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'One Wonderful Sunday' (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 05, 1986

When you think of Kurosawa, whimsy hardly comes to mind. And yet, as a young director, the master of epic slice and dice flirted with caprice in a tragi-comic curio filmed in post-war Japan.

"One Wonderful Sunday," the story of an engaged couple's day off, is Kurosawa's only experiment in shomin-geki, the '30s-'40s drama of the common man. But with its high hopes and youthful aspirations, this sentimental slice of life might be taken for a Frank Capra film. Forget the scowling samurai and scheming geishas and think instead of Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds.

As for the actors, no Yankee comedienne was ever perkier than Chieko Nakakita, playing a chirpy, saucer-faced coquette whose principal purpose is to buoy the sagging spirits of her fiance. And no male lead was ever more Jimmy Stewart-like than Isao Numasaki, as the defeated, disillusioned veteran coming home.

He's low, but this lousy Sunday in 1947 would depress even Mary Lou Retton. Orphans haunt the rubble of Tokyo and gaunt oxen struggle under paltry loads. But the couple, broke and cold, make the best of their situation. They visit a model home which they can never afford; are caught in a downpour at the zoo, where they covet the bear's warm coat; and finally are chased from a Schubert concert by greedy scalpers.

Wearily the lovers return to his apartment where she rebuffs his advances and runs into the rain. We watch the crushed hero pace around the small room in this draining, utterly empty scene, cleverly set to a silent movie score. And we're as relieved as he is when the girl returns and the sun rises again.

"You can't eat dreams," says Numasaki to his upbeat sweetie, who still persuades him to share her fantasies for a brighter future -- you've got to have heart and like that.

In the most offbeat scene, Numasaki tries to conduct an imaginary orchestra but falters when he can't hear the music. Nakakita turns to the audience, and in a voice pitched to dog's ears, begs and pleads like Peter Pan for the fading Tinkerbell. "Please give him a warm hand of applause. All you young lovers applaud for your dreams." (According to Kurosawa, the Japanese have never given her a hand, but French audiences go crazy.) From here on, the tone is stilted as Numasaki stiffly conducts the entire first movement of Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony."

"Sunday" is stylistically excessive, wildly experimental, but it does presage the genius of Kurosawa's mature works, with low tracking shots, characteristically close crops and obstructive scenery making their debut. It's like looking for footprints, tracking the master this apprentice was to become.

"One Wonderful Sunday" is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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