One Wonderful Sunday raises a recurring question about film criticism: how many stars do you give to a film that is mostly ‘good’, but with several slow, mundane periods, yet has extraordinary moments whose power to affect you is rarely matched.
The answer is to avoid a reductive star-based system of criticism. But unfortunately I’m far too shallow to listen to my own advice, so I’ve used one, and given it five. Here’s why.
Kurosawa has a remarkable talent for storytelling through images alone, and the opening sequence of One Wonderful Sunday is a perfect example of this. The setting is post-war Tokyo. A cramped commuter train pulls into a station. A busy street with teams of people, streaming in all directions. The camera picks out a cigarette butt dropped on the ground. And as feet walk over it – people stuck within their own busy worlds – one man with a blank expression over his face concentrates on it. Is it inner peace or miserable melancholia? Through simple elements of characterisation, he already has the audience intrigued.
This is a perfect example of why Kurosawa is at his finest when there is no dialogue, and instead he lets pictures and faces tell the story.
From there, we follow this man and his girlfriend over the course of one day, witnessing their struggle to make a living. They are looking for a flat to move in together, but only have 35 Yen between them – not enough even to last the day, never mind find somewhere to live. They visit a zoo together and joke that, unlike them, even the giraffe is able to get central heating. They only meet once a week – each Sunday. This day should be their escape from the rest of their lives, yet they spend it frustrated and worried.
Given the period and the subject matter, it would be natural to jump to make a comparison between One Wonderful Sunday and the great neo-realist cinema of the late 1940s. But in comparison to the films of Rossellini, Visconti and De Sica, One Wonderful Sunday is somewhat flimsy. Perhaps I am being a little cynical, but maybe his suit is just a bit too nice. Maybe the buildings are not quite rubble-y enough to match Rossellini’s scenes of devastated cities. And the plot loses focus, veering off on tangents, as our characters get briefly entangled with local gangs.
But then it changes. And entirely on the basis of one sequence. And like all great cinema, describing it in words cannot do it justice. So here goes anyway …
Our two characters are despondent at their situation. They have resigned themselves to being unable to find somewhere to live together. She sees an advert for a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and wants to go. He’s unconvinced – the cheapest tickets are 10 Yen each, and they only have 25 Yen left. And anyway, it’s just about to start, and it’s across the other side of town. They decide not to go, dejected.
And then they start running. A quick change of heart and they are sprinting through the rain to make the performance. Will they get to the venue in time? Will there still be tickets available? It is yet another example of Kurosawa’s mastery at dialogue-free sequences. The scene perfectly counterbalances against the film’s opening: suddenly they are the ones rushing through the streets and everyone else’s lives seem still.
They make it to the queue in time. They’re near the front. They’re bound to get tickets. The audience has a feeling of adulation. The central couple desires art and culture, even with their last scraps of money. It highlights the power of cultural fulfilment in life.
But the person in front is a tout. He buys all the remaining tickets, and starts flogging them back to people in the queue, at a price too inflated for our couple to afford. They are left exasperated.
But he decides to stand up to this injustice, and offers to pay the tout the original price for two tickets. His proposal is mocked. In response, he gets angry and a fight starts. He ends up badly beaten.
He is left lying there, ignored by the passers-by, akin to the opening sequence. They are a forgotten couple in a ruthless society.
It is one of the most moving cinematic sequences I have seen in a great deal of time, and it comes utterly unexpectedly, out of a film that had been disappointing until then.
And from this moment, the film goes from strength to strength. As it turns to night, our characters stalk around the shelled-out debris of a building. Together, they plot how they are going to use it to build a café. They find themselves bickering over the colouring of the lettering. Their visions of the future are very real to them. No matter how tough their day or existence, their still have dreams and ambitions.
Suddenly it becomes clear what the film actually is. It is not aiming for tough neo-realism. It’s magical realism. The film’s final sequence (which this time, I won’t spoil) is another remarkable sequence, which goes further to proving this point.
With regards to the number of stars, I believe it’s best to celebrate what the film manages to achieve at its moments of greatness, rather than spend time wallowing in and nit-picking its weaker elements. So on the basis of this, in spite of its numerous problems, One Wonderful Sunday should be held up as Kurosawa’s first masterpiece.