Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Film Review - The Rickshaw Man (1958)


The original Japanese title is “Muhomatsu no Isshou,” meaning “The Life of Wild Matsu,” but its Western title is “The Rickshaw Man.” This essay will focus more on content and the social context of the film. “The Rickshaw Man,” directed by Inagaki Hiroshi and released in April 1958, is a remake of the 1943 movie with the same title. The studio is the Toho Company, the aspect ratio is 2.35 : 1; Color, and the running time is 103 minutes (IMBd). I have not been able to find much information on the 1943 original; many of the pages with information on either film are copied verbatim from Wikipedia. I did find, however, find that Inagaki also made the original and remade the film so it would be in color. It seems the two are much the same, if not the exact same, film, merely updated. Inagaki’s 1958 edition won The Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award the same year it was released in Japan.

Inagaki, along with Itami Mansaku and Iwashita Shusaku, wrote the film, Tanaka Tomoyuki produced the film, the music was composed by Dan Ikuma, and the cinematographer was Yamada Kazuo. The main cast members are: Mifune Toshiro as the title character Matsugoro, Akutagawa Hiroshi as Captain Kotaro Yoshioka, Takamine Hideko plays the captain’s wife Yoshiko, Matsumoto Kaoru as their son Toshio when he is young, and Kasahara Kenji plays young adult Toshio. A couple of side characters are: Otora the Innkeeper played by Iida Chouko, Yuki Shigezo played by Ryu Chishu, and Tanaka Haruo as Kumakichi (IMBd). Our class should recognize Mifune Toshiro as Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai and Tajomaru in Rashomon for those who have seen it. Mifune obviously does very well portraying a very masculine, rough around the edges male, but his portrayals are nuanced. Although Kikuchiyo was the same type of character as Matsu, born into a lower class, overly boisterous at times, but with a heart of gold, the two are still distinct characters in my mind. Ryu Chishu does not appear long in “The Rickshaw Man,” but is instantly recognizable as Shukichi from Tokyo Story. This is the first time I have watched Ryu in a film other than the Tokyo Story and he gives the same impression; his characteristic speech patterns (like ‘monja’) are present and he is again portraying an upper class man, some kind of noble. Takamine has not shown up in class, but apparently was a well known actress starting from childhood and sometimes billed as Japan’s Shirley Temple (Wikipedia). “The Rickshaw Man” is Inagaki’s thirtieth film (McDonald, 66).

“The Rickshaw Man” is a gendai-geki, what Richie calls a contemporary film, set in the Meiji era, around the very early 1900’s. The Meiji era included the restoration of the Emperor to power and Japan’s rapid modernization. The film skips ahead in time at one point to 1918 and at that time, the son Toshi is just finishing high school and enters college which means I estimate the early sections of the film to take place between 1906 to 1910. That puts the film shortly after the Russo-Japanese War which concluded in1905. Comedic at times, the film is mostly a romantic drama. The protagonist of the film is poor rickshaw man “wild” Matsu who sees an injured boy, Toshio, and takes him home. Toshio is the son of an upper class couple, the Yoshioka family, and Matsu quickly befriends them. Captain Yoshioka hires Matsu to take his son to and from school and perform various tasks for the family from cleaning to singing. Captain Yoshioka soon passes away which leaves widow Yoshiko to raise Toshio with some help from Matsu. The three grow close of the years and although Matsu grows strong feelings for Yoshiko, he knows he cannot act on his feeling because of the gap between classes. After Toshio leaves for college, Matsu can no longer bear to hold back and decides to leave. Matsu is soon found dead in the snow from drinking too much and the locals, including Yoshiko, lament that such a good man was driven to his end like that.

Overall, the film was received very well with audiences outside Japan and I imagine because of its story and the way it is handled, inside Japan as well. In his review summary on the New York Times site, writer Brian Whitener describes the film as “a sentimental favorite of Japanese cinema” (NYT Rickshaw Summary). The reviews I found and my experiences mostly concur; although the film was predictable, it appeals through its sympathetic characters and style. In a New York Times review of the film from May 1960, reviewer A.H. Weiler agrees, stating “With the aid of Kazuo Yamada’s sensitive and imaginative color photography, generally fine portrayals by his principals and an appropriately tinkling, flute-filled background musical score, he has fashioned a feature that may be old-fashioned in concept but is truly heartwarming and captivating in its tender and compassionate views of the lives of its unaffected country folk” (Weiler, NYT 1960). I had a similar experience viewing the film each time.

