Godzilla ResurgenceReview:
Muhomatsu, the Rickshaw Man (1958)

Author: Patrick Galvan
September 4, 2018
Note: review may contain spoilers

Toshiro Mifune in Muhomatsu the Rickshaw ManIt is always alluring to a reviewer’s curious side when a film artist, at some point in his later career, receives an opportunity to remake one of his own pictures and then proceeds to do so. The history of movie criticism is littered with complaints about perfunctory retreads oftentimes assembled by generations who were only kids or weren’t even a thought when the originals were brand-new; but on occasion, a director lives long enough to revisit one of his own stories, with a new cast and more up-to-date technology. This prospect in and of itself presents an intriguing scenario for a critic to judge: the new version’s coming straight from the mind which understands the original better than anyone with the possible exception of the screenwriter. (And I suppose there’s a certain magnetism there in that one can hope Version #2 might therefore be halfway decent.) Speaking for myself, Leo McCarey nabbed my attention when I learned he’d remade his 1939 film Love Affair as An Affair to Remember (1957); and I was quite pleased when he achieved a more enthusiastic reaction from me with his second telling of that story of star-crossed lovers. The great Yasujiro Ozu made a wonderful film in 1959 called Floating Weeds, itself a slightly less effective rendition of his 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), for me, functions merely as a curiosity piece and a stepping stone for his grander, more exciting 1956 picture of the same name. And then you have Hiroshi Inagaki, who directed several cinematic spectacles about historical figures such as Musashi Miyamoto and who later remade his own Muhomatsu, the Rickshaw Man (1943), in what ended up becoming one of the more popular films of his career.

A subtitled copy of the original black-and-white Muhomatsu has eluded me to this day, so I cannot offer any comments on that particular movie. As for its 1958 color remake—which took home the Golden Lion award at the nineteenth Venice International Film Festival—sitting twice through that version leaves me simply hoping I’ll be in for a much better time should I ever be so fortunate as to experience the original. Bloated, gimmicky, and monotonous by and large, the 1958 version hardly stands out as a classic in my mind, especially in comparison to the livelier, more dramatic films Inagaki made around the same time. In short: it’s no Samurai trilogy.

Set in the early twentieth century, the remake opens with a ruffian-cum-Good Samaritan named Matsugoro returning to the town of Kokura, from whence he had been banished the year before for some unspecified “incident.” Known as Muhomatsu (“Wild Matsu”), he’s played by Toshiro Mifune as a man of inner-conflicts: abrasive but emotional, uneducated yet knowledgeable, prone to obeying his temper as well as his conscience. Born poor, Matsu earns a meager living as a rickshaw man, transporting those of higher class around town. Not long after returning to Kokura (we are never told why the town’s authorities agree to let him stay), he comes to the aid of a boy named Toshio after the child hurts himself trying to climb a tree. As it turns out, Toshio’s the son of an army captain (Hiroshi Akutagawa), whom the rickshaw man soon befriends along with the officer’s wife, Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine). When the captain suddenly dies from (I think) pneumonia, Matsugoro opts to stay on and look after the man’s family: serving as a surrogate father for Toshio as well as assisting the widowed Yoshiko whenever possible—though his status among them is no different from that of a servant, even while he secretly falls in love with Yoshiko.

Muhomatsu the Rickshaw Man

Time passes. As the country emerges victorious in the Russo-Japanese War and the Siege of Qingdao—events not experienced by the characters but which merely filter in the background—Toshio becomes an adult (Kenji Kasahara) and Matsugoro remains a poor rickshaw man, one hopelessly in love with someone outside his class. Yoshiko, who never remarried in the interest of being there for her son, remains blissfully unaware of her friend/servant’s infatuation. Then, one evening, Matsugoro finds himself alone with Yoshiko and unwittingly makes his feelings known, only to run out of the house in embarrassment, vowing never to see her or her son again. He keeps true to his word: avoiding their residence, drinking heavily, wandering around town in a morose stupor. Winter comes. Matsugoro’s staggering around the countryside in the middle of a snowstorm when he collapses and freezes to death. And with that, the life of Wild Matsu the Rickshaw Man comes to an undignified end.

Not having seen the 1943 version Inagaki made, I cannot attest to how closely/liberally his remake follows its predecessor. Judging the second version strictly on its own terms: it’s a film which begins well enough but gradually and inevitably deteriorates.

The early sequences detailing Matsugoro’s return and his attempts to re-mingle with the town’s residents are, by far, the best moments in the picture. Following a genuinely amusing flashback revealing why he chose to return home (he lost a scuffle with a customer who just so happened to be the local police force’s kendo master), we’re treated to a fantastic set piece rife with comedy and physical action as Matsu’s denied free entry to a theater. The happi coat of a rickshaw man usually grants its owner zero-charge access, but on this particular day, the man at the theater entrance tells him to pay or come back later. In response, Matsu and a companion buy tickets, bringing with them a pot and every foul-smelling ingredient known to man, and start cooking amid the audience, much to everyone’s displeasure. The theater’s employees arrive on the scene and engage in a shouting match with Matsu, both sides repeatedly sneezing in the garlic-laden fumes before launching into an all-out brawl. The trouble’s brought to a calm end when a mediator (that wonderful actor Chishu Ryu) explains to both sides their respective errors. Acknowledged that he was wronged but admitting his actions were inappropriate (and that his fellow theatergoers didn’t deserve to have their evening wrecked), Matsu begs everyone for forgiveness. A wonderful sequence tingling with laughs, excitement, and humanity; and Inagaki’s handling of the scene—from his compositions to his choices of movement to his direction of the actors—is, shot for shot, second for second, spot on.

