On the surface a relaxed, plot-deprived vehicle for 17-year-old child star Hideko Takamine (in the first of her 17 collaborations with Naruse), HIDEKO THE BUS CONDUCTOR is soon revealed as a daring manifestation of the low-key structural absurdism that Naruse particularly favored during the wartime years. Takamine plays Okoma, a ticket-taker for a failing rural bus line who devises the idea of boosting business by giving riders a guided tour of notable sites. (An early clue to the film’s absurdist agenda is that no one can think of any notable sites in the area.) Supported by her bus driver Sonoda (Kamatari Fujiwara) and a writer named Ikawa (Daijiro Natsukawa) who provides a script for the tour (and fills the role of the moralistic male authority figure common to many Japanese wartime films), Okoma good-naturedly surmounts a number of very small obstacles to realize her plan.
Other than a brief militarist slogan – “When a country becomes confused, loyal subjects appear” – that Sonoda quotes then dismisses as “bombast,” the war doesn’t figure in Naruse’s script, based on a novel by Masuji Ibuse (who also provided source material for Imamura’s BLACK RAIN!). Much of the film’s 54-minute running time is devoted to sunlit, almost neorealist footage of the bus’s route through Yamanashi Prefecture, accompanied by cheerful soundtrack music. (Shooting in the cramped bus resulted in some unfamiliar Naruse compositions, including over-the-shoulder shots of Okoma and Sonoda’s point of view, with the actors in soft focus.) Naruse settles into the pastoral atmosphere, most strikingly in a lengthy and plotless digression in which Okoma leaves the waiting bus and its passengers and walks through fields to the house of her mother (Tsuruko Mano), where she discards her pair of beat-up cloth shoes and dons a pair of clogs that lifts her mood. The house in town where Okoma lives with a friendly landlady (Tamae Kiyokawa) is equally idyllic, with Okoma participating communally in household chores. There, in a striking interlude filmed mostly in contemplative long shots, Okoma and her landlady hear a radio show about bus conductors that inspires the film’s modest plot.
Gradually, one notes Naruse’s tendency to end scenes on oddly off-balance notes with no plot payoff at all: an uncompleted pursuit of a runaway chicken; a mysteriously unsavory character loitering outside the shop of Okoma’s landlady; Ikawa’s unexplained, anxious attempts to conceal the presence of a mystery woman who walks repeatedly past his room; the frightening incident of Okoma injured by the runaway bus, her clog rolling down a hill in time-honored movie shorthand for death, though she sustains only an arm wound that barely slows the plot. Micro-incidents like Ikawa’s reaction to his paltry compensation are drawn out exhaustively; an almost Buñuelian scene of the shady owner of the bus company (silent star Yotaro Katsumi) contemplating killing a fly is shot and cut like a suspense sequence.
However intently one tracks Naruse’s wry undercutting of the let’s-put-on-a show story, one is unlikely to be prepared for the narrative sabotage that he saves for the penultimate scene. Even more provocatively, Naruse then cuts back to Okoma and Sonoda’s maiden voyage as tour guides, ending the film with pretty landscapes, happy music, and happy protagonists, as if nothing had happened. One wonders how Naruse managed to get such an outrageous story twist approved: did he hope the production company would blink and miss the key scene, as some modern commentators seem to do? However the coup was staged, the film’s keynotes of rural idyll and surrealist rebellion blend with surprising harmony.