A young couple attempt to have a nice day out in Tokyo for only 35 yen but eventually discover something much more valuable in Akira Kurosawa’s surprisingly upbeat voyage through the backstreets of the post-war city, One Wonderful Sunday (素晴らしき日曜日, Subarashiki Nichiyobi). Though it may begin with frustration and progress to abject despair, the film allows its dejected heroes to find renewed hope for the future in the ashes of their defeat if only through the power of make-believe.
Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) are a young(ish) couple who’ve been together since before the war but are unable to marry because their precarious financial situation prevents them from finding a home in which they can live together. Though they are each in full employment, Masako currently lives with her sister and Yuzo with a friend. They can only spend Sundays together, but this particular Sunday Yuzo is fulled with frustration and resentment. He has only 15 yen, not much of a date as he tells Masako with irritation explaining that she’s had a wasted journey. She reveals that she has 20, but Yuzo has his male pride and is reluctant to take “a woman’s money” while internally humiliated not to be able to take her out on the town. Just before she had arrived, Yuzo had stared at an abandoned cigarette butt on the pavement. His desire soon overcame his shame. He picked it up and smoked it, only for Masako to bat it out of his hand as if insisting that he’s better than that.
For her part, Masako is defiantly upbeat. Perhaps she’s putting on a brave face for Yuzo, but does her best to buoy his spirits so they can have a nice day together. It may be her only nice day all week. While she looks forward, he cannot move beyond the dissatisfying present. Masako begins by suggesting they check out a show home advertised on a billboard as a new kind of residence which is cheaper to build and available for only 100,000 yen for the first 100 buyers. She imagines how their life might be together in this space, while Yuzo merely sulks in the corner and points out the shoddiness of the build amid declining modern standards. It’s advertised as affordable, but they can’t afford it. Meanwhile, another man wanders in with a woman who is clearly his mistress. She exclaims that the place is a dump, “I hate matchbox houses”, while he agrees that it’s cheap for a reason and you get what you pay for. Presumably he already owns a home where his wife and family live and is about to drop a small fortune on a discreet love nest while his mistress, not unreasonably, attempts to haggle her way up to something a bit more fancy. Yuzo knows he won’t ever be able to afford even this “inexpensive” home that a wealthy man disdains as not worthy of his bit on the side. They’ve just come from seeing a crummy flat a few streets away which Masako asks directions to only to be put off by the doorman who warns them that the flat isn’t even really habitable and the landlord is heartless but they couldn’t afford that either even on the assumption they would both keep working (which depending on Masako’s job might not possible once she marries).
The landscape around them is in ruins. Yuzo and Masako wander through a bombed out city not yet ready for reconstruction looking for somewhere to stay out of the cold without eating into their 35 yen. He wants to give up and go home, but she convinces him to attend a concert of the music they heard on their first date before the war only when they get there all the cheaper tickets have been bought up by touts who sell them on at 50% markup. Beaten up for challenging the touts’ uncompromising cynicism, Yuzo hits rock bottom returning to his flat in a rundown tenement where a woman mopping the corridor gives Masako serious side eye. Frustrated, he tries to pressure her into premarital sex, her rock bottom coming a few minutes later when she firstly leaves in outrage and then returns as if admitting that their situation will never improve.
“The war destroyed that dream” Yuzo had said of Masako’s attempt to rekindle his hopes for the future in the plan they made to open a cafe together after they married, but the reality of their mutual defeat finally seems to inspire defiance in the face of the world’s hostility. On their journey through the city, they’d encountered a ragged street kid who thought them fools after they refused his offer of ten yen for one of their rice balls and simply gave it to him out of human kindness. Yuzo felt himself a fool after trying to visit an old friend who’s done well for himself with a swanky cabaret bar only to be rebuffed and see his own image reflected in a mirror with his threadbare overcoat and battered hat juxtaposed with the image of a fine young couple eyeing him with disdain and suspicion. In the end Masako can only appeal to us, breaking the fourth wall in a moment reminiscent of Peter Pan asking us to clap if we believe in fairies as she tries to revive Yuzo’s sense of naive possibility to conduct an unfinished symphony of their imagined life together in a happier future of post-war Japan. Refusing to give in to their baser instincts, to become cynical and selfish or else simply to give up, this wonderful Sunday does seem to have given them a childish sense of hope that better days are on their way and until then there’s always next week.
One Wonderful Sunday screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 3rd & 15th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.