Known for epic dramas with strong anti-war sentiment late in his career, Akira Kurosawa began on a much smaller scale. Initially forced to produce nationalistic propaganda for the Japanese government during WWII, Kurosawa explored issues that mattered to him as soon as the war ended. Having witnessed the disastrous effects of Japan's wartime regime and the country's rebuilding efforts under U.S. occupation, Kurosawa created a series of overlooked films dealing with this period—now readily available through The Criterion Collection's five disc Eclipse series entitled Postwar Kurosawa. Frequently set in Japan's postwar ruins, these more intimate dramas are peopled with characters struggling to come to terms with their country's militaristic past and contemporary society veering away from tradition. Although the subject matter and pacing evoke comparisons with Jasujiro Ozu, you can discern Kurosawa's developing style in this set.
Among the better offerings is One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki nichiyôbi)—a neo-realistic Sunday portrait of a young Tokyo couple, whose lives have been disrupted by the war. Despite serving in the military during the war, Yuzo (Isao Numazaki) can barely scrape enough yen together to split a small room with a roommate while his fiancée Masako (Chieko Nakakita) continues to live with her parents. They meet weekly on Sundays and pool their meager resources for a date.
Besides the idea of striving for a better life in the midst of troubled times, other traces of Chaplin's Modern Times are evident early on—Yuzo picking up a partially used cigarette off the street and an extended "dream building" sequence where the young couple image what their future lives can be. Later a parallel scene unfolds when the couple dreams about owning a café in the midst of rubble after they have inadvertently overspent for watered down coffee and inferior pastries. Even pop musical selections mirror Chaplin's masterpiece in tone.
Yuzo contrasts with Chaplin's romantic tramp, however. Initially Yuzo is much more reality-based than Masako; after all, how can they possibly think about buying a small unit for 100,000 yen when they've only got 35 yen in their pockets that day? They ponder their situation, and Masako wishfully believes that they can make a go of it despite the obstacles. Yuzo considers their plight and how they aren't privileged like the upper classes of Tokyo.
She brings a more optimistic outlook to their Yin-Yang relationship. Their moods shift back and forth and balance each other throughout the day, the same way the weather changes from sunshine to rain (a Kurosawa trademark). Yuzo rekindles childhood dreams when they run into a group of boys playing sandlot baseball, yet his joy is tempered a bit when a home run blast costs him 10 yen. And that's how the day proceeds as they encounter various facets of Tokyo life. When both reach their lowest ebb, the rain soaked pair still recover and eventually imagine themselves at their own private symphony—the appropriately chosen Shubert's "Unfinished Symphony."
Similarly, Kurosawa wisely leaves Yuzo's and Masako's story unfinished as well—we only know that they'll continue to struggle through their daily lives, and that glimpses of their hopes and dreams will remain as long as they continue to meet every Sunday. The story of this young couple stands as a microcosm of the Japanese post-war experience, and a precursor to truly great Kurosawa films like Ikiru and High and Low that examine similar themes. We can see the Japanese auteur perfect his storytelling techniques in this simple story, relying more on visual transitions and on the actors to convey his message. Although the sparse character study remains as slow paced as Ozu's work and explores similar terrain, One Wonderful Sunday distinguishes itself from the older Japanese master by a more mobile camera and editing cuts that reflect western influences on Kurosawa's developing style. As such, kudos must go to the Criterion Collection for making this film available once again.