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December 28, 2011

Rickshaw Man

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Muhomatsu no issho
Hiroshi Inagaki - 1958
Toho DVD

While most of Rickshaw Man seems to indicate that Hiroshi Inagaki hasn't quite figured out how to make use of the TohoScope screen, there is one brilliant moment. The following scene is done in a single long take, in a full master shot. The rickshaw driver, Matsu, is carting a man who appears to be British, or perhaps it is a Japanese businessman dressed in the British style, complete with the bowler hat. Matsu sees the young boy, Toshio, whom he looks after on behalf of the boy's widowed mother, struggling with a kite string. Matsu stops the rickshaw, seen on the left hand side of the screen, and goes to help Toshio who is approximately in the center. While Matsu is quietly assisting Toshio unravel the kite string, we see the business man knocking the ground with his umbrella, soon hopping around the abandoned rickshaw like an angry rabbit. The scene is shot in the simplest way possible, and while it forces the viewer to glance between two points on the wide screen, it is also quite funny to watch. Were that the rest of Rickshaw Man were as good as that one scene.

The main reason for seeing Rickshaw Man is that it is the only film pairing two of Japan's golden age stars, Toshiro Mifune and Hideko Takamine. One the down side, the film is more Mifune than Takamine. And setting aside that Inagaki was never the visual stylist on the level of Kurosawa, neither is he a director of actors, too often letting Mifune worst excess dominate. Maybe the character of Matsu is mostly bluff and bluster, but too often I was thinking of the difference between John Wayne directed by John Ford in The Quiet Man compared to John Wayne as a parody of himself in something like Andrew McLaglen's McLintock!. Takamine seems to be in the film mostly for her star power, in a role that probably could have been filled as easily by any of her peers. Considering that there are so few of her films available on subtitled DVDs, it's a matter of grabbing whatever is available. Chishu Ryu appears in a couple of scenes as well. Most of the pleasure of watching these actors has less to do with their respective performances in this film than what they represent in the history of Japanese cinema.

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The film takes place initially in 1905, at the end of the war between Japan and Russia. Except for a policeman in uniform, and the one previously mentioned gentleman in modern dress, one would think that the film takes place in an earlier era. In a scene where Matsu causes a ruckus in a theater, it is explained about the change in status of rickshaw drivers, where certain considerations were part of a now forgotten tradition. Matsu encourages a young boy, egged on by his friends, to climb a tree. When the young boy hurts himself, Matsu, feeling guilty about causing the situation, takes the boy home. Refusing any form of financial compensation, Matsu takes the boy to the doctor, and develops a friendship with the boy's parents, an army officer and his wife. The officer prematurely dies, and Matsu is entrusted by the widow, Yoshiko, to act as a masculine role model for the boy, Toshio. What follows is primarily a story of unstated love between Matsu and Yoshiko.

Rickshaw Man is one of those films that works more often in spite of itself. Where Inagaki really goes wrong is the too frequent use of shots of rickshaw wheels spinning to indicate the passage of time. There is also a scene with Matsu reflecting on his life, with the flashback primarily consisting of previously seen shots seen as color negatives, almost as if the Fifty-three year old Inagaki, whose directorial career began in 1928, needed to prove he could be as avant-garde as the new kids from rival studios. Somewhat more successful is a flashback of Matsu as a boy, alone in a forest, imagining himself to be pursued by some malevolent flying spirits.

As the title indicates, this is mostly Mifune's show, and Inagaki proved himself to be compliant enough to be Mifune's director of choice in between the star's projects with Akira Kurosawa, and after his final break with the star filmmaker. Kurosawa may have been a hard taskmaster, but he also brought out a range in Mifune that isn't as apparent in other films. No sword fights here, but Mifune gets to show his "musical" talents, beating on a giant drum, demonstrating different kinds of percussive beats. Inagaki goes a bit wild here with a series of quick panning shots of the admiring audience, and a visual non sequitur of ocean waves. Rickshaw Man was one of six films starring Mifune in 1958, a year that included Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. Hideko Takamine would not make another film until 1960 with what some consider a signature role in Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 28, 2011 08:56 AM