Review of The Criterion Collection Eclipse Series DVD edition. Mr. Thank You d. Hiroshi Shimizu (1936) DVD Release Date: March 17, 2009
This is my second post for this week’s big party, the Criterion Blogathon! I’ve been reading dozens of excellent posts every day this week, which has been invigorating rather than exhausting!
You can see the full schedule over at Speakeasy here. Today’s group focuses on Asian cinema, and it just so happens that one of my favorite films of all time fits today’s bill.
On Thanksgiving 2011, Criterion posted a short video from a film I’d never seen before. I was immediately taken in by a bus driver, travelling along a narrow road, honking a musical horn, and saying “Arigato!” out the window to everyone — including the chickens — who move out of his way to let him pass.
I waited almost three years to finally watch the full film, Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1936 masterpiece Mr. Thank You, which you can find in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 14: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu. Who would have thought from that clip — as charming as it is — that the film would become one of my all-time favorites?
I called the clip charming (and I think it is), but that word’s association with Hiroshi Shimizu has been criticized by Alexander Jacoby in one of the few substantive English-language articles on Shimizu’s work, “Hiroshi Shimizu: A Hero of His Time” from the July 2004 Senses of Cinema (which you can read here). In 2004, Shimizu and his contemporary Ozu turned 101 years old, and Jacoby was remarking on why Ozu has become well known while Shimizu’s prolific output is almost forgotten (comically, the Hong Kong International Film Festival did a 101st birthday celebration for Shimizu, presumably because they overlooked him in 2003); Jacoby thinks the descriptor “charming” may have something to do with it, as it fails to note how much subtle complexity and sadness Shimizu injected into some of his great works, like Mr. Thank You and the other three films found in Criterion’s set.
Perhaps Jacoby is correct. If Shimizu’s films are seen as charming, they might also be seen as mere diversions, and who has time for that when there’re the masterpieces from the likes of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Then again, Ozu and Mizoguchi recognizes something special in Shimizu’s work. Ozu said, “I can’t shoot films like Shimizu.” Mizoguchi said, “People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius.”
But, regardless of its other attributes (which I’ll get to in a moment because, yes, that is where the film’s true power lies), Mr. Thank You is certainly charming. The title character (played by Ken Uehara) is a friendly bus driver running the mountainous route from the Izu peninsula to Tokyo. It’s delightful to watch him kindly thank the people he passes daily. We get the sense they are delighted by him, too, a kind voice on the hard road of life which they themselves must walk. The film is shot entirely on location, inside and outside a real working bus that holds maybe ten passengers. The setting is gorgeous, showing us the beautiful Japanese countryside pre-World War II, and the trip to Tokyo is not rushed, and so we might even feel like we’re on a kind of holiday.
But this is not a holiday, and this is not a “simpler time.” Japan, like much of the world, was suffering from the effects of the depression. It was also becoming more and more nationalized, had already invaded Manchuria a few years earlier, and continued to ramp up its military for the ensuing world-wide conflict. All of this is present in Mr. Thank You. The holiday jaunt, the pleasant excursion, is a light illusion.
Among the passengers on Mr. Thank You’s bus on this trip are a mother and daughter. They are quiet, distant, obviously sad with their heads downward. Due to the trials of the time, sending a daughter to prostitution was, as my good friend David Blakeslee delicately put it when we discussed the film, an economic option some chose to exercise. Though never explicitly stated, that’s what’s going on here. The mother is escorting her daughter to Tokyo where she will be left to become a prostitute.
Mr. Thank You watches the daughter closely. His expression doesn’t belie his emotions. He’s contemplative — her situation, perhaps others like her whom he has already taken to Tokyo, and maybe even whether there is anything he can do to help.
In another scene when the bus is stopped for a break, a group of Korean immigrant workers walks by. One of them knows Mr. Thank You from who knows how many other similar meetings, and she stops to chat for a second. She asks if he would, every once in a while, give thought to her father’s grave along the road, as her father had recently died and would be left forever. She herself is moving on with friends, and we learn that her job has been to build this road that took her father’s life. She says she always wanted to take a ride on Mr. Thank You’s bus. When he offers to take her for a ride for free now, she declines and says she needs to go on with her friends.
This is a short scene, but with the dialogue Shimizu suggests an extensive, hard (though with Mr. Thank You as a bright spot) past. Furthermore, given its sympathetic depiction of foreign immigrants, those who built the road that is now giving Mr. Thank You his way of life, it’s a politically subversive scene for Japan of 1936. Fascinatingly, it was not part of the script. Rather, this was an actual chance encounter that Shimizu took advantage of to deepen the film . . . one can see what Mizoguchi meant when he suggested that Shimizu’s films came together by means of genius and not just hard work.
It’s also a scene that makes the road more than just a road. The road can be interpreted, as it has been before, as a metaphor for the road of life. Here are the people you meet, some for a time, some just in passing. You can greet them with kindness or cruelty. For some, like the Korean immigrant and her father, who is left by the wayside, the road is hard, and a lot of their work goes to making others’ lives easier, perhaps even lucrative. For some, like the young girl being taken to prostitution, life leads to places they do not wish to go. And all of these people are on the road together, passing, being passed, perhaps even travelling together for a time.
I don’t wish to conclude this piece, though, by suggesting Mr. Thank You is some kind of allegory. Though I like considering the metaphor, that is not where the film’s power comes from. If I broaden the characters into tropes, or worse, caricatures, I discard the compassion that Shimizu shows each and every one, even if one of them — the rather gross Mr. Moustache — is also taken down a notch. No, Shimizu never loses sight of the individuals in this story, to their individual pains and hopes, to the way their kindness can lighten a load, even temporarily. He tells us to be sensitive to those around us, to watch and help.
In one of my favorite scenes, Shimizu uses his camera beautifully to allow us to watch one of the more worldly passengers (the modern woman, played by Michiko Kuwano) as she watches Mr. Thank You watching the girl being sold. It’s a string of human connection, silent but deep and moving and maybe redemptive.