios to include kissing in films, and after what Hirano describes as an awkward start, the practice became common, and for a while the market was flooded with films that included kissing scenes, eliciting both positive and negative responses from audiences and film makers alike. (Hirano, 155-157) It should, however, be mentioned that despite its story of a Sunday date, Kurosawa’s film does not really belong to the category of “kissing films”, and goes rather deeper into the subject of sexuality.

    Yuzo’s physical interest in Masako is clear from very early on in the film. He makes his first pass at the model house, and from here on it is clear that Masako is slightly concerned about her lover’s intentions. She clearly does not want to go to his place, fearing what might happen there, and once they nevertheless end up alone in his room, she offers to make tea or do shopping, not only to cheer him up, but presumably also in order to get away from the uncomfortable situation, and to introduce something into the dynamic that would prevent Yuzo from making another pass. She is, however, unsuccessful in her attempts, and Yuzo ultimately comes onto her, going as far as starting to lock the door. This effectively scares her away, with only her purse and the small teddy bear in it remaining. Masako does return, of course, and the situation is momentarily resolved.

    The sexual tension resurfaces at the end of the make-believe concert, when Masako rushes up to the stage and effectively offers herself to Yuzo, who proceeds to kiss her long and cinematically. Whether that kiss leads into something else is obviously not shown, but considering the tears on Masako’s face in the following scene (1:45:50), and the way in which Yuzo helps her up from the bench and straightens up her jacket, there appears to be a strong indication that something more than just a kiss may indeed have taken place.

    Early on in One Wonderful Sunday (starting at 03:40), there is a brief scene which on the first look appears quite irrelevant and disconnected from the rest of the film. In it, Masako helps a young child to drop a letter into a mailbox. Yet, Masako’s look following this action (04:05) is particularly telling, with a clear sign of longing on her face.

    Masako's reaction

    Slightly later on, when inquiring about the empty flat (14:00), we are explicitly reminded that the couple has no children. Taking this into account, one assumes that something could then be read into the shot following the kiss after the imaginary concert. In it, like before in Yuzo’s apartment, the camera settles on Masako’s purse, with the teddy bear and a needle sticking out of it. (1:44:50)

    Masako's purse

    The needle, of course, is a typical phallic symbol, while the teddy bear may be seen as representing a child, or at least a wish for one. With this line of thought in mind, we may also think about the meaning behind Yuzo’s outburst at his place (around 1:03:50), when he declares to Masako that “You’re all I’ve got. You’re all that’s left.” and how he clings to another needle like object at the time.

    The crucial point, however, is that rather than a purely physical need, the suppressed sexuality that is a source of conflict for them throughout the day, represents the urge to have an offspring, a project that they currently have no financial means to carry out. The society, in its current state, has made it very difficult for them to reproduce responsibly, an in doing so has denied from them a possibility which represents the very essence of what it is to be a living organism. This is the extent of the consequences that arise from the alleged mismanagement of a country that is shown as being strongly in the control of the wrong people, or at least wrong attitudes.

    One Wonderful Sunday is by no means a technical masterpiece, and Kurosawa would in his subsequent works go on to considerably develop his skills in tackling the subject of postwar Japan. But One Wonderful Sunday is nevertheless a far stronger and weightier film than it is typically given credit for. It is the first true example of his exploration of the ills of occupation era Japan, and the first in which he takes on the subject of a society run by gangsters and black market economy. It is also one of his most direct, if not necessarily his most skilful takes on the themes of reality and illusion, and the part that they play in our everyday happiness.



    So much to absorb there Vili, I just want to say that this is by a long margin by far the best thing I’ve ever read about One Wonderful Sunday, its superb.

    Will comment more when I finish watching the film again!



    Vili – Having finally watched One Wonderful Sunday, I agree with your view that the film is more of a social and political commentary about an environment in which such dreams are necessary as opposed to another paean to humanism. I don’t see it as a feel good movie at all; in fact, much of it is rather depressing even though Masako makes a mostly successful attempt to maintain an optimistic outlook throughout. For one thing, the movie is, as you say, peppered with unflinching realities: inflation, shoddy workmanship, prostitution and corruption at the cabaret, scams like the one at the cafe, and black marketeering and yakuza control, including the sale of the less expensive concert tickets to scalpers who buy out the remaining supply and resell them at a 50% profit.

