(1936) Written and directed by Hiroshi Shimizu; Based on a short story by Yasunari Kawabata; Starring: Ken Uehara, Michiko Kuwano, Mayumi Tsukiji, Kaoru Futaba, Ryuji Ishiyama, Einosuke Naka and
Available on DVD
“So far this fall, I’ve seen eight girls cross this pass, headed for paper factories and cotton mills, and who knows what else. Sometimes I think I’d be better off driving a hearse.”
– Ken Uehara (Mr. Thank You)
Who among us who ride (or have ever utilized) public transportation, hasn’t speculated about the lives of our fellow passengers? We cast furtive glances and pick up snippets of conversations, hoping to glean tidbits of information that will add up to a coherent composite. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You (aka: Arigatô-san) explores this simple premise, following a bus driver and his passengers on a typical route. Due to the long (in relative terms) route and cramped confines of the petite bus, we get a more intimate profile of the passengers.
The opening montage introduces us to our protagonist, a mild-mannered bus driver (Ken Uehara),* as he makes his daily rounds. We learn how he earned his nickname as “Mr. Thank You,” traveling the narrow, dusty roads, calling out a friendly “Arigato” (“Thank you”) to everyone he encounters, as they clear a path for his bus. He’s very popular with the women he encounters along the way, but there’s no time for romance beyond brief flirtatious exchanges. He does his best to help the people that come and go along his route, whether they can afford a bus ticket or not. In some cases, help might consist of conveying goods (such as the latest hit record), or simply relaying information. Despite the daily hardships he witnesses, he takes everything in stride, with grace and a smile.
* Fun Fact: If Uehara looks familiar, he’s appeared in many films over the next several decades, including a few from Ishirô Honda, typically as a distinguished elderly scientist/official (Mothra, Gorath, Atragon).
In its gentle, understated way, Mr. Thank You provides ample commentary about the sorry state of affairs in 1930s Japan, reminding us that the Great Depression was very much a global phenomenon. A doctor on his way to visit an expectant mother comments, “Every village is producing lots of babies… And when they grow up, the boys become vagrants, and the girls are sold cheap by the dozen.” Work is scarce, and those who manage to find something often face uncertainty and peril. Mr. Thank You, casually assesses the grim reality of the situation, observing, “The girls who cross these passes rarely make it back.” He stops briefly to chat with one itinerant worker, cognizant of the fact that she can’t afford to ride on the roads that she helps to build.
Among a series of hard luck stories, the saddest tale belongs to a 17-year-old and her mother (Mayumi Tsukiji and Kaoru Futaba), who board the bus, headed for a train station. The girl is destined to suffer the fate of many young women in rural towns who have not yet married, sold off to a Tokyo brothel. In one scene, she admonishes her mother, “I’m ashamed to tell people the truth. From now on, just say I’m going to visit relatives in Tokyo” Her mournful story is contrasted with a happy father and daughter returning from Tokyo, who have just finalized the daughter’s wedding plans. For them, it’s a time of celebration and happy memories – a sharp, heart-rending contrast to the awful future that awaits Futaba’s character.
Another key character is the young (unnamed, as are her fellow passengers) woman who sits behind the driver (Michiko Kuwano). She’s only a few years older than the girl, but has experienced much more in those years, traveling from town to town to find work (what sort of work is never mentioned, but we can only speculate). She compares herself to a migratory bird, and like a bird, takes the girl under her wing during their journey. Kuwano enjoys some of the film’s best comic moments, as she shelters the girl from a lecherous, middle-aged businessman with less than honorable intentions.
The film’s gentle comedic sequences, accompanied by Keizô Horiuchi’s jaunty score, bely the serious undertones throughout. It’s the comedy, however, that makes it easier to digest the more unsavory bits, so Shimizu’s film never seems heavy-handed or preachy. Isamu Aoki’s hair-raising cinematography perfectly illustrates the dizzying heights Mr. Thank You’s bus traverses, navigating treacherous switchbacks, and narrowly averting the precarious cliff edges. Mr. Thank You provides a fascinating glimpse into another time and place, when the world seemed much larger, and a 20-mile stretch of road was a vast expanse.