Keep Calm, Kawaii On

by maxmosher

I am not a gigantic film buff, despite the fact that the ‘film’ tag on the right hand side of this page continues to swell, crowding out other important topics like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Sarah Palin’). I knew that Akira Kurosawa was an acclaimed and influential Japanese director. His name brought to mind images of grunting samurai. I was not prepared for the romantic whimsy of his early film ‘One Wonderful Sunday’.Young couple Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (the charming Chieko Nakakita) meet outside a train station for their weekly date on their day off from work. They each only have a handful of yen but Masako is convinced that their empty pockets won’t stop them from having a good time.

But it’s 1947 in Japan: not only has their country lost WWII, survived the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and witnessed their emperor forced to admit his infallibility, but the Americans are still an occupying force, as evidenced by English signs in the background and Western songs floating through the film’s score.

Besides the mention that Yuzo was a soldier (and he’s not given any respect for that by his fellow citizens) these events are only hinted at. When the couple go to visit a model home (looking eerily similar to suburban tract housing which would spread across the world in the post-war period), Yuzo complains that the house never would have been so expensive “before”. The couple desperately need a place of their own, and are tempted by a horrible flat which the landlord warns looks out on the neighbouring factory’s toilets. To cheer themselves up, they get involved with a group of young boys playing (whatever else?) American baseball.

Despite the viewer being spared footage of any real destruction (the movie was filmed half on real streets and half on obvious sound stages) the sense of having survived a disaster permeates the film. Children without parents are a recurring theme, and even the adults, whether they be drunken black-marketers, corrupt landlords or sleezey ticket scalpers, appear just as lost and drift-less as the kids.

“Remember when we saw the cheery blossoms?” Masako asks at one point. “It’s almost spring time again.” “It’s much colder now…” Yuzo replies.

With her tireless effort to make Yuzo happy, Masako seems to be testing the Beatles’ assertion that all you need is love. Her incessant cheeriness never becomes annoying because when she lets the mask slip you see that behind the smile is worry and frustration. It also doesn’t hurt that Chieko Nakakita is, and I have to use this word, one of the cutest women in the world.

That word ‘cute’ has dominated Japanese visual arts since the 1970’s, but some of suggested that the origins of “kawaii” culture (“adorable, precious, lovable and innocent”) date back even further to the widespread despair of the post-WWII years. A once proud imperial country, humiliated and defeated, sought comfort in the hopeful innocence of childishness, replacing faith in the emperor with faith in Hello Kitty.

Masako carries around a little dog figurine in her purse and, after they’ve had a fight mid-movie, it’s Yuzo finding the toy in his apartment that causes him to miss her.
After having spent their last bit of money on an expensive pot of coffee, the couple are left with only their imaginations. In an abandoned lot they mentally design the cafe that they dream of opening, “with fair pricing” and “cobalt blue curtains.”(“Cobalt blue again?” Yuzo asks. “Just leave colours to me,” Masako shoots back.)Having missed a Chopin concert earlier in the day, the couple sneak into an empty amphitheatre and, with Chaplinesque whimsy, Yuzo begins to conduct the orchestra, telling Masako to imagine the music in her head. When he finds it difficult to go on, Masako begs him to continue. In desperation, she does something very few film characters ever do: she breaks the fourth wall. Tearfully, she begs the viewer to applaud for Yuzo, to encourage him, “for all the poor, young couples in the world!” I half-expected her, like Mary Martin in ‘Peter Pan’, to say “Clap if you believe in fairies!”

I wonder how many original theatre viewers actually started applauding. If you can get an audience to clap for a images on a screen that’s quite a testament to the film maker.

But just as interesting are the more subtle messages about carrying on through adiversity. When a dirt-covered orphan boy upsets them earlier in the film (“He’s not a child,” Yuzo tells Masako to comfort her. “In some ways, he’s older than us.”) Masako’s sunny exterior breaks down. She’s tired of trying to keep her fiance happy and tired of working so hard to make this Sunday ‘wonderful’. Then, having turned her back to Yuzo, she suddenly spins around and dries her eyes. “I’m fine now,” she says smiling. “What should we do next?”

The ability to cheer yourself up, to carry on no matter what has happened, is the timeless lesson of ‘One Wonderful Sunday’ and the one which is most relevant for a country yet again rebuilding after tragedy.