Mikio Naruse is great. He's my favourite classic Japanese director, because he doesn't make me go "this is a beautiful work of art... but it's boring". His films are cool. I'd recommend him to normal people. I watched this film because I'd woken up late and I wanted something short, but afterwards I went off and got several more Naruse films.
For the first few minutes, I thought this was a silent film. There's a driver (Kamatari Fujiwara) and a conductor (Hideko Takamine) in an otherwise empty bus on a country road. Hideko announces the next stop, because she should. "We're not going to get paid," agree our heroes, but in a cheerful way that suggests it'll all work out somehow.
That "Hideko" in the title is the actress's name, by the way, not the character's. She'd been a child actress and was already a film star by this point, despite being only seventeen years old. She'd go on to be one of the megastars of Japanese cinema and this was the first of her seventeen films with Naruse.
Anyway, it's pleasant. The bus eventually finds some passengers, but these include a chicken, lots of children and a man with a ridiculous amount of luggage. Two passengers agree that this bus is dirty and slow, but at least this means it's never crowded! "It's good for carrying luggage." There's a rival bus company called Kaihatsu who are more successful, but let's not blame everything on them. Our heroes aren't, um, providing the world's most professional bus service. "Stop by my house," says Hideko. "Sure thing," says Kamatari and does so. The passengers then wait as Hideko pops home to give her mother a present (a kimono) and change her shoes. They have a chat. They seem like lovely people. However I was almost falling off my chair in stupefaction as Hideko kept not returning to the bus.
Later that chicken escapes from the bus... so they stop and go after it.
It's a bit like watching Will Hay's Oh, Mr Porter!. The two films could hardly be more different in most ways, but they're both a window on public transport systems that melt my brain. Both have a whimsical attitude to timetables and are at the mercy of the people who run them. What's different is that Hay was doing English trains in 1937, while Naruse was doing Japanese buses in 1941.
That's what this film's universe is like, though. (World War Two? What's that? The nearest Naruse gets to geopolitical realities is to quote a militaristic slogan and call it bombast.) This is a gentle, trusting rural community that runs on neighbourliness and absurdity. If you're sitting in a shop, the owner might ask you to mind it for them while they wander out for a bit. Hey, it's summer. Give me a fan and I'll lie back to listen to the cicadas. Everyone's a good neighbour, although sometimes they'll tease you gently about how pretty you are.
The film then started making me uneasy.
Our heroes have an idea, you see. What if Hideko pretended to be a tourist guide, telling the passengers about the famous places they were driving past? (This area has no famous places.) "Great idea," agrees Kamatari, even though I'm sure I'd find this annoying if I were a passenger. Imagine it. You're sitting on a local bus and the girl at the front won't stop telling you things you already know about the area where you've lived all your life. She'd get tied up and gagged within fifteen minutes. Nonetheless Hideko and Kamatari arrange it with their bus company's boss, find a novelist to write it (!) and then have an mind-boggling rehearsal in which they sail past passengers waiting at bus stops because they're too busy fine-tuning Hideko's line delivery. (That's "rare as hen's teeth" passengers, in case you'd forgotten.)
The film has a deft knack with characterisation, perhaps in part because it's adapted from a novel. The novelist (Daijiro Natsukawa) burns cigarette holes in his tatami, then puts ashtrays on them to hide them from his landlady. He also has a never-explained but powerful urge to avoid a certain woman who occasionally walks past. (The film likes throwing in little bits of business that never go anywhere, e.g. the runaway chicken or the man loitering outside Hideko's landlady's house.)
Then there's the bus company boss, who's magnificently, gloriously stupid and crooked. I loved his introduction, showing us how much he enjoys opening bottles of lemonade, while you'll howl at, say, his reaction to an accident.
With hindsight, you could almost regard this film as a metaphor for wartime Japan itself, although there are ways in which that might perhaps be generous. It's a world of charming, sweet and gently teasing people who trust each other utterly and would sooner quit their jobs than tell a lie, but they're led by a comedy buffoon and criminal who'll surprise you in the penultimate scene. The film's also a surprisingly lively, sharp pisstake. Well worth seeking out.