Japanese Bus Rides: MR. THANK YOU and HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS

10 Jun

Two of the most charming Japanese films I’ve ever seen are about bus rides in rural Japan in the pre-war era. MR. THANK YOU (1936), directed by Hiroshi Shimizu, follows a single bus, driven by “Mr. Thank You” (Arigato-san), played by Ken Uehara, as it plies its route along the mountainous roads of the Izu Peninsula towards Tokyo over the course of a long day. HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS (1941), directed Mikio Naruse, chronicles the efforts of a bus conductress, played by Hideko Takamine, who basically punches tickets on a route in farm country, to enhance the ride by announcing to passengers the sites of interest along the way. They’re simple, gentle, touching movies about people trying to make the best out of difficult, economically trying situations.

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MR. THANK YOU, viewed on a Criterion DVD issued as part of the Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set, was based on a story by famed 20th century Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), best known for “The Izu Dancer.” The interior scenes seem to have been filmed entirely on the bus as it makes its ride, completely devoid of rear-screen projection, which would have been used for most of the film had it been made in Hollywood (think IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, 1934). The spoken dialogue has all been post-dubbed (as opposed to sync-sound, i.e. recorded on the spot). The driver stops frequently to talk to roadside travelers and less frequently to allow the passengers to stretch their legs and get some mountain air. It’s a pretty cramped bus, with room, seemingly, for a dozen or so passengers, and it’s not a place I’d want to be when so many characters light up cigarettes. The driver has earned his nickname, Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You), from his frequent response of “Arigato!” to roadside monks, farmers, and horse cart drivers as they make way for the bus to pass.

Arigato-san is a handsome young man in uniform and a real hit with the ladies he encounters on the bus and along the road. It helps that he’s extraordinarily kind and does errands and takes messages for people and, it quickly becomes evident, is deeply affected by the problems and hard lives of some of the young women we see in the film.

One particularly poignant episode involves a group of Korean migrant workers going from one tunnel-digging project to another. One of the Korean women is friendly with Arigato-san and he stops to talk to her and listen as she expresses a deep longing.

I don’t know how often Japanese films dealt with the Korean minority in Japan before and during the war, so seeing this was quite an eye-opener. According to a review of this film on IMDB by “Tryavna”:

As a side-note, Shimizu’s importance as a voice of dissent during Japan’s militarization and as a link between pre- and post-war Japanese cinema is apparent in the short interlude between the bus driver and a female laborer he offers to give a free lift. The female laborer is Korean, and Koreans were perhaps the most marginalized people in 1930s Japan — their country having been colonized by Japan and their people reduced to ill-paid, migratory labor. Giving such sweet and tender treatment to this character’s plight gives some indication of Shimizu’s true feelings toward Japan’s imperial expansion and reveals that there’s a lot more going on in this film than might first seem.

The driver passes two different sections of a family of traveling entertainers and passes a message from one group to the other to meet at a spa for a performing gig.

These scenes recall Kawabata’s “The Izu Dancer” (Izu no Odoriko) which has been filmed multiple times over the decades and features a family of traveling entertainers walking the roads of the Izu Peninsula looking for inns and resorts they can perform at for donations from spectators. That story takes place much earlier than this one, so there are no buses in it, but the family looks and acts the same.

From IZU NO ODORIKO (1963):

The most important characters in MR. THANK YOU, aside from Arigato-san, are two unnamed young women who are on the bus for the entire ride. One is a shy village girl of 17 (Mayumi Tsukiji), accompanied by her mother, who is on her way to Tokyo to be sold into prostitution.

The other is a world-weary young woman (Michiko Kuwano) who’s kicked around a bit, has quite a saucy attitude, and is most outspoken in her dealings with the driver and the other passengers. She smokes, flirts with the driver, and openly mocks and taunts a pompous male passenger with a thick mustache who is constantly berating the driver for stopping so much along the route. She is quite attractive and has makeup on, unlike the village girl. When the pompous ass comes on to the village girl, the other one puts him in his place. At one point, the saucy one brings out a bottle of liquor and shares shots with all the other passengers, pointedly excluding the mustached one.

Arigato-san and the woman talk quite a bit on the trip and he describes his goal of using some money he’s saved to buy a used Chevrolet and begin his own route. However, he becomes increasingly concerned about the village girl and her fate and talks to her as well. This is noticed by the worldly woman, who eventually makes a radical suggestion. It’s all very moving.

I should add that the route along the Izu Peninsula taken in the film was one I traveled by train during my 2016 trip to Japan.

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HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS (1941) is a funny, bittersweet tale of life among working people in Kofu and the surrounding farming community in Yamanashi Prefecture in central Japan, right before the start of the Pacific War, and all filmed on location. The great Japanese actress, Hideko Takamine, still a teenager at the time, stars as Okoma, a conductor, i.e. ticket puncher, on a failing rural bus route popular only with farmers laden with produce and mothers with lots of children who only pay one fare.

