(Japan, Hiroshi Shimizu)
Hiroshi Shimizu is a director who has largely been ignored by history, though over the past several years the tide has begun to turn as more film historians have rediscovered this wonderful director (leading to a Criterion DVD release of four of his pictures). Shimizu was a keen and perceptive observer of Japanese society and how economic changes delivered cataclysmic shocks to the same people they were meant to help. He was ambivalent about the alleged benefits of industrialization and empire building, wondering when the promised days of milk and honey would come trickling down. Mr. Thank You is a sincere attempt to grapple with how economic uncertainty jostles people’s lives, disrupts traditions, and undermines familial relationships.
The movie follows the driver and passengers on a bus as it moves through the countryside of Japan, from a small town to a large city. Passengers embark and disembark, interrupting narratives and beginning new ones, as we would expect on any bus trip. This restrains (or frees, depending on one’s perspective) Shimizu from using a traditional narrative structure. Instead, he gives us a series of glimpses at the lives of everyday Japanese folks. Throwing them all together in a vehicle of public transportation zeros in on the hardships of modern life and how people, traveling from one place to another, cope with them. We meet some menial laborers going from one worksite to another, a shady middle-aged man clearly hiding from the authorities, criminals, or both, a hard-edged “working girl,” and a true aristocrat heading home from a hunting trip, though we are unsure why he would need to take a bus. Two passengers thread through all the other stories: a mother taking her daughter to the city where she will be sold into a life of prostitution.
The eponymous Mr. Thank You (Ken Uehara) is the driver of the bus, a face of cheer among his passengers and the people in villages along his route. His is the epitome of friendliness and politeness; his name derives from his cheerful and sincere shouts of “thank you” as slower vehicles or people on the road move aside to allow him to pass. He represents the compromise between traditional Japanese values and modernity. He drives a modern (though clunky) bus, but has found a way to make his mechanized, regimented and time-tabeled job compatible with traditional concepts of honor and respect.
Shimizu was slyly commenting on the pace of industrial growth in Japan. He didn’t besmirch growth and development, but wonders when we’ve gone too far. The ending of Mr. Thank You could not have occurred without the slow and steady pace of the bus, allowing some of the passengers and the driver to get to know each other, to get involved in their personal dramas, and resolve to help. If they had sped along faster, or the driver had refused to engage in conversation with his passengers, things would have turned out differently. I wonder if the speedy sports car that zooms past the bus several times is a metaphor for the rapid change inflicted on Japan. After all, the bus makes it to where it’s going, while the sports car, despite its flashy promise, breaks down on the side of the road. I think it’s fitting for an unfashionable sputtering bus, mules pulling carts, and peasants on foot with goods strapped to their backs all to pass the disabled symbol of over-exuberant modernization.