Viewers could easily tell that Matsu would fall for Yoshiko once her husband has passed and also that Matsu would struggle both because of the class difference and his sense of obligation to Captain Yoshioka. It also likely came as no surprise to both Japanese and Western viewers when Matsu ultimately decides to behave honorably and dies from grief instead. However, as Weiler said, the color livens up the film. In Film Noir genre films like “Branded to Kill,” it could be in color and the audience would not notice much because it uses the same kind of light contrasts and atmosphere as when the films are in black in white. In “The Rickshaw Man,” color enlivens the whole film and brightens already lively characters. Several festivals take place in the film and significantly add to atmosphere from the red of the taiko drum to the blue and grey of Matsu’s clothing. Color helped to emphasize the solemn stillness of Matsu’s body in the final scene in comparison to his usual animated behavior throughout the film. The cold, white of the snow, symbolizing Matsu’s purity and innocence, in Matsu’s final scenes in contrast to the vivid green plants and scenery we often saw as Matsu worked happily for the Yoshioka family. Additionally, Inagaki often used the spinning wheels of Matsu’s rickshaw to transition between scenes. The wheels overlapped and moved as the movie changed scenes, but this changes to mark Matsu’s passing. To show Matsu’s downward spiral into alcoholism, Inagaki mixes previous scenes of Matsu’s happy times with the family into a slightly color distorted montage of the past and Matsu’s drunk thoughts. The colors were inverted for much of the montage and made a powerful impression of just how messed up his mindset must have been as he drunk himself to death. I actually am not sure if the color inversion was deliberate due to the quality of the videotape, but if it was not, much of what I said here still stands. In the brief glimpses of normal colored sections of the montage, color was still important.

The characters are likable and relatable; the characterization of each character is what gives this film much of its emotional power. Matsu often speaks carelessly and gets into fights, but his rough edges are softened by his obvious compassion for others. When we first meet him, Matsu is getting into fights at the theater, but immediately backs down when Yuki Shigezo, a noble of some sort, intercedes. When Yuki points out that Matsu is troubling his and Yuki’s reputation, Matsu instantly and profusely apologizes, settling the matter. Furthermore, when Matsu brings Toshio home and to the doctor after he finds him injured, he refuses any reward from the mother Yoshiko. At this point in the film, Matsu and the Yoshioka family had not met before, so Matsu was refusing because he did not want a reward for wanting to help. Matsu is in many ways an “ideal Japanese male.” Although low born and rough spoken, he is respectful of his superiors, works hard for others rather than himself, and cheerfully accepts life as it is up until the end. The high point of his masculinity is the taiko drum scene, a raw display of strength and power. Interestingly and deliberately, Matsu’s high point is followed by his lowest point and ensuing demise. Post mortem, Matsu’s selflessness is accentuated when it is discovered by the locals that as poor as he was, he submitted money to the bank in the Yoshioka family’s name. Captain Yoshioka commands respect as a captain who recently fought and earned his position, but he is also shown to be good natured, part of what inspires loyalty from Matsu. Captain Yoshioka enjoys Matsu’s boisterous nature rather than becoming offended. Toshio begins as the “crybaby,” spoiled only child, but is as cute and eager to learn as any little boy. He shows some embarrassment when Matsu yells exuberantly at a festival race, but Toshio quickly grows excited and cheers Matsu on. He grows into a surly teenager, but shows himself to be good student and to have learned something from Matsu’s example. Finally, Yoshiko is the soft spoken, elegant, feminine counterpart to Matsu. She commits herself fully to the mother role and strives to do her best to raise Toshio after his father passes. Her brother brings news of a new prospective marriage, but Yoshiko declines for the sake of Toshio. She worries how a new husband would distress her son and so having already professed feeling lonely, she turns the proposal down. Inagaki skillfully evokes strong emotions from the audience by creating sympathetic characters that draw on classic and familiar character types.

