Or, The Rickshaw Man.
I hadn’t heard of this film till a couple of months back. Around that time, looking at Toshirô Mifune’s filmography on IMDB, I came across The Rickshaw Man, and was intrigued enough to decide I must look out for the DVD. Then, as if destiny too wanted to help me along, I happened to read Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories. The stories—and Akutagawa’s biography at the start of the book—fascinated me. And when I read that one of Akutagawa’s sons grew up to be an actor, I went back to IMDB to see which films he acted in. And The Rickshaw Man was there.
As it turned out, Hiroshi Akutagawa doesn’t have a large role (though it is an important one) in The Rickshaw Man. But it was interesting to see this actor, whose father had written the two stories (Rashōmon and In the Bamboo Grove) on which Kurosawa based one of his best-loved films. And, of course, to see Mifune, who appears here as the epoymous rickshaw man, a poor rickshaw-puller named Matsu.
The story is set at the start of the 20th century. Matsu, as we discover within minutes of the start of the film, is no goody two-shoes. When we first see him, he’s lying low in his home town in Kyushu, nursing a very sore head. A policeman who comes visiting—looking for Matsu—finds himself being fobbed off by Matsu’s landlady (or inn keeper? I couldn’t quite figure that out), a motherly sort who is obviously willing to take Matsu’s side against the law.
It turns out that Matsu had a run-in with a man who had the temerity to try and bargain with Matsu about the cost of a rickshaw ride. Hot-headed Matsu went at the man with his fists, only to have the man pull out a sword and strike Matsu.
The visiting policeman has a good chuckle over this (it’s apparent that he is, all said and done, not inimical to Matsu). He also reveals a fact that causes amusement all round: Matsu’s opponent in that encounter happened to be a fencing master! Even Matsu sees the humour in that.
These two sides to Matsu’s nature—the wild, impetuous side that has earned him the epithet ‘Matsu the Savage’, and the side that can laugh at his own misfortunes—are further revealed in another episode. Matsu goes to a traditional theatre in town, and (since he doesn’t have a ticket) is turned away at the box office.
So Matsu returns and comes back later with a friend. They hand over two first class tickets (it’s never explained where and how they got them, but I wouldn’t put it past Matsu to have forged them), and are allowed in.
The theatre has a raised catwalk-like stage for the performers, and all around (and below) are the tables and tatami mats for the audience. Matsu and his pal settle down at one of these and get out the stuff they’ve brought with them: a stew pot, lots of chopped spring onions, whole bulbs of garlic, and a brazier full of coal.
They dump the garlic amidst the coal, get their soup simmering, and have soon raised such a stink that the other patrons start complaining.
The theatre staff come rushing out and try to stop the two miscreants, but Matsu isn’t giving in so easily. He takes on everybody—theatre staff, some of the more free-with-their-fists members of the audience—and generally manages to create mayhem. He’s managed to pretty much wreck the place when there arrives an official who’s known for his skill as a mediator.
The official offers, in a calm and collected tone, to mediate between a still-itching-to-fight Matsu on the one side, and the bruised, annoyed patrons and theatre staff on the other. In due course, the man pronounces his verdict: it is the custom for theatres to allow rickshaw men free entry to shows, so Matsu was not wrong in being miffed. However, the patrons at the theatre were not to blame; why, then, did Matsu inconvenience them with that stinky cooking of his and by his subsequent beating up of anybody who dared protest?
…which is when we see the other side of Matsu. The realization strikes that what the man is saying is correct, and Matsu is mortified at his own lack of foresight. He’s so profusely apologetic that the official praises him for admitting his mistake.
All may not be forgiven, but one thing is established: Matsu is by no means the outright villain. And yet, he’s no wimp.
A few days later, on his way through the town, Matsu happens to see a group of little boys at play. One of them is being persuaded—obviously against his will—to climb a tree. Matsu, pulling his rickshaw along, slows down, hesitates. Then he goes on.
But, when he comes back that way a while later, it’s to find that the little boy (Kaoru Matsumoto) is lying on the ground, crying. He’s fallen off the tree and hurt his foot, and the other little boys have deserted him. Matsu immediately picks up the child, whose name is Toshio, and having found out where Toshio lives, hurriedly takes him home. There, Toshio’s mother, Mrs Yoshioko (Hideko Takamine) asks Matsu if he will please take Toshio in his rickshaw to the doctor’s, while she hurries alongside.
The doctor’s visit over, Toshio bandaged and given medicine and made comfortable back at his home, Mrs Yoshioko tries to express her gratitude to Matsu by giving him some money. Even though she tries repeatedly and is insistent, Matsu is firm: no. What help he rendered—to Toshio, and to her—was out of simple humanity, not for money.
Toshio’s father (Hiroshi Akutagawa) is a captain in the army. When he comes home that evening and hears all about the very eventful day—and about who came to the family’s rescue, he grins. “Matsu the Savage?” he says. He knows of Matsu’s reputation, and also knows that Matsu is not just the savage he’s supposed to be. He tells his wife that if Matsu joined the army, he would be a colonel—or no, according to Matsu, a general!
