Arigato-san (1936)

1 06 2008

In some ways, this is absolutely one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen. It has a big giant grin of an attitude, a sensibility akin to 1950s suburban America, but underneath it is surely one of the most tragic, heartbreaking stories ever told. This should be expected from Shimizu as he always seemed to produce very “every thing’s fine on the outside, every thing’s not-so-fine on the inside” type of films. But here, it’s taken to a completely different level with upbeat and peppery music providing a background for a completely tragic tale. A poetic would-be romance disguised as depression-era Japan escapism, and overall, one of the finest films ever made.

A friendly bus driver who goes by the nickname of Mr. Thank You transports an odd variety of characters to a train station. Living up to his nickname, Mr. Thank You remains a courteous driver, thanking everyone whom he passes by. He also seems to have many acquaintances, many of whom being young and beautiful woman. Inside the bus is an outgoing, sophisticated young woman who makes many advances to the young and charming bus driver. There’s a stubborn businessman whose mustache becomes the butt of most of the young woman’s jokes. In the back, there is a mother traveling with her passive daughter, who is on her way to being sold into sexual slavery. The bus driver downplays the advances of the more “modern” and extroverted woman and centers his focus on the more reserved girl.

Once again, we have an effort from Shimizu that is not a deep character study. Unlike his peers, he shows a more situation-driven parable but one that features an undeniable heartbreaking charm. Even then, he is very careful with each of his character. The more experienced woman who openly flirts with Mr. Thank You never becomes a femme-fatale or even a villain. It is never quite made clear, but it is very likely that she has gone through a predicament similar to the younger girl that the bus driver takes an interest in.

At first, the seemingly happy tone gets some getting use to. Through the film, there is an overwhelmingly silly score that continues to reinforce the myth that everything really is perfectly fine. There’s even a sequence when the younger girl finally breaks down and tears, but the music continues to play. Normally, I would never condone such a goofy musical choice but Shimizu seems to overuse it to the point of cynicism making the film oddly funny but still terribly sad. In fact, one must appreciate Shimizu’s ability to resist ever using any “sad” music. The fact that anyone can view this as escapism is a testament to how much a director can manipulative a audience. In this case, though, Shimizu is manipulating the audience to feel the exact opposite of what the story intends, which results in something jarring but undeniably idiosyncratic.

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2 responses

1 06 2008
Michael Kerpan

I see the music as maintaining a sense of equilibrium — no matter what the moods of certain of the characters.

I see the older young woman as – in a way — as the film’s viewpoint character (until the epilog).

One of my favorite films of all time.

12 09 2009
Stefan Schinzinger

One of my favorite movies. I saw Arigato-San at the Pacific Film Archive as part of the Taisho Chic exhibition. Its been a while since I saw it but it has stayed with me. I found your site seeking out this movie. Why does it grip me? Much of the footage was cinema verite and just the sight of people walking by the road was magical. I hadn’t thought about the music. I’ll have to watch it again. I tell people about it, that and Twenty-Four Eyes. My father was born and raised in Japan – he was ten when Arigato-San came out, it gives me an eye to the world he might have viewed. Thanks so much for your insights.

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