Usually Akira Kurosawa can talk me into anything, but even I have finally found a Kurosawa film that left me glancing repeatedly at my watch. “One Wonderful Sunday” (1947) starts off promisingly enough as an unflinching look at life in post-war, unreconstructed Tokyo. We catch our first glance of the film’s heroine pressed against the doors of a packed tram car coming into the city to meet with her beau. He is first seen on the street below, pressed against a wall and tempted by the sight of a discarded cigarette butt. (We later learn that he hasn’t had a smoke in two days.) At first he is perhaps restrained by a sense of shame, then the sheer volume of passersby prevent his making a grab for the butt. Just when he swoops it up, there is his girl standing there. It’s not the most auspicious start to a rendezvous, and it only goes down from there as he suggests that she should go home and that he has only 25-yen to spend on their date. She generously offers to throw 10-yen of her own into the pot, so now they’ll have 35-yen to splurge on.
So far this is all very good. Kurosawa has deftly sketched in a setting–a city in the grip of poverty and defeat–and presented us with his protagonists. The girl is good-hearted and tries to see things in the best possible light. The guy is sour, made bitter by his poverty and the fear that their pre-war plans of a life together can no longer be realized.
The plot such as it is follows the couple through the day as they wander the streets. She wants to tour a new model home–only 10,000-yen–which he sees as an exercise in futility. The broken-soled shoes that he removes at the entryway only reinforces his gloom. Here they have their first onscreen encounter with The New Japan in the form a well-dressed businessman, laden with packages from the day’s shopping and his companion. To our heroine the sample home is a palace, but the businessman–unaware that another couple is present–grouses about the cheap quality of the workmanship and observes that you get what you pay for–suggesting that him to him, 10,000-yen is a less-than-princely sum.
Tipped off by the businessman about a possible rental property, they rush to a more run-down part of town, across the railway tracks, where they encounter the first of several Dickensian characters with whom Kurosawa populates the film. This gnome-like opium-smoking rental agent runs down the property relentlessly, no view, poor ventilation, no heat, etc. until he reveals that it used to be his apartment until, unable to pay the rent, the landlord evicted him and now he must pay off his debt to the ogre-like landlord who periodically sticks his head in to monitor the transaction. Kurosawa continues to blend whimsy and melancholy. A baseball game with some street urchins ends with the hero damaging a shop sign and must part with a portion of their bankroll for damages. They meet another urchin, this one a grimy orphan who offers them 10-yen for a portion of their lunch. They give the boy a rice-ball, but are loathe to accept his money. He calls them stupid and points out that they are trying to play big-shots at his expense. (Later on we will see how taking the boy’s 10-yen note would have helped them out of an embarrassing situation–so maybe he’s not so wrong in calling them stupid.)
A visit to an old army buddy, now a successful club-owner ends about as you would expect. The “pal” has no interest in meeting a down-and-outer, and instructs his minions to take him down the basement, give him a meal, and a handout, and send him on his way. Once again, our hero indignantly refuses the handout (perhaps like the orphan, he resents having the army buddy look big at his expense) and is left to explain to his girl, who was waiting outside, why they won’t be having supper in the nice shiny new nightclub. This segment seems like a bit of a warm-up for the soon-to-come “Drunken Angel.” It’s our first glimpse, albeit a restrained one, of a burgeoning criminal underworld. It seems that good soldiers who returned to Tokyo alive wound up with broken shoes and dead-end jobs, while screw-ups became big operators in a newly screwed-up world. No doubt when the orphan they shared their lunch with grows up, he’ll be running a gang of his own.
Before the day is over it will rain furiously, the lovers will wait in an endless line to hear a concert of Schubert’s music only to have a couple of scalpers just ahead of them buy up all the remaining 10-yen tickets. (Which they promptly transform into 15-yen tickets.) When the hero, goaded beyond endurance by this latest outrage confronts one of the scalpers, he will be beaten-up by the scalper’s pals. But the day isn’t over yet, after an agonizingly grim confrontation in the hero’s tatty room, the girl has had enough and walks out. It appears that all is over but the guy finally comes to his senses and pursues here. A reconciliation at a neighborhood coffee house ends badly when the guy loses his overcoat as a pledge to cover an expectedly-high bill–he’s 10-yen short. Now to my mind the film could have ended with the lovers’ reconciliation in the rain, but Kurosawa wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. Instead he ends his film on a double note of whimsy first with the lovers imagining the coffee-house of their dreams amid the ruins of someone’s bomb-flattened home and then with the hero “conducting” a performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” in an abandoned outdoor auditorium, to make up for the one they never got to hear.
The film ends with the guy and his girl waiting for her tram. It arrives, they kiss, she boards. Interestingly Kurosawa passed up the chance to “book-end” his film with a shot of the girl pressed against the window waving goodbye. Instead he stays with our hero, who sees another tossed aside cigarette butt. This time, instead of snatching it up, he crushes it out and moves on. I suppose that’s an optimistic ending of sorts.
Ordinarily I never question how a director chooses to pace his film. After all, it’s a story and he’s the one doing the telling, but at 109-miniutes, it was all a bit too much. I would have liked this one better had it been a tighter 80-to-90-minute drama with fewer touches of whimsy. When his mix of light and dark best it was lightly applied. When he tries venturing into Powell-Pressburger territory with too much of the whimsical it seemed to me to throw the film off-balance.