by Andrea Grunert
Inagaki Hiroshi’s The Rickshaw Man (Muhō Matsu no isshō, 1958) was the second Japanese film after Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon (1950) to win a Golden Lion at the International Film Festival in Venice. Inagaki’s film is the remake of an eponymous film he had directed in 1943. The screenplay was written by Itami Mansaku (1), an eminent figure of Japanese pre-war cinema, and it is the adaptation of a novel by Iwashita Shunsaku (2).
Remakes are not at all unusual in Japanese cinema (3), and the fate of The Rickshaw Man, made during the war, could be an additional explanation for Inagaki’s decision. About ten minutes of the original film had to be cut to satisfy the requirements of the Japanese censors and an additional eight minutes to satisfy those of their Allied counterparts during the occupation of Japan. These eighteen minutes are irrevocably lost. Very recently, Miyajima Masahiro, the long-time assistant of Miyagawa Kazuo, who was the director of photography for the first Rickshaw Man, devoted himself to the restoration of the original film. The release of this restored version together with the film from 1958 on DVD and Blu-ray by Carlotta Films in France in spring 2022 (4) represents a good opportunity to have a closer look at these two films made at different points in Japanese history.
Inagaki’s remake bears strong resemblances to the original. The setting of both films is the town of Kokura, located in the north of the island Kyushu, and the action starts in 1897 and takes place largely in the two first decades of the 20th century. The Rickshaw Man tells the story of Matsugoro, called Matsu, a rickshaw man who helps the widow of a young officer to bring up her son. Two stars of the Japanese cinema of their time are cast as Matsugoro: Bandō Tsumasaburō plays the role in the first film and Mifune Toshirō in the second. Yoshioka Yoshiko, the officer’s widow, is played by Sonoi Keiko in the original film, and in the remake by a big female star of Japanese cinema in the 1950s, Takamine Hideko (5).
There are many narrative and visual similarities between the original film and its remake. Among the sequences in both films is one in which Matsugoro repairs little Yoshioka Toshio’s kite. Having spotted the child crying in the middle of the street over his broken toy, Matsugoro leaves his rickshaw to come to the boy’s aid. While he is busy with the kite and trying to comfort Toshio, the passenger in the abandoned rickshaw starts making desperate gestures and movements to attract the rickshaw man’s attention. However, the sequences are filmed in a slightly different manner. In the earlier film, Inagaki uses a series of shots showing Matsugoro and the boy in the foreground and the passenger in the background or cutting from the latter to Matsugoro and Toshio. In the remake, filmed in widescreen, the sequence is presented as a general shot in which the passenger remains a tiny figure in the background. Nevertheless, the actor’s clownish, slapstick-like performance is obvious to the viewer.
This scene combines sentimentalism and comedy, realism and theatricality, which are powerful ingredients of both films. The scene is also crucial for the portrait of the main character as a troublemaker with a heart of gold and for the development he undergoes. Matsugoro is known as “Matsu, the Untamed” because he likes a fight and, in spite of his low social status, dares to challenge authority. The fact that he abandons his passenger without saying a word in order to help Toshio is a further indication of his self-confidence, and this sequence also highlights Matsugoro’s eagerness to help and his genuine feelings for the child.
At the beginning of both films, Matsugoro is a rather unruly man, as suggested by his nickname – a querulous loudmouth with a propensity for alcohol. Bandō’s and Mifune’s exaggerated gestures, broad smiles and hearty laugh underline how much he is a larger-than-life figure. Both actors create a number of strong comic and entertaining moments in which Matsugoro contributes an element of burlesque, something that the abandoned passenger does in the kite scene. In the course of the film, Matsugoro becomes quieter as if his relationship with the boy and his mother gradually tames him. He tries to adapt to their more refined manners, shown for example in the sequence at the sports festival when Matsugoro at first vociferously encourages the athletes. Understanding that young Toshio is embarrassed by his behaviour, he starts to calm down, and as Toshio and Yoshiko increasingly become the focus of his life, he takes on the role of a surrogate father for the boy.
The Matsugoro figure
A rickshaw man ranked at the very bottom of the social hierarchy in Meiji Japan (1868-1912). However, although a lowly rickshaw man, Matsugoro is depicted as a model of manhood and is idealized as a caring and honourable human being. After his death, Yoshiko discovers that Matsugoro has not spent one yen of the money she gave him in return for various services for her and her son. Instead, he has put it in a bank account opened in her and Toshio’s name.
