In many ways, Hiroshi Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You, released in 1936, is a little film. Only seventy-six minutes long, it restricts itself, physically speaking, almost entirely to the interior of a small bus and to the road along which that bus makes its regular journeys through the Japanese countryside. There’s not a great deal of action, unless one counts the vehicle’s oft-interrupted progression, nor is there much in the way of plot. Instead, the heart of the film is in its characters and the interactions among them. Some of their interactions are funny; others are poignant; many are brief, by necessity; and as these varied little moments accumulate, the film reveals itself as something grander in scope and in spirit than it might appear at first glance.
Mr. Thank You takes its title from the nickname given to the driver (Ken Uehara) of the aforementioned bus, a man who always gives a shout of gratitude to anyone who moves aside on the road and allows him to pass. He even thanks a flock of chickens that flutters out of his way — a humorous touch, but one that’s also indicative of the respect he demonstrates toward everybody he encounters. To the residents of the rural area where he works, he’s something of a celebrity, even a revered figure. Part of this is undoubtedly due to his position — he’s one of the few connections to the outside world for these isolated men, women and children, and driving a bus is particularly impressive in a place where motorized traffic is a rarity — yet it quickly becomes clear that his popularity far outstrips that of the other driver or drivers on the same route.
“Well, well! It’s Mr. Thank You’s bus today,” says a woman (Kaoru Futaba) traveling with her seventeen-year-old daughter (Mayumi Tsukiji). “My daughter’s lucky to ride on your bus.” Another passenger, a younger woman (Michiko Kuwano), considers herself lucky as well, though perhaps for a different reason. “I was going to take the earlier bus, but I heard you’d be driving this one, so I decided to wait,” she informs the handsome Mr. Thank You, gazing at him adoringly. It’s not just his passengers who love him either. Again and again, he takes time to talk to pedestrians he encounters, the vast majority of whom he already knows, and more often than not he goes beyond merely talking. One man, a traveling entertainer, gives him a message to pass on to his daughters farther down the road; a young woman asks him to pick up a gramophone disc for her and her friends, “one they play in the big city”; and a Korean laborer (Yoshiko Kuhara) who’s leaving the area in order to work on a tunnel even wants him to offer water and flowers at her father’s grave once she’s gone. Mr. Thank You takes on all of their requests without hesitation.
Not all of his passengers are willing to tolerate these delays, especially when some of the reasons for them seem so trivial. “Passing along messages, taking orders for records. That’s enough now,” complains a man with a prominent mustache. Mr. Thank You, on the other hand, understands how these people live, and how even small things can make an enormous difference to them. “With just one record, all the village girls can have a good time. There’s no other entertainment up here in the mountains,” he explains. Although he insists, modestly, that his extracurricular tasks are “just part of making a living on the highway,” it’s apparent that he’s something special, a man of true thoughtfulness, sensitivity and compassion. Perhaps that’s why it never seems as if the pedestrians are taking advantage of the driver’s mobility: they, too, recognize that his kindness and desire to help them are sincere, and their gratitude is sincere in return.
In fact, his concern for others may run a bit too deep at times, as illustrated when, looking in his rearview mirror, he gets distracted by the sight of the seventeen-year-old girl weeping in the back seat and very nearly drives the bus off a cliff. The girl is on her way to Tokyo, alone; her mother is only accompanying her as far as the train station. While a visit to the capital sounds exciting, even glamorous to some people — another young girl, clearly in a much more comfortable financial position, talks almost rapturously about her own trip there — it’s anything but for her. “From now on, just say I’m going to visit relatives in Tokyo,” she instructs her mother. “I’m ashamed to tell people the truth.” Due to her family’s straitened circumstances (they grow tangerines, which are plentiful but so cheap that her mother can’t even buy her a nice kimono), she’s being sent to the city to earn her own living. “Will she be serving in some fancy mansion in Tokyo?” a woman inquires before they board the bus. In response, mother and daughter simply hang their heads; the woman understands what’s really going on at once. “I feel sorry for the poor girl,” she says.
