Criterion released Hiroshi Shimizu’s prewar works, including “Mr. Thank You (有がとうさん)”. This is very exciting, since Hiroshi Shimizu, contemporary of Yasujiro Ozu, is not well-known even in Japan and this release will inspire many people to watch his films and enjoy his humor and relaxed atmosphere. “Mr. Thank You” is probably the most accessible to modern viewers, being a road movie in the countryside of prewar Japan. There is another movie on the bus by Shimizu in 1941, called “Akatsuki no gassho (暁の合唱)”. It is not a road movie like “Mr. Thank You” made five years earlier, but it tried to capture its moments.
Tomoko (Michiyo Kogure) pursues to become a female bus driver in a rural area of Akita prefecture instead of going to the college. She experiences many aspects of the job, such as a bus guide, and the life, including an accident while learning driving a car, flirtation with a man next door, confrontation with “another” woman and so on. The film was released in the wake of the war in Pacific, but there is absolutely no reference to it.
David Bordwell noted Shimizu’s fascination with perpendicular depth. His use of depth of space is very striking in this film. He likes to move his characters and objects ( i. e. a bus) toward/away from the camera, which evokes the sense of vastness. There is a scene in the film I thought quite interesting. A pregnant woman starts a labor, and the bus has to stop in the middle of nowhere. All the male passengers are chased out of the bus, while the female passengers help her delivery. They ask one of the male passengers to call a midwife living in the next village. He starts off on the side road, not the bus route. Then he comes back with a midwife on the carriage. The village the midwife was called from must have been one of those very isolated, rural communities. Not actually showing the villages or communities beyond that road, Shimizu compels us to image vast space beyond the camera.
Another interesting episode is a bride and her family going to the wedding. On the bus, the family open their lunchboxes, saying there will be a long time before they can eat another meal once the wedding starts. They offer a bride (in traditional wedding kimono) a rice ball. As Tomoko watches her in fascination, the bride takes a rice ball. And another one. And another. Then suddenly, the carriage on the road blocks the bus and bus gets stack in the gutter. All the passengers, including the bride, pushes the bus out of the gutter. The bus reaches the end of the road, and the bride and her family, greeted by bridegroom’s family, cross the bridge, going on to the village further into the countryside.
The bus routes represent the blood stream of modernization. And Shimizu repeatedly indicates that there are lives, villages and communities beyond the bus routes. Today, these villages and communities still exist. They are not well-serviced by commercial parcel carriers, local hospitals, telephone companies and even local government. Lack of modern blessings compels younger generation to abandon the rural communities and moving into urban areas. Rural depopulation, Kaso, is a grave problem in Japan. But this film, the portrait of rural Japan 70 years ago reminds me those rural areas are always there. It is the over-population and over-modernization in urban areas create the striking contrasts to the rural areas. Shimizu, clearly aware that the modernization creeping into the society, but not into the rural areas completely, created the ensemble of episodes around that idea. He loved the rural scenery, people and communities, but stayed in this side of modernization.
In the last scene, the bus passes two people pushing the carriage on the road. It is the bride and her husband. It is kind of shocking, with clear contrast to Tomoko’s life. She says, “Oh, she is still pushing !” . And the camera never leaves the bus.
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