The bus driver (Ken Uehara) at the heart of Mr Thank You derives his eponymous sobriquet from what he says to those roving through rural Japan when they let his bus pass. “Thank you,” the bus driver invariably calls out in a cheerful, appreciative manner. Shimizu’s film is a kind of anti-Taxi Driver (1976), of course Martin Scorsese’s relentless, furious film of a lonely taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), whose isolation and loathing of society cannot help but lead him down a violent, destructive path, in an infernal New York. Mr Thank You emphasises values of community, of friendship and familiarity, of the personal joy and comfort that can come from unplanned encounters with strangers.
Coming of age at the same time as veritable Japanese auteurs such as Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi in the 1920s, Hiroshi Shimizu finished his career having directed approximately 163 films,1 an unthinkable amount of creative output from a single director today. Shimizu averaged roughly 4-5 films a year. Some years, such as 1931, welcomed 10 features (three of which were short films). He was nothing short of a workhorse, unmatched by other prolific Japanese filmmakers – Ozu, Mizoguchi, and, later, Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, and Masaki Kobayashi. Albeit, Shimizu has never garnered the same degree of critical acclaim as those men, whether deserved or not.2 In more recent years, Shimizu has received more attention by western and global audiences. In 1988, a retrospective at the National Film Theatre almost single-handedly revived his oeuvre;3 then some years later, on his 101st birthday, a small Hong Kong film festival sought to imprint his work in the cinematic memory.
Given that a disconcerting quantity of Shimizu’s work was lost over the years,4 how can one properly undertake the task of capturing his essential character as a filmmaker and artist? Perhaps there are no satisfactory answers to that question. But it is certainly no solution to capitulate to that challenge; we must make do with what we have. And that material positions Shimizu sometimes as a “charming” filmmaker (though some critics would dispute that description)5 and a “social critic”, one who preferred “episodic and anecdotal” plots over grand, complex narratives;6 the aliveness of real settings instead of controlled studio sets; simple and unadorned characters rather than larger-than-life ones; and his films spread humanist, not bleak, cynical or misanthropic, messages.
Mr Thank You does not represent a departure from Shimizu’s characteristic style or concerns. It is infused with the anxieties and crises of the times, namely caused by a nationwide economic struggle, bringing mass unemployment and poverty.7 “There are no jobs, even if they want one,” a bus passenger observes, while, a mother (Kaoru Futaba), laments her economic standing, or lack thereof. “I can’t even buy her a nice kimono”, she says, referring to her 17-year-old daughter (Mayumi Tsukiji), who sits next to her, impassively, most likely concealing her fears of disembarking once the bus arrives in Tokyo, of what her future holds. The family’s economic woes have meant that the girl is to be sold into the prostitution trade in Tokyo. The bus ride is her last moment of freedom (if you can call a life of poverty freedom), and, amongst the offhanded jokes, quips, and rejoinders, this strand of the story assumes a fatalistic, menacing quality. Many, if not most, of the characters in Mr Thank You are sketched out by Shimizu without backstories or ample psychological complexity. However, this stylistic approach does not frustrate what Shimizu is trying to do with the film. His characters, in the bus and outside of it, are alive; creating detailed impressions of them, as real life would have it. One remembers the girl, her mother, the wise cracking old man sporting a formidable beard (Ryuji Ishiyama), Mr Thank You, as well as the hikers, the children playing on the muddy streets, the prostitutes waiting roadside for “business”, and the tormented man constantly wandering the Izu Peninsula in search of his long-lost love.
Nevertheless, these economic troubles do not preclude tender and supportive human connections. If anything, it enhances and reaffirms their importance. Shimizu goes to considerable lengths in Mr Thank You to demonstrate that such relationships – whether long-term or ephemeral – are the saving grace in times of great tribulation; it is what nourishes the soul and shields people from utter despair. During a rest period, the girl, nervously, approaches the bus driver, throwing rocks into the expanses of the forestry and shrubbery which populate the mountainous Izu Peninsula. Their conversation is brief, not longer than a couple of minutes. Both of them are guarded, but their mutual interest in friendship still reveals itself. “Would you mind if I wrote you to too?” she asks. “Of course not. And I’ll write you back,” he replies.
Over the last few decades, Shimizu has emerged from an almost totalising obscurity,8 a necessity if Japanese cinema is to be properly recorded and considered. His films – sometimes uplifting, funny, circumspect, steeped in political and social content, rueful, and melancholic – constitute a valuable contribution to world cinema. Mr Thank You is no exception. While Shimizu is still some way off being considered of the same pedigree as the likes of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, only time will tell whether his name is uttered in the same sentence as those cinematic giants.
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Mr Thank You (Arigatô-san, 1936 Japan 76 mins)
Prod. Co: Shochiku Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu Scr: Hiroshi Shimizu Phot: Isamu Aoki Ed: Snd: Haruo Dobashi, Kaname Hashimoto and Rokusaburô Saitô Mus: Keizô Horiuchi
Cast: Ken Uehara, Ryuhi Ishiyama, Einosuke Naka, Michiko Kuwano, Mayumi Tsukiji, Kaoru Futaba, Kiyoshi Aono, Setsko Shinobu
- David Bordwell, “Directors: Shimizu Hiroshi,” Observations on Film Art, 13 May 2009, http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/category/directors-shimizu-hiroshi/ ↩
- Michael Koresky, “Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu,” The Current, 16 March 2009, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1038-eclipse-series-15-travels-with-hiroshi-shimizu ↩
- Peter Rist, “The Presence (and Absence) of Landscape in Silent East Asian Films,” in Landscape and Film, Martin Lefebvre ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2007) p. 212 ↩
- Rowena Aquino, “On the Road and Off the Beaten Path: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu,” UCLA International, 20 March 2009, https://international.ucla.edu/institute/article/106077 ↩
- Alexander Jacoby, “Hiroshi Shimizu: A Hero of His Time,” Senses of Cinema 32 (July 2004) http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/hiroshi_shimizu/ ↩
- Alan Stanbrook, “On the Track of Hiroshi Shimizu,” Sight and Sound 57.2 (Spring 1988): p. 122 ↩
- Masato Shizume, “The Japanese Economy during the Interwar Period: Instability in the Financial System and the Impact of the World Depression,” Bank of Japan Review 2 (May 2009) p.1 ↩
- Dave Kehr, “Buried Treasures From Japanese Vaults,” New York Times, March 12 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/movies/homevideo/15dkehr.html ↩