One Wonderful Sunday

I think about Kurt Vonnegut's Uncle Alex more often than I think about a lot of people I have actually met. Uncle Alex pops up a lot in Vonnegut's writing, and it's almost always in one context: he was apparently fond of remarking "If this isn't nice then I don't know what is" when something pleasant happened. That became one of the cornerstones of young Kurt's outlook on life: maybe the world is full of trouble, but you can still be grateful for a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day.

It's a lesson that Yuzo would do well to learn. Yuzo is the male half of a pair of young lovers in Akira Kurosawa's 1947 romance One Wonderful Sunday, and he is so obsessed with his empty wallet that he's in danger of driving away his fiancee who doesn't care about money at all. For example, right after Yuzo and Masako meet up they stroll past a model home that's on display. She wants to tour the house and dream about when they have a home of their own, but he comments that they can't afford it, and even if they could the workmanship is bad. Later, she points out a beautiful swan, and he remarks that it only looks happy because it's comfortable sleeping in the water. No matter what she says, his first impulse is to turn it into a negative. You get a sense that Masako loves him - but maybe not for that much longer.

To his credit, Yuzo does try sometimes. There's a scene where he spontaneously joins in a street game of baseball and when he strikes out he does exaggerated pratfalls to amuse the kids. Furthermore, the film builds to a climax where they go to an empty amphitheater where he pretends to lead an imaginary orchestra in a rendition of the symphony they couldn't afford to go to that afternoon. But once that tender moment is over and she gets on the bus to go back home, his face clouds over again. His moments of sweetness are never as light as his moments of doubt are heavy.

Still, Yuz's cynicism makes some sense, since the film was made in post-war Japan, where life wasn't exactly easy. Yuzo's yo-yoing emotions are mirrored in the world around him. Yuzo's old army buddy has opened up a new club where people in fur coats go to dance, but when Yuzo takes a minute to imagine the coffee shop he hopes to open one day he does so in a rubble filled lot; he's talking about a promising new future with half demolished walls standing behind him. When we see Yuzo's apartment - which has broken windows and a leaky cieling - we understand why he's so bitter about the well to do couples that strolled through the model home, casually dismissing a place he can barely dream of affording.

World War 2 isn't referenced that much in the movie, but it's clearly a presence in these people's lives. Characters reference the black market several times, often while they are complaining about how hard it is to make an honest living. At one point Yuzo's frustration at being broke pushes him to get into a fight with a gang member who is trying to sell a cheap good at a high mark up. There's a real sense that society's order is barely hanging on - people are trying to keep their heads down and carry on, but supplies and jobs are scarce, and profiteers are only making it worse. It's remarkably frank about the problems post-war Japan encountered even though it only talks about them in passing.

Overall, I think there are two ways to look at this film. As a day in the life portrait of two average people this film is pleasant, but perhaps not too terribly memorable; Kurosawa has made other films which were more insightful and which had more compelling stakes. As a film that documents life in post-war Japan, however, this film is a lot more powerful, effortless capturing a specific moment in time. Either way, One Wonderful Sunday still has a few moments that are genuinely funny and a few moments of genuine pathos. If a movie that makes you feel those emotions isn't nice then I don't know what is.

Winner: Me

One Wonderful Sunday on IMDB