The girl’s story is all too common in 1930s Japan. “In this depression, the only thing we can make more of is babies,” says a doctor (Reikô Tani) on his way to deliver one. He adds, “And when they grow up, the boys become vagrants, and the girls are sold cheap by the dozen.” This theme recurs numerous times throughout the journey, because Mr. Thank You has a habit of telling his passengers about people they overtake along the road. Most of his comments revolve around poverty in some shape or form, and many involve girls specifically: a man went mad after the girl he loved was sold and now roams around in search of her; another man, obsessed with a worthless gold mine, was forced to sell his two daughters. “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,” the driver muses with characteristic compassion. Yet another man, this one on the bus, laments the lack of jobs available for boys and tells the mother that she’s lucky to have a daughter instead; once again, the girl hangs her head, while their fellow passengers exchange uncomfortable glances. Everyone knows the truth, but it’s not until the end of the film that the young woman with the crush on Mr. Thank You utters the word on all of their minds: prostitute.
This woman is off in search of work herself, without optimism. Before she departs, a friend asks her to send word if she finds any good jobs. “Things are the same all over. I doubt it’ll be any different there,” she replies. In contrast to the sad, demure seventeen-year-old, probably a few years her junior, she’s bold, confident, modern: smoking, drinking, chatting freely and flirtatiously with Mr. Thank You, exchanging barbs with the mustachioed man. She also has a romantic streak, coupled with a certain self-absorption or even callousness. Upon hearing about the mentally disturbed man seeking his lost love, she smiles wistfully and says, “I wish I had a man who did that for me.” (“It appears you don’t. I certainly wouldn’t do it,” the mustachioed man replies. “Who says I’d want you to, Mr. Mustache?” she shoots back.) At another point, the bus passes a large family returning to their native village after losing their jobs elsewhere. “Still, they’re lucky to have a home to go back to. I’ve wandered so long, I don’t even know where home is anymore,” the woman says. Considering her circumstances, it makes sense that she’s accustomed to looking out for herself, though this can lead her to be selfish and unkind. When the girl moves up to the front of the bus in order to converse with the sympathetic Mr. Thank You, the woman, regarding her as a threat, says, “Talking to the driver is dangerous.” The girl, disheartened, returns to her seat in the back; the woman, triumphant, resumes chatting with Mr. Thank You, just as she’s been doing all along. For all of this, she’s not a cruel person. As the trip goes on and she becomes better acquainted with the girl and her situation, she starts to act more considerately toward her, inviting her and her mother to take the front seat and, at last, devising a possible means of saving her from being sold.
Other Hiroshi Shimizu films involve people coming together, more or less by chance, to form makeshift communities: the war orphans in Children of the Beehive (1948), the guests and employees at the inns in The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941). The community formed on Mr. Thank You’s bus is even more transitory than those examples. People come and go constantly, sometimes riding for mere minutes, and even the passengers who are onboard from start to finish may only spend an hour or two together at most. (The road isn’t a long one, so even with frequent delays, the journey can’t be too protracted.) Though they live in the same general area, it appears that many of them have never seen one another before, and it’s entirely likely that they’ll never see one another again. (Strangers that they are, it’s fitting that none of their names are revealed.) Even so, in their brief time together, a kind of camaraderie arises among them. They share sweets and alcohol; they sing; they converse. Especially in difficult times, when many are uprooted from their homes and facing uncertain futures, even a fleeting human connection can hold meaning. Moreover, as a result of Mr. Thank You’s stories about and constant interactions with people outside of his bus, there’s a sense that the passengers are part of something much bigger than a vehicle with a few rows of seats. “This road’s only twenty miles long, but so much has happened along it. Just think what’s possible in this big wide world…” reflects the young woman as the trip nears its close. In more ways than one, Mr. Thank You is a connecting thread for the people of his region — and that’s something for which they can be grateful.