I have seen very few pre-WWII movies, and had seen none that had not been directed by Ozu Yasujiro (1903-63). Ozu admired the lyricism of his agemate Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-66), who made movies from the mid-1920s until 1959 (at least 263 movies, many of them now lost). None of them were available on DVD until Criterion released an Eclipse (unrestored with no bonus features) set, Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu, including the silent “Japanese Girls at the Harbor” (1933) and two set in mountain spas: “The Masseurs and a Woman” (1938) and “Ornamental Hairpin” (1941). It seems that Shimizu was almost as focused on young women sold into prostitution as was Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956).
The main plot stimulus in “Arrigatô-san” (Mr. Thank You, 1936) is a seventeen-year old (Tsukiji Mayumi) from some remote location on the Izu peninsula being taken by her mother to Tokyo, what the genial bus-driver remarks is a one-way trip (not only for those sold into prostitution but those who go to work in factories).
Mr. Thank You (Ushara Ken, who went on to star in “The Yotsuda Phantom” and six other Kinoshita movies between 1943 and 1954) is not tall, though his boots are, reaching almost to his knees. He has thick eyebrows, prominent cheekbones, a dazzling smile and is extremely chirpy. He got his name from thanking everyone who moves aside for the bus after he honks its loud horn. In the first part of the movie, we see people and assorted unmotorized vehicles move out of the bus’ path. Through most of it, however, we see the human obstacles in the road before and after the bus passes and there is nothing for which to thank them.
Mr. Thank You also carries messages and picks up recordings for young women living in the mountains. I think that most American viewers will not realize that the woman who works on road gangs to whom the driver talks (promising to tend her father’s grave) is Korean, so that his kind treatment of her is especially marked.
In addition to the 17-year-old who frequently cries in the back of the bus and her sad mother, there is a very modern (“fallen”) woman (Kuwano Michiko) in the front seat who flirts with the driver and squabbles with the man across the aisle from her, a salesman with an extravagant mustache who is in a hurry to catch a train at the end of the bus ride (the script, based on a story by Kawbata Yasunari, who would become the first Japanese writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature, vacillates between whether the bus is going to Tokyo or to a train line from which passengers may go to Tokyo; no terminus is shown within the movie).
I was more interested in the scenery, including within that the dress and means of transport of the rural people of pre-WWII Japan than in the plot, but the look at the friendly bus driver and the disparate passengers on his bus is genial. Such optimism is uncommon in the Japanese movies I’ve seen, with the exceptions of the Ozu ones centered on children. The camera was definitely not fixed in “Arrigatô-san” (during the 1930s, there was more camera movement in Ozu movies, too), which was filmed on location and in which most everyone is in motion during most of the movie. There are an unusual number of cuts between images for a mid-1930s movie (from anywhere).
I think a viewer has to be interested in what rural Japan and Japanese looked like, ca. 1936, to enjoy this road movie though the jaunty soundtrack helps (though group singing of the passengers does not contribute to my enjoyment).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray