You probably know the big four Japanese (post-war) film directors: Akiro Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse. Or maybe just the first three, since Naruse has only gotten that recognition in the West later than the others. Does Hiroshi Shimizu also deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these esteemed four? According to Mizoguchi he does: Mizoguchi once said about him that “People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius.”
Hiroshi Shimizu’s remarkable 1936 film Mr. Thank You is certainly a testament to that genius. A delightful road movie in which a bus driver, dubbed Mr Thank You, drives along his route from the countryside to the big city and back again. He gets his nickname because apparently, he’s the only driver who shouts thank you to people when they move to the side of the road to make way for his bus.
How they make way for him is filmed very unusual. Every time he approaches somebody on the road and honks his horn, Shimizu shows us this from his perspective. Just when it starts to look like the bus will run them over while they’re still in the middle of the road, Shimizu cuts to them still standing in the middle of the road but seen from the opposite perspective, as they wave happily to the back of the bus while we hear his famous “thank you”. Each time, it appears as if ran over them, and they immediately recovered as if they existed in a 2D cartoon, and were happy for the experience. This recurring visual gag is one of the funniest recurring jokes in this gentle comedy.
Just like Ozu, Shimizu leaves scenes out that in most movies would form the main dramatic plot. The bus driver develops a sympathy for one of his passengers, who is taken to Tokyo by her mother to be sold into prostitution. This entire plotline is wonderfully communicated by looks and indirect dialogue by others that indicate what’s going on. It’s impressive how Shimizu shows us so much about 1930s Japanese society without telling us directly.
Which is also evident in the messages the driver passes along from Korean road workers to their colleagues further down the road. There’s a heartfelt sympathy for the downtrodden and the poor that Shimizu makes palpable without expressing it didactically. Mr. Thank You is an excellent, heartwarming comedy in which almost nothing seems to happen, a film that is both rich and seemingly slight at the same time. And it all seems so effortless.