After she hears a radio program about bus tours, with samples from a female bus guide’s narration, she wants to make her own job more interesting and possibly attract more customers by adding to her duties that of bus guide to call off the interesting sights and places they pass along the route.

She shares this idea with her driver, Sonoda (Keita Fujiwara), who responds enthusiastically and then pleads with their shady boss to allow them to try it. They are, after all, in competition with a newer, more streamlined bus company. They get the okay and the two of them then recruit Ikawa (Daijiro Natsukawa), a visiting writer from Tokyo to compose some narration. He agrees, writes several pages, and coaches Hideko in how to recite his lines to the passengers. He’s a bit full of himself but is genuinely kind and helpful to the two.

At one point Sonoda mocks the term “loyal subjects” after he’s heard it on the radio. I don’t believe I’m off in describing his reaction as a subtle jab at the militaristic government running Imperial Japan at the time.

At another point, Ikawa, the writer, includes some lines in the narration about frequent changes in government in the past and refugees flooding the area and then decides to alter the line. Is this another jab at the government?

Okoma and Sonoda do a trial run with Ikawa alone serving as an appreciative audience.

Sonoda gets so excited with Okoma’s performance that he causes an accident that puts a scratch on the bus but jeopardizes the whole operation when the company owner insists that Sonoda do more damage to it so they can collect the insurance and buy a used bus with the money. Ikawa hears all this and threatens the boss with exposure if he goes through with it. Sonoda and Okoma are allowed to proceed.

Finally, Okoma and Sonoda set out to try their plan with real passengers on board and face an obstacle when a group of singing schoolgirls drown out anything they might say.

The girls get off, new passengers board, and Okoma finally begins her performance midway through the planned narration. Unbeknownst to her, this may be her only opportunity, given a secret underhanded business maneuver by the boss revealed in the previous scene. But, for the moment, she and Sonoda are happy.

At one point Okoma quotes Ikawa’s remark that Sonoda resembles “a boy named Carrot in a French movie.” This is a reference to “Poil de Carotte,” a famous book that was made into two films in France, one in 1925, one in 1932.

Takamine, of course, went on to become a star of many great Japanese dramas, including some of the best films by Naruse (FLOWING, FLOATING CLOUDS, WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, YEARNING, A WANDERER’S NOTEBOOK).

She smiles more in HIDEKO than in any other film of hers I’ve seen.

All this reminds me of one of my favorite segments from “Hello! Morning,” a TV show that once showcased the antics of Japanese pop group Morning Musume. In the segment, from April 2, 2006, a former 4th Gen member of the group, Nozomi Tsuji, acts as a tour guide on a huge bus which carries only five other people (plus the video crew), including four then-current members of the group, Hitomi Yoshizawa, Miki Fujimoto, Makoto Ogawa and Asami Konno, and one Japanese-speaking American comedian, Patrick Harlan.

5 Responses to “Japanese Bus Rides: MR. THANK YOU and HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS”

  1. Ted Hicks June 10, 2021 at 2:25 PM #

    Thanks for your post. Sometime in the 1980s, the Japan Society in NYC had a Hideko Takemine retrospective. I don’t remember the exact dates or films shown, as this was before I started keeping a record of films I saw. But I remember that she was here during the retrospective and made numerous appearances at screenings. I liked her on screen and in person. I have not seen her bus conductor film, but would like to.

    • briandanacamp June 10, 2021 at 4:21 PM #

      Wow! I wish I’d been aware of her back then. I would love to have gotten a head start on her films and seen her in person. I consider her one of the three best actresses in Japanese cinema.

  2. Robert Regan June 10, 2021 at 6:00 PM #

    Two of my favorites, Brian!

    On Thu, Jun 10, 2021 at 12:54 PM Brian Camp’s Film and Anime Blog wrote:

    > briandanacamp posted: ” Two of the most charming Japanese films I’ve > ever seen are about bus rides in rural Japan in the pre-war era. MR. THANK > YOU (1936), directed by Hiroshi Shimizu, follows a single bus, driven by > “Mr. Thank You” (Arigato-san), played by Ken Uehara, as i” >

  3. Steven Toh June 18, 2021 at 10:14 PM #

    Interesting blog, it reminds me Akira Kurosawa, quote: “Tragedy is part of Japanese life which has been frequented by by earthquakes, tsunamies and wars”.
    I tried to write a blog about him , hope you also like it http://stenote.blogspot.com/2018/04/an-interview-with-akira.html

    • briandanacamp June 19, 2021 at 10:29 AM #

      Interesting, creative use of Kurosawa quotes from his memoir. I love the book, but I just wish he’d written a follow-up volume that would have covered his later years.
      Thanks.

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