Societal expectations are a core part of the film; there would be no plot without the obstacle of class. The film does not challenge societal expectations; on the contrary, a great deal of the sympathy Matsu’s situation garners is specifically because he takes the high road and never acts on his feelings. Part of Matsu’s charm is that he does go against societal expectations at times by brawling and his general boisterousness at social events. His acts, however, are small transgressions and either laughed off as his earnest nature or Matsu apologizes when he feels he has wronged someone. Keiko McDonald, in her book “Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context,” gives a short assessment of “The Rickshaw Man.” She says “Class is a barrier that cannot be crossed. Loyalty to his betters, in this case dead and alive, means the rickshaw man must choose giri (social obligation) over ninjo (personal inclination).” Because Matsu greatly respects both Captain Yoshioka and Yoshiko and he is of a lower class, there was no way Matsu could make any overtures to Yoshiko without going against his duties to her and her late husband. Matsu is nothing if not loyal and dedicated; his character would have changed dramatically, and for the worse, if he transgressed the barrier of class. Inagaki makes us wish Yoshiko and Matsu could be together even though we know better. It is important to note that Inagaki does not seek to upset the viewer or make people want class barriers. The film honors Matsu’s loyalty and actions even as his passing and situation are mourned.

Through a traditional story, set of characters, and the re-visitation of the age old giri versus ninjo argument, “The Rickshaw Man” appeals to both Japanese and Western audiences. Although the ending of the film is poignant, much of the film is spent enjoying Matsu’s antics and his and Yoshiko’s efforts to raise Toshio properly. Director Inagaki clearly caters to the audience; the comedy and festivals are uplifting, the music fits as background, and not a single character in the film is truly unlikeable or blamable. The audience sighs and accepts the situation cannot be helped, and what a good, selfless person Matsu was for behaving as he did and Yoshiko as well for fulfilling her duty as mother. There is nothing controversial about the film and its familiar theme and characters are comforting to the viewer. “The Rickshaw Man” is every bit the classic film without being too clichéd thanks to Inagaki’s careful handling.

The Rickshaw Man (1958) – IMBd: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051955/

Hideko Takamine – Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hideko_Takamine

Keiko I. McDonald. “Reading a Japanese film: Cinema in Context.” Chapter 4 “Period Film Par Excellence: Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy,” page 66-67: http://books.google.com/books?id=VcFELCFqFQ0C&pg=PA66&lpg=PA66&dq=The+Rickshaw+man+1943+Japan+film&source=bl&ots=du8rVAUG3u&sig=FJF4EYQj7YHi_5BFlbVXM8a4AoM&hl=en&ei=2ua6TvmJK4Lo2gWSkf3LBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CGMQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Muhomatsu, The Rickshaw Man (1958) – New York Times Movies Review Summary: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/41436/Muhomatsu-the-Rickshaw-Man/overview

Japanese History: Meiji Period (1868-1912) – Japan-Guide: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2130.html

A.H. Weiler. “Screen: Pastoral Japan. ‘Rikisha Man’ Opens at Fifth Avenue Cinema.” New York Times May 4, 1960. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, page 57. (I have a PDF of this article, I just was not sure how to post a copy on the blog).


  1. Interesting. I've never seen the film, but you seem to have pointed out some interesting little things. You say that the director caters to the audience, but it seems to me more likely that this was simply the film the director wanted to make. Is there a distinction between catering to an audience and simply wanting to make a film where none of the characters are jerks?

  2. Heeey,
    Nice summary and use of actual film reviews for sources!
    Your comments on the predictability of the plot v. likable characters in the film really struck me. Predictability can take away from the audiences enjoyment of the film, but likable characters can increase it. Do you thinks audiences truly like the film?

  3. @Nathaniel Good point, and thanks. I think whether the director intends to or not, you can say they are catering to audience if they give the audience what they want whether it's a certain ending or what kind of characters are included. But if you are counting intentions, I don't think this is quite the film Inagaki wanted to make. From what I was reading, he said he was only proud of a couple films he made and The Rickshaw Man was not one of them.

    @Madeline Thanks! Do you mean at the time? Because I think today, some audiences would still find it a nostalgic classic, but perhaps lacking some depth because of the predictability and utter nobleness of the characters. I think at the time, the characters were likable and well done enough to make the film very endearing, not to mention they would have agreed with the characters actions for the most part. That's the sense I get anyway. But maybe that's why it's a hard film to find today, it didn't add anything new or make a lasting impact.