    I have yet to see No Regrets for Our Youth, but I do not see this as a safe movie when it comes to censorship and criticism of the Occupation. I don’t know how much trouble Kurosawa had getting the script and final product approved, but all the references to the very real post-war problems people had, especially those who were trying to retain their honesty and integrity, don’t seem like a ringing endorsement of the way things were. The censors might view the film as laying ultimate blame for this situation on the war, but it’s certainly a bleak and not very hopeful view of the current situation that doesn’t show much of a systemic way out other than the implication at the end that the Japanese people needed to face up to things and deal with them themselves rather than leave it all up to the Westerners.

    I’m not sure what you mean by calling the cafe fantasy a fulfillment of their need for a means of proper sustenance. If you meant sustenance in the sense of food itself, I would disagree; if you meant it in the sense of satisfying work that provides the ability to buy food, I would agree.

    For me, the scene leading up to Masako’s plea to the audience is too long and the way she breaks the fourth wall is awkward. I would have preferred the method used by Uekusa in the original script in which the plea was addressed to other hitherto unseen couples sitting in the ampitheatre.

    Finally, thank you for the discussion of sexuality, which was something I also picked up on and which I intend to make the subject of a separate post. As you know, I like to examine Kurosawa’s treatment of his female characters. I’m not sure why they become less prominent as time goes on — a question I want to pose more forcefully and throw open to everyone elsewhere — but one thing I’ve noticed (and I have yet to see both The Most Beautiful and No Regrets for Our Youth, both of which feature a woman as the main character) is that many of Kurosawa’s female characters have agency.

    They act and think for themselves independent of, and sometimes in contradiction to, male characters. Think of the judo instructor’s daughter in Sanshiro Sugata, Miyako in Scandal, the wife in Rashomon (although the “attracted to her rapist/it wasn’t rape” trope in some versions of the events tends to undermine her agency), Toyo in Ikiru, Shino and Rikuchi’s wife in Seven Samurai (although Rikuchi’s wife exercises her agency by choosing suicide), Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood, the landlady in The Lower Depths, the princess in The Hidden Fortress,, and the promiscuous wife and husband-swapping wives in Dodesukaden (though the sexualization of these characters, especially the former one, somewhat undercuts their agency). (If I’ve left some out, it’s mostly because I haven’t seen those movies or, in the case of Ran, don’t remember enough about them.) Maybe the problem is that as time passed, most of the women with agency in his films were villains or otherwise morally suspect.



    lawless: I’m not sure what you mean by calling the cafe fantasy a fulfillment of their need for a means of proper sustenance. If you meant sustenance in the sense of food itself, I would disagree; if you meant it in the sense of satisfying work that provides the ability to buy food, I would agree.

    My wording could probably have been better. I didn’t mean food directly, but rather means of livelihood.

    lawless: For me, the scene leading up to Masako’s plea to the audience is too long and the way she breaks the fourth wall is awkward. I would have preferred the method used by Uekusa in the original script in which the plea was addressed to other hitherto unseen couples sitting in the ampitheatre.

    I definitely agree that the scene does not really work, but somehow I am still quite fond of it, and I am glad that Kurosawa tried it out. For me, it is one of those mistakes that end up being more interesting than alternative versions that might have worked better for the film.



    Vili -I rewatched the end of the movie because I didn’t remember Masako’s tears or Yuzo helping her straighten her clothes. I’m still not exactly sure what happened; it’s subtle enough that while your explanation is possible, so are others, like that she was moved by the ‘concert’ and that their embrace disarranged her clothes. She appears cheerful again by the time she gets on the train, but we don’t know how much time has passed.



    There definitely are other possible explanations for the ending!



    Vili – If you hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have even picked up on it as something to pay attention to. Mostly, I was staring at the trash can with the words “trash” printed on it. I knew from prior discussions that since it was in English, it had something to do with the occupation. 🙂



    I think the reason for their transformation at the end is quite ambiguous. I think there is a very slight hint that they had sex after the concert performance, but I had to look very closely to pick up those hints! There is something of a leap from their kiss at the end of the performance to the happy couple we see at the railway station. It may be that the kiss was considered enough – they were a couple again, the fantasy had done its job, it enabled them to survive.

    Like Lawless, I was transfixed by the ‘Trash’ can! It seems so jarring in the context. Unless it so happens that for whatever reason Japanese railway stations at the time all had cans imported from the US, I can only assume it was meant as a very deliberate statement of what American culture is useful for.

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