Young Toshio is a rather shy and not very courageous boy, something of a crybaby, but Matsugoro succeeds in imbuing him with his (Matsugoro’s) self-confidence. The incarnation of manliness, Matsugoro helps Toshio to overcome his shyness, considered in Japan to be a feminine quality. The boy admires Matsugoro after the latter has won the race during the sports festival, a sequence during which it emerges that Matsugoro is illiterate. However, it also reveals his intelligence as Matsugoro does not win the 500 metres because of his physical strength or stamina but because he employed the right tactics. The editing in both films establishes the strong link between the boy and the man and also makes clear the pedagogical purpose behind Matsugoro’s participation in the race. Although Toshio was at first embarrassed by Matsugoro’s anything but restrained behaviour, he overcomes his shyness and starts cheering him on loudly.
Matsugoro inspires courage in the boy and, by extension, establishes values for a nation at war in 1943. Moreover, he represents a traditional Japan already relegated to the past, being the only one still capable of beating out the rhythm on the big drum at the Gion Festival (6) in the time-honoured exceptionally fast way. Unlike the younger man he replaces as drummer, Matsugoro does not complain about calloused hands, and he beats the drum almost frantically as he increases to a breathtaking speed.
As well as the difference in running time (7) and the fact that the original is shot in black and white and the remake in colour, there are numerous other differences between the two versions. In the 1958 film, the inhabitants of Kokura celebrate the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904/05). This brief sequence and other references to this war are not in the surviving copy of the original film. The American censors did not want any reference to the topic of war and especially not to a war the Japanese won and which was used as an important reference in the country’s wartime propaganda during World War II (8).
In the 1943 version of The Rickshaw Man, there is only one allusion to the fact that Matsugoro’s is illiterate, but in the remake, he mentions himself that he never went to school but that for reasons he cannot explain he feels attracted to this educational institution. He is shown observing Toshio in his classroom from outside the school building, and he learns the songs the pupils sing. “School” as an important topic in this second version of The Rickshaw Man was added to the script by Inagaki. One explanation could be that Inagaki himself came from a poor family and had not been able to attend school for long but expressed a great love of and respect for education (9).
Both films show Matsugoro’s slow deterioration as Toshio becomes older and less dependent on him. He is embarrassed when the rickshaw man calls him “son” in public and prefers to ignore him. And although his mother scolds Toshio for being ashamed of any connection to Matsugoro, she nevertheless asks the old rickshaw man to call her son “Mr. Yoshioka” from now on.
Matsugoro not only grows older but also starts drinking again. It seems likely that he dies of a heart attack related to his alcohol consumption, but the films deal with Matsugoro’s death in different ways. However, in both there is a kaleidoscopic series of shots revealing images that flash through Matsugoro’s mind before he dies, images of the most important events in his life. In the earlier film, this dreamlike sequence is followed by the shot of a wintry landscape and a sequence at an inn during which Matsugoro’s death is referred to in a dialogue. In the later version, Inagaki dwells on Matsugoro’s body and face, ravaged by age and heavy drinking, and shows his lonely death. Clutching a bottle, the drunken rickshaw man staggers across a snow-covered landscape and suddenly stumbles, putting his hand to his chest (10).
This different approach to Matsugoro’s death changes the way the film’s portrayal of idealized masculinity is to be understood. Just as the traditional drumming style has been replaced by new and less vigorous rhythms, Matsugoro too stands for a vanishing ideal. In both films, he is depicted as an anachronism, and the innocence he shared with Toshio when the latter was still a little boy has gone for Toshio too. Now a young man and a student but no longer living in Kokura, he has been polluted by the modern world and has lost his natural innocence, which, of course, is the fate of all human beings when they grow up. Against the background of wartime propaganda, it was not desirable to show in detail Matsugoro’s physical and psychological decline, and thus in 1943, the ideal of manliness, even if only in a weakened form imbued with nostalgia, had to be preserved.
Both films start with shots of children playing happily in the street. The original film’s last shot once again shows children playing in the street, and children can be seen as symbols of the future and as a reference to the circle of life. In the remake, the final shot is of an almost deserted street with only a water bearer and a stray dog as well as the empty rickshaw in the foreground. This is a clear indication that Matsugoro now belongs to the past, having no place in a society undergoing rapid transformation – the situation during the Meiji Period as well as in post-war Japan in the 1950s.
Most of the cuts required by the Japanese censors had to do with Matsugoro’s feelings for Yoshiko. Although the lowly rickshaw man is presented as a heroic figure, it was not permissible to show a relationship – even a platonic one – between two people from different social classes (11). The widow of an officer had to remain devoted to the memory of her late husband and fulfil the role of the ideal woman – that of a mother. In both films, sexual abstinence is an almost necessary element in the low-born protagonist’s development to become a tragic hero, the kind of hero so greatly venerated throughout Japanese cultural history (12). The male ideal Matsugoro evokes is inspired by the idea of purity and is closely linked to the ideal of the samurai as a heroic figure imbued with purity that was promulgated by the Japanese military regime during World War II. Matsugoro is the idealized hero with only pure thoughts, upholding values such as courage, honesty, loyalty and benevolence, which were attributed to the samurai in the Hagakure (13). He demonstrates that an ordinary present-day man can be as noble as the idealized warriors of ancient times.