Toshiro Mifune as Muhomatsu

Unfortunately, all that constitutes only the first twenty minutes. As soon as our protagonist encounters Toshio for the first time, Muhomatsu, the Rickshaw Man begins plummeting into the depths of tedium. From this point, the movie narrows its gaze to a series of emotionless inter-character dramatics. Therein lies the key problem. While Matsugoro himself is a conceptually lovable character, and while Mifune is consistently warm and endearing in the part, the two people he’s meant to respond to and interact with cannot imbue any real heart or life into the narrative. Toshio, in particular, is a zero of a character: nondescript as a child, dull as a teenager, insufferable as an adult. As such, there are no moving “father-son” moments between the upper-class child and his impoverished caretaker. Little glimpses of his growing pains (stage fright, peer pressure, etc.) pepper in here and there, none amounting to anything truly dramatic. A subplot of Toshio brushing off advances from a sewing student comes and goes so quickly it might as well have been axed from the picture; then again, it can hardly be called a subplot as it never reaches a resolution of any kind.

Even more perplexing is the film’s failure to construct an emotionally stirring relationship between the rickshaw man and the widow. Once the husband is (rather abruptly) killed off ten minutes after his introduction, the core dramatics focus on our lower-class man’s love for a woman he cannot have. Here is the dynamic upon which everything turns. Or at least that’s what the movie would like us to believe. For, minus some awkward banter between Matsu and Yoshiko early on in their “association,” there’s virtually nothing—in the way the characters behave and interact—that even suggests one of them has romantic feelings for the other. Their scenes together consist mostly of casual conversation, the widow asking Matsu for favors, and him diligently agreeing—producing very little in the way of emotional or sexual tension, even one-sided emotional or sexual tension. Because of the way the narrative’s written and played out, the audience cannot help but share Yoshiko’s perplexed response when Matsu reveals how he feels; there was little in the preceding hour to make her—or us—notice his supposed suffering. (In one scene, Matsu’s fashioning a brilliant taiko performance with radiant energy, in the next he’s on the verge of tears.) As such, his big confession comes completely out of left field, thereby making his subsequent depression and ill-fated stroll through the countryside all the more befuddling. At this point, Matsugoro ceases to be a character and instead becomes a gimmick of the plot.

good and bad images in Muhomatsu the Rickshaw Man

Speaking of gimmickry, it’s abound in this picture. Director Inagaki, for the most part, supervises his usual breathtaking images; but there also exist a number of sore-thumb moments where he resorts to corny, imagination-starved tricks and metaphors. A flashback of Matsugoro recalling the time his younger self ran away from home perfectly exemplifies this problem: in the course of his travels, the boy traverses over some gorgeous landscapes and before an eye candy sunset before wandering into a mind-numbing “suspense” sequence in which young Matsu sees the forest trees warping and bending like reflections in a carnival distortion mirror (an effect not at all helped by the superimposition of some not-scary specters). Worse still: the movie’s tired method of conveying passing time. In a move which leaves the audience hungering for “One Year Later…” cards, Inagaki routinely dissolves to shots of turning rickshaw wheels photographed before dull backdrops of green, red, blue, and purple. Aggravation rises further still when, in Matsu’s death scene, the director alternately toggles between positive and negative printing to create an incongruous visual mess better suited for a “trip” sequence in a psychological drama or, as Stuart Galbraith IV puts it in his book The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, “a demonstration film from AgfaColor’s advertising department.” No, thinking back on it, I must say that description of Mr. Galbraith’s is absolutely spot on. It really looks and feels like a commercial aimed at film editors, not the employment of cinematic tools to heighten a scene of intended tragedy. And the scene’s denouement, in which we receive one final image of a wheel coming to a stop—signifying Matsu’s death—dashes what little beauty might’ve otherwise survived in this pictorially indulgent charade.

Of the performances, there’s nothing bad to be said. Despite the weak scenario thrown in their laps, the cast performs commendably. (Though I must quibble with the make-up: over the many years the story takes place, Hideko Takamine doesn’t gray or garner a single wrinkle; in that same time, however, Mifune becomes hunched and develops hair the color of chimney soot.) Kazuo Yamada’s cinematography, when not employed for groan-inducing moments such as those described earlier, is lush and sumptuous. The musical score by Ikuma Dan operates with efficiency; and those familiar with his work are bound to recognize identifiable “quirks” in his score. It’s a well-acted and (largely) well-made picture. Just one in desperate need of a good script.

From what I’ve gathered, most people consider Inagaki’s 1943 Muhomatsu, the Rickshaw Man (starring Tsumasaburo Bando) the superior rendition of the story. I hope to see it someday, along with the second remake—the one filmed by Kenji Misumi in 1965, starring Shintaro Katsu. (Given Katsu’s penchant for playing lovable oafs, I feel confident in assuming his portrayal to be the ultimate depiction of Matsugoro.) As for the fiscally successful 1958 version, it’s a misfire. And as an alternative, I vigorously recommend a film Mifune made for Daiei in 1951 called Life of a Horse-trader, also about a low-class sentimental ruffian, a woman, and a child. A picture which, unlike this one, features intricately detailed character relations and an ending in which tears flow with heartfelt justification.