Anyway, the captain suggests to his wife that they invite Matsu for dinner someday soon, and she agrees.
The dinner is a quiet, relaxed one. Matsu entertains Captain Yoshioko with songs sung in a deep baritone, and the captain listens on happily. After a while, when his wife brings in more tea, Captain Yoshioko tells her—and Matsu—that he’s feeling a bit tired and will lie down there itself, on the mat. Matsu should please go on singing. Mrs Yoshioko goes off to fetch her husband a pillow, and as she’s tucking it under his head, realizes he’s burning with fever.
Matsu immediately offers to go for the doctor.
But, before one can quite comprehend it, Captain Yoshioko is dead, and his weeping widow and little son are standing at his grave. Matsu, looking as stricken as them, has come for the funeral, too, and when he offers his condolences, Mrs Yoshioko confides in him. What will happen to Toshio now? With no father, there is no man to teach him how to be a man. Will, she asks hesitantly, Matsu help?
Matsu looks uncertain, anxious. It’s a big responsibility, he says.
And yet, perhaps there are depths of responsibility in Matsu that even he hasn’t realized yet. Because, as time goes by, he begins to take very seriously indeed this duty of being a father figure to Toshio. He cannot teach the boy his letters; Matsu, after all, is illiterate. But he can—and does—teach Toshio how to swim, how to go out and stand up for himself. How to no longer be the weakling his mother has feared he might turn out to be in the absence of a father.
Matsu’s interactions with Toshio cannot be carried out in complete isolation, however. Where there is this little boy, there will also be his young and beautiful mother. At Toshio’s school function, at a local athletic event, everywhere… and Matsu, painfully aware of the distance that separates them, must try and forget what he has begun to feel for Mrs Yoshioko.
What I liked about this film:
The subtlety of it. Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki (who, along with Mansaku Itami, scripted it based on a story by Shunsaku Iwashita), The Rickshaw Man stands out for its lack of melodrama.
Much of what is there in the relationship between Matsu and Mrs Yoshioko is unsaid, or revealed only in expressions, in gestures. There is no dramatic moment when they fall in love, no sudden revelation when they go from being Toshio’s mother and Matsu, to something beyond. This, of course, draws from two main factors: one, that this is a Japan that’s still feudal, where the gap between an illiterate and poor rickshaw man and the educated, genteel (if not especially wealthy) widow of an army officer, is just too wide a chasm to be ever bridged. And, second, that Mrs Yoshioko is still Mrs Yoshioko. Her husband may be dead, but she bears his name, and will probably bear it till her dying day.
And Matsu knows this. Knows that she is unattainable. It does not prevent him from loving her, though that love is shown in the subtlest of ways, in something merely hinted at.
For instance, when Mrs Yoshioko’s brother and sister-in-law come to visit, and her brother tells her that he’s received a proposal of marriage for her. Mrs Yoshioko tells him to refuse, and after she’s seen them out, turns to look sadly up at the framed photo of her late husband. Matsu, who’s been working, and has (obviously) heard the conversation—and now sees the expression on her face as she looks at Captain Yoshioko’s photo—looks curious, then uncomfortable, then despondent. She will not marry again, says his expression. And she is still in love with her husband.
While he, Matsu, is in love with her.
I love the refreshing restraint here (and not just in this particular scene, but throughout the film): it is so different from the more ‘stated’ love of Hollywood and Bollywood. Its restraint, too, is what makes the expression of that love—when it comes—more forceful, more dramatic, more impactful.
Plus, I liked both Mifune and Takamine in their roles. Mifune, as is common in almost all the films of his that I’ve seen so far, is very physical—whether running along with his rickshaw, participating in a race, or jumping up and playing a giant drum. But here, besides the physicality, there’s a sweetness, a warmth to the man. In the way he laughs heartily while playing with Toshio in the small pool of a bath…
… or the way he grins triumphantly (and proudly) when Toshio sings a song on stage at a school function.
Or in the awkward, fumbling way in which he tries to hurriedly roll up a poster of a woman (not that it’s really risqué) on his room wall when Mrs Yoshioko arrives. All because he doesn’t want her to be offended. Or to think poorly of him, perhaps?
And there is Mrs Yoshioko herself (and Hideko Takamine’s portrayal of the character): kind, gentle, quiet. So quiet, so impassive that it is hard—for Matsu, and for us—to tell what she really feels. Is her enduring devotion to her dead husband, and her self-imposed vow to live on for Toshio, just out of a sense of duty? Or is she really and truly devoted only to these two? Does she really not notice how Matsu feels, even if he does not say anything?
So much left unsaid, so much story left for us to complete for ourselves.
What did I not like about The Rickshaw Man? Nothing. It’s beautiful, sensitive, and the two leads put in fine performances. And there is, as the icing on the cake, an absolutely fabulous display of drumming.