Both films depict Matsugoro as a man who enjoys life and whose innocence has a childlike quality. In the original version, there are a few hints created by the mise en scène, editing and acting that cast doubt on Matsugoro’s purity by alluding to his longing for Yoshiko. In one sequence, Matsugoro is an old man drinking in a pub. Turning his back to the camera, a slight movement of his head suggests that he is looking at something in front of him. The camera advances, revealing what has attracted his gaze. It is an advertisement poster showing an attractive young woman. After a cut, the camera switches from the poster, which now hangs outside Matsugoro’s lodgings, to Yoshiko, who is paying him a visit to ask for his help. Camera movements and editing establish a link between Matsugoro’s interest in the woman on the poster and Yoshiko, the true object of his desire.
The 1958 film puts far more emphasis on the poster without the subtle combination of camera movement and editing and approaching the topic of desire not only through visual means but in the dialogue as well. Matsugoro even tries to hide from Yoshiko, who is a symbol of the decent woman and of the female ideal as a mother that was still in vogue in the late 1950s. His desire and his true feelings for the widow are made explicit when, deeply ashamed, Matsugoro confesses to Yoshiko “Excuse me. I have had impure thoughts” before leaving her hastily never to return. This deepening of psychological aspects is supported by Mifune Toshirō’s sensitive acting and creates an overwhelming feeling of sadness.
The experimental character of the two films
The film dating from 1958 contains longer dialogue sequences and puts more emphasis on the story’s human dimension, allowing for more development of the central character. However, the chronology of the story and the realism of the photography are challenged in both versions by optical effects, camera movements and editing. Dizzying camera pans in the Gion Festival sequence interspersed with shots of the pounding surf and of clouds are features of both films, supporting the growing intensity of the drumming. And in both films, shots of the rotating wheels of the rickshaw punctuate the action, their decreasing speed indicating the passage of time.
The experimental character created by various mise en scène and optical devices culminates in the original film in a series of shots that reveal images passing through the dying Matsugoro’s mind – Matsugoro dancing happily amidst a group of children, shots of fireworks and a lantern parade, shots of balloons and flowers, recurring images of rickshaws, and also shots of the sports festival and the Gion Festival as already seen in the film. There is a similar series of shots in the second film in which these images appear as photographic negatives, thereby distinguishing them from reality. However, the shots of Yoshiko and Toshio in this sequence are not negatives, and this underlines their importance for Matsugoro (14). It is significant that in both films the dying Matsugoro recalls Toshio as a child and not as the young man who became estranged from him. Also significant is the fact that Matsugoro recalls the happy moments in his life, a further allusion to the protagonist’s positive world view.
The 1943 version is dominated by Miyagawa Kazuo’s exquisite black-and-white photography (15), evoking the light and shadow aesthetics of expressionist cinema of the 1920. This is in particular the case in the flashback during which Matsugoro as a young child is walking in a forest at night. The uncanny apparitions that frightens him are produced mainly by nature itself, supported by lighting, camera movements and optical effects that distort the dark branches. Occasionally, white phantom-like figures appear behind the trees, further manifestations of the boy’s fears. A similarly filmed and no less effective sequence occurs in the colour film, but here Inagaki places more emphasis on the physical appearance of the phantom figures.
The rhythm of the longer later version from 1958 necessarily differs from that of the censored original, and as a result, the experimental nature of some of the shots is more obvious in the original film, imbuing it with a highly poetic character. Here, Inagaki relies more on visual devices – elegant camera work and editing – than in the remake. Complex editing and camera movements create a link between Toshio and Matsugoro during the race, with shots of the boy’s face or his hands clutching Matsugoro’s jacket sufficing to reveal the boy’s growing excitement. In the later film, Toshio also voices his excitement and ultimate pride in Matsugoro’s victory in a dialogue, sharing his feelings with his mother.
Inagaki’s humanistic view
Bandō and Mifune contribute significantly to the rich portrait of the main character. Throughout their careers, both actors played rebellious men in conflict with authority (16). Especially at the beginning of the film, Mifune pays tribute to Bandō, imitating his exaggerated gestures and in the race scene adopting Bandō’s running style. However, Mifune’s facial expressions are more vivid than Bandō’s and he is more agile, employing the very fast changes of mood and expression for which Mifune was uniquely famous in Japanese cinema of the post-war period. However, he is much more the focus in many of the sequences, picked out by framing and camera position and given more opportunities for creativity.
For the director, political pressure during the war years may have helped to trigger creativity since mere allusions can be more telling than words. The scene mentioned above with the poster is an important example in the 1943 film of the subtlety of Inagaki’s mise en scène and Bandō’s acting. Matsugoro comes out of his lodgings to greet Yoshiko. He veers towards the wall where the poster hangs almost imperceptibly but sufficiently to indicate that he is trying to block the woman on the poster from Yoshiko’s view.
