‘The Rickshaw Man’: Good-Hearted Hooligan Toshiro Mifune

The director presents a remake of his own film about duty and loyalty.
‘The Rickshaw Man’: Good-Hearted Hooligan Toshiro Mifune
Toshiro Mifune as Matsugoro—the tough yet good-hearted ruffian, in “The Rickshaw Man.” (Toho Company)
Ian Kane

NR | 1h 43m | Drama | 1958

Even before I knew of Toshiro Mifune’s global acclaim as an actor, his performance in the 1954 classic “Seven Samurai” had already secured its place among my all-time favorite films.

However, I confess that my exposure to Mifune’s work has largely been limited to films featuring swordplay and bloodletting. So, when I stumbled upon a drama produced several years after “Seven Samurai” titled “The Rickshaw Man,” I saw it as an opportunity to witness Mifune in a subdued role.

Directed by actor-turned-director Hiroshi Inagaki, “Rickshaw” is a remake of Inagaki’s own 1948 