See this film if you want to smile, but don’t expect to go away with the idea that stoicism is easy. Even if Mifune makes it seem that way.
Director Hiroshi Inagaki
Writers Hiroshi Inagaki, Mansaku Itami
Starring Toshirô Mifune, Hideko Takamine, Hiroshi Akutagawa, Chishû Ryû, Chôko Iida, Haruo Tanaka, Kaoru Matsumoto
Muhomatsu, the Rickshaw Man is the kind of film that seems slight in the off hand. It starts out as a comedy. We have a Muhomatsu, or “The Wild Matsu” who is a well known rickshaw driver in a Japanese city in the early 1900’s. Mifune plays him as generally good natured, accepting of his place in society unless he is disrespected. An early incident in a playhouse shows that he is willing to take the place apart when he is treated irreverently.
Following the end of the Russo-Japanese War, he helps the injured young son of a military hero and he is welcomed into their lives. This takes a turn when the father of the family dies unexpectedly. This leaves his wife a widow and the young, soft boy without a father figure.
In a modern romance, the next step would be for Matsu to step in as the father with a romance soon to follow. The difference here is that this film takes place in Japan over 100 years ago, being made over 60 years ago.
As a result, we see Matsu become the stoic father figure to young Toshio (Matsumoto), while being completely respectful, if loving of the widow (Yoshioka). He never does dare to reach out to her, as her status is beyond his own. Much of the film is spent in anticipation of the growth of their relationship. This growth is as subtle as an iceberg, but it never reaches out of the cold depths of propriety.
There is so much bowing in the film, one can’t help but be entranced by both the driver and the widow. Their admiration and respect is such, it is palpable. This has to go somewhere, one thinks.
One would be wrong.
In Japan of the 50’s, stoicism must have been all of the rage. The actions of Matsu in the film show an incredibly resilient and buoyant personality. This is really some incredible work by Mifune. He has scenes of great passionate rage that turn on a dime into a humility that is shockingly believable and touching.
The progression of time and age with the characters is actually pretty effective. There is much for the viewer to identify with as we find out about what Matsu had to overcome in his life just to get to where he is in life. There are some very nice sequences, that show a man who creates his own joy. Stay tuned for the drum solo.
The film comes off of the successful Inagaki / Mifune Samurai Trilogy. They have an obvious trust and confidence in one another. Some of the attempts at comedy don’t translate as well for the viewer of today as they might have back at time of release. Overall, the work is strong, sweet and most honorable.
The last act is more shocking than one might expect. The realization of wasted time hits like a ton of bricks and Yoshioka becomes the epitome of a tragic heroine.
This is a fantastic performance for Mifune, however. It’s a stunning example of range and his command of every scene, even as he gives us graceful bow after graceful bow. See this film if you want to smile, but don’t expect to go away with the idea that stoicism is easy. Even if Mifune makes it seem that way.
(**** out of *****)