The original film reflects the ethics and ideals of the wartime government but without being a chauvinistic propaganda film. On the contrary, it is a very personal and even cheerful film. Its compassionate portrayal of an ordinary man who enjoys life and who has tender feelings for the widow of an officer could have been rejected outright as “unpatriotic” by the Japanese censors. The remake is no less warm-hearted, underlining Inagaki’s interest in outcasts and the hardship that people endure. The experimental elements that could have been a thorn in the side of the wartime censors are preserved in the later version made under the restrictions of studio policy, which meant economic rather than political pressure.
(1) Itami Mansaku is one of the Japanese writers/directors who in the 1930s used jidai geki (period films) as a medium to express social criticism. The Rickshaw Man was not his first collaboration with Inagaki. Itami had already written the screenplay for Inagaki’s directorial debut Tenka Taiheki and for another film by Inagaki, Hōrō zanmai, both released in 1928. Itami died in 1946, and in 1948, Inagaki adapted a screenplay written by him for the film Children Hand in Hand (Te o tsunagu kōra).
(2) The novel written by Iwashita Shunsaku, an employee of the Yahata Iron Works in Kyushu, had been nominated for the prestigious Naoki Prize.
(3) Another remake of The Rickshaw Man based on Itami’s script was directed by Misumi Kenji in 1965. Katsu Shintarō, a star of Japanese cinema in the 1960s, plays the main character. In the adaptation of Iwashita’s story by Itō Daisuke in 1964, Mikuni Rentarō was cast in the leading role. Both Inagaki and Itami were Itō’s assistants in the 1920s.
(5) Sonoi Keiko, who made only a few appearances on screen, was famous as a member of the all-female Takarazuka Revue, which performed musicals. She died on 21 August 1945 as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Takamine Hideko played her first role in a film in 1929 at the age of five. Throughout her long career, which spanned over fifty years, she worked with some of the greatest Japanese directors, including Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujirō, and she is known in particular for her collaboration with the two famous directors Naruse Mikio and Kinoshita Keisuke.
(6) Kokura’s Gion Festival takes place over three days in mid-July. It is a drumming festival in which the participants parade through the town with drums attached to floats. The drumming is supposed to express wishes for peace, good luck in business etc.
(7) On the Carlotta Films DVD and Blu-ray, the original film has a running time of 1:19 and the remake one of 1:43.
(8) The celebration of victory with fireworks and a lantern parade was cut in accordance with the requirements of the American censors. However, shots of fireworks and of lanterns still form part of the sequence showing Matsugoro’s dream at the end of the film in which the important moments in his life reappear.
(9) There are other correspondences with Inagaki’s own life. Like Matsugoro, Inagaki had an unloving stepmother, who even abused him. See the interview with Inagaki’s son Yōzō in the bonus feature included in the Carlotta Films release of Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi Trilogy, 2021.
(10) In both films, Matsugoro says that his father was a drunkard who died from a heart attack and that he is afraid that he will share the same fate.
(11) In Obayashi Nobuhiko’s last film Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), a theatre group performs scenes from The Rickshaw Man and is ordered by a member of the kempeitai, the military police, to stop the performance because the play is considered to contain “anti-war ideology”. The member of the kempeitai explains that it is unpatriotic for a rickshaw man to fall in love with a widow.
(12) See Ivan I. Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, London, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
(13) The Hagakure is a collection of comments by Saga domain retainer Yamamoto Tsunetomo published in the early 18th century and considered a practical and spiritual guide for samurai at that time. Almost forgotten for two centuries, it achieved renewed prominence during the war years. It also inspired Mishima Yukio, who commented on it in his critical essay Hagakure nyūmon, published in 1967. See for the first English edition Mishima, Yukio, Hagakure: Samurai Ethics in Modern Japan, London, Penguin, 1979.
(14) In the original film, Yoshiko and her son appear as mere silhouettes.
(15) Miyajima Masahiro states: “I think that The Rickshaw Man was the matrix for all his [Miyagawa Kazuo’s] great films.” This view is confirmed by Miyagawa himself in an interview that can be found together with Miyajima’s statement in the bonus feature on the Carlotta Films release of The Rickshaw Man.
(16) Bandō, one of the most popular actors of the late 1920s and the 1930s, became famous for his interpretations of nihilist samurai, for example in Futagawa Buntarō’s Orochi (1925). Before The Rickshaw Man, he starred in three other films by Inagaki, working with him afterwards a further three times. Mifune started his long collaboration with Inagaki in 1950 and was cast in twenty-one of his films, including Inagaki’s final work for the silver screen, Machibuse (1970). A comparison between the acting style of these two actors and the different mise en scène devices used to support their performances is a possible topic for a future article.