One passage about Japanese cinema that has always stuck with me comes from author and film historian Donald Richie and his 1960 essay "Becoming a Film Critic". In the late 40's Richie was stationed in Japan as part of the U.S. Occupation and while there he would sneak into Japanese movie theatres, something that was technically forbidden at that time, and found himself falling in love with the films he saw there. One thing he noticed was that instead of the beautiful and distant actors and actresses in Hollywood films of that era the Japanese films he saw included an entirely different kind of cast. "But here I saw on the screen the family around its sparse table that I would see through the windows of houses I passed on the way back from the movies," he explained. The people in the films of the 30's and 40's were "...all around me." That passage from Richie pops into my mind as I watch films by Ozu and Naruse, but it resonates most strongly when I watch one film, Hiroshi Shimizu's "Mr. Thank You".
Made in 1936 "Mr. Thank You" presents a narrative about a bus driver (Ken Uehara) nicknamed "Arigato-san" because of how he politely honks his horn to people on his route through the mountain passes of Izu so they can step to the side of the road. Each time they do he cheerily shouts "Arigato! Arigato!" and waves his white gloved hand. You'll notice that I didn't say "'Mr. Thank You' tells the story of..." and there's a good reason for that. Shimizu's film, which to my understanding was largely improvised around the basic plot of a Yasunari Kawabata short story, doesn't feature any kind of hard and fast plot. Arigato-san takes on passengers, some bound for Tokyo others not, each of whom have their own lives and destinations. They hop on the bus. They hop off. For the time they're seated together they interact and create charming scenes, but all of this wouldn't constitute the kind of narrative that most Western audiences would call a "story". The two constants of "Mr. Thank You" are Arigato-san himself and a mother and her 17-year-old daughter (played by Kaoru Futaba and Mayumi Tsukiji respectively) seated at the back of his bus. The two of them can barely hide their sadness and with good reason. Although the mother explains that her daughter is bound for Tokyo for a job we soon discover that she is in fact selling her daughter into prostitution. It's this girl's predicament and the mostly downtrodden passengers on the bus that, while not telling a beginning-middle-end story do give us a keen insight into the lives of many Japanese circa the 1930's.
During the 30's, like the rest of the developed world, Japan was suffering. The nation was sliding further and further into militarism and nationalism. The military build-up in mainland China was costing Japan the equivalent of millions of dollars per day, the nations resources were beginning to dwindle, and by the end of the decade the citizens were subject to shortages and rationing. Those are the broad strokes of the political, social, and economic situation in the country, but Shimizu's film gives us a human face to these issues. The men on the bus who eye this gloomy 17-year-old observe how "girls that age used to laugh," but now "boys can't even find work." Arigato-san's bus passes families that we at first assume are out of a picnic, but we soon learn that they aren't carting lunch baskets, but their belongings and are returning to their villages after being unable to find work in Tokyo. While this is a sad reality what's even sadder is the observation of the spunky young woman (Michiko Kuwano) seated behind Arigato-san about girls like the one at the back of the bus. "Girls who travel beyond these mountain passes rarely make it back..."
Despite the hardships the characters are enduring, though, "Mr. Thank You" is far from being a bleak film. The reality of 30's Japan is balanced out by those charming scenes I mentioned above, are they are thoroughly charming. The men on the bus light up their cigars and have a wordless competition with Michiko Kuwano's character who despite her sophisticated looks can blow champion-sized smoke rings. Arigato-san routinely stops the bus so he can relay messages between the locals, as well as take orders for popular "gramaphone records" from flirty village girls. There's even an inside joke about the film itself. During the credits "Mr. Thank You" is billed as a "Shochiku-Fone Talkie", but when the bus encounters a father and daughter returning from Tokyo where they've witnessed one of these fancy new films the young woman behind Arigato-san asks, "What's a talkie?" to which he replies, "Taki is a woman who impersonates men. So 'talkies' are movies where men talk like women." Meanwhile the camera takes us past coastlines, villages, farms, and towns, and everyone who makes way for Arigato-san's bus - the woodcutters, rickshaw drivers, blind men carrying canes, mendicant Buddhist monks, housewives, homeless madmen, teenage boys trying to ride the bank bumber, traveling kabuki performers - each of them give us a tantalizing hint at their own stories and a larger world existing outside Shimizu's film. What's best is that, like Donald Richie observed in his 1960 essay, they wouldn't have been that different from the men and women who paid a yen to get in to see "Mr. Thank You" in 1936.
If you're looking for a gentle 76 minute journey through the mountains of Izu with some truly delightful company you can't go wrong with "Mr. Thank You", but if you're also interested in getting a real glimpse of Japan of the late 1930's then you should immediately seek this classic film out.