#25 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
In terms of production, recalling Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy immediately after the end of the Second World War in Italy, Akira Kurosawa told a sweetly sad little tale of people who have nothing. Set in the final days of the Japanese involvement in the war (presumably because the war is barely mentioned and there’s no American presence), it’s a film of an engaged couple finding a way to spend their day off of work with a grand thirty-five yen between them. Using real locations and some non-professional actors to fill out the edges of the cast, Kurosawa put a single toe in a sort of neo-realism. It’s still got a certain narrative messiness, but much like No Regrets for Our Youth, it pulls so much together by the end.
Masako (Chieko Nakakita) and Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) live apart, Masako in her sister’s house and Yuzo has a roommate in a single room apartment, and they meet up in the center of Tokyo for a date. He has fifteen yen, and he feels shame for accepting the twenty yen Masako has with her, but they need to find a way to spend their one day a week together with such little money. Their first stop on the bright and sunny morning is a model home of a traditional Japanese home for 100,000 yen, and it’s here where we find out the main difference between the two. Masako is a dreamer, imagining a life in this house, while Yuzo can just think of the fact that they only have thirty-five yen between them. He’s prone to despair, and she cannot give into it.
They go over to a desolate little area of town where they find some children playing baseball (did the Japanese still love baseball during WWII before the American occupation? I don’t know. Probably), and they spend ten yen on some pastries that Yuzo accidentally hits with the baseball when he gets to bat. Masako notices a business card drop from his pocket, a card to a former army friend of Yuzo’s who owns a nightclub. It sounds like a fun idea, and potentially free if Yuzo can find his friend, so they head on over. There’s something weird about the place, though. Yuzo goes in alone, drops the name of the owner, and the staff act peculiar, directing him to the area behind the scenes, plopping him down, and offering him food. It seems as though this army friend is now a gangster, and this friend has a policy of just feeding those who know him without even meeting them. It is important because Yuzo and Masako have real, legal jobs, without any connection to the black market, and they are actually quite proud of that despite their take home pay being so low that they can’t even afford a single room to rent together.
The day is not going well, and the weather turns to rain. Dejected, Yuzo proposes that they just go home to meet again in a week, but Masako notices a poster for a performance of Schubert’s unfinished symphony with tickets for ten yen each, which they can afford. They head over, but scalpers pick up the last of the tickets and start selling them for fifteen each. They can’t even get into a music performance for the masses, and it breaks Yuzo. They retreat to his empty apartment, and he tries to convince Masako to simply leave him. Not just for the day, but completely. He has no hope for the future. This sequence is quiet and goes on for about twenty minutes, most of it with Yuzo alone in his room, and it’s a very slow realization that without Masako he literally has nothing. When she comes back to him, having forgotten her purse, they reconnect and go out for coffee with dreams of starting their own shop. When they accidentally order café au lait instead of just plain coffee, they don’t have enough money to cover the cost and Yuzo must leave his overcoat behind as collateral.
The final half an hour of the film is Yuzo trying to be the kind of dreamer that Masako is, finding something to get him through the hard times of wartime life. First is the dream of their coffee shop, brought to an end in embarrassment when some children witness the two playacting. And then they find an empty amphitheater. Yuzo is desperate to find that magic and to lighten Masako’s mood, so he pretends to be a conductor to an empty stage, and he struggles with the fiction. The sound of the wind blocks out his attempts to dream, and Masako even pleads directly to the audience to clap in support.
There’s something interesting about this whole series of events. The opening feels a little cluttered, the middle section in Yuzo’s apartment feels drawn out, but the ending is special. The ending has a subtle emotional power beyond the more obvious and direct appeal to the audience. Yuzo finding something to believe in while living in the bombed out shell of a city that was Tokyo is really very nice.
It’s a movie about two people, and it almost exclusively stars only two people. Isao Numasaki is on screen for almost the whole movie while Chieko Nakakita disappears when Yuzo goes into the nightclub and when she leaves Yuzo’s apartment. They’re both fine actors playing simple people looking for meaning in a world trying to chew them up and spit them out.
It’s a nice little film that finds humanity and hope in harsh landscape, a way towards a brighter future no matter the challenges of the day. It’s sweet.