Arigato-san (Ken Uehara) is a bus driver in rural Japan (in English his nickname translates to - you guessed it - "Mr. Thank You"). He is known for his courteous manner, cheerful demeanor, and smart uniform. Well, that last quality might come with the job but the first two certainly don't. The passengers, and the pedestrians whom he politely warns upon approach, are very pleased with the pleasant tone he sets. With one exception (a pretentious salesman with an even phonier mustache) they don't mind his frequent pauses to converse with passerby, and they don't even seem too startled when he nearly goes over a cliff. On Mr. Thank You's bus the detours almost seem more important than the destination.
Most of the passengers come and go and there is a poignant quality to the ease with which they slip in and out of the scenario. Only three passengers remain throughout, headed toward the dynamic, dangerous city: a mother selling her daughter into prostitution out of desperation, and a charming, cheeky young woman (Michiko Kuwano) who notices the daughter's melancholia and wanders what can be done. Eventually, spoilers ahoy, she gently convinces the driver to sacrifice his much-needed savings, and in the final scene we witness a much happier mother and daughter returning to their hometown. They have escaped the trafficking that Mr. Thank You has already seen many women fall into.
This is a very dark theme underlying the easygoing banter, bouncy score, and sunny cinematography. There are other sad moments too, most notably when the bus driver dismounts on a dusty road to say farewell to a timid Korean migrant, wispy hints of an unspoken romance in their affectionate demeanor. She had hoped to ride his bus someday in a new kimino, but instead she is moving onto a new work site and all she can do is ask him to take care of her father's grave. Mr. Thank You was shot by director Hiroshi Shimizu while the militaristic, autocratic Japan was aggressively invading its neighbors, having occupied Korea for 25 years already. This woman's sad status underscores the darkness of that city in the distance, while the driver's all-too-rare respect and affection for her humanity offers the promise that maybe one character at least (if not this one) will be able to escape her fate.
This sweet, lovely little film is not as slight as it initially appears, nor as shapeless. The best way to approach it is to embrace the journey, just as the characters themselves do (other than grouchy Mr. Mustache, that is). Scenes appear one after the other like lily pads on a stream. We can enjoy the environment and the company of the characters as they have a little drinking party in the cozy back quarters of the bus, or chuckle at the foibles of touchier companions, or admire an all-female Kabuki troupe blocking their passage through the city. Several shots, of the young woman's smoke rings drifting through the bus, would be worth freezing and framing on a wall - except then you couldn't enjoy their sinuous movement, which is the whole point. There is a rough rhythm and poetry to the way characters come and go, some outlasting others, all eventually falling away but enjoying their moments together.
The film also features a classically jaunty thirties style characterized by giddy point-of-view shots running right up to folks in the street, always making me a little nervous that they are about to get creamed. But then much of the route traces the edge of a cliff, a visual reminder of the risks and challenges these characters face in their daily lives. I initially wondered why it takes another woman's prodding to engage the bus driver's charity. Wouldn't his good nature cause him to loosen his purse strings much earlier than the final reel, rescuing the young daughter from prostitution? Then it occurred to me how often he must observe this scenario (indeed he says himself that he has driven many women to the same destiny). Yes, he can foster a happy ending this once, but that's the exception rather than the rule.
If Mr. Thank You's control over the destination is limited, he can make sure the trip itself is a pleasant one. At this he excels. And so the film, despite its awareness of the dangerous route, envelops us in its warm, happy buzz, for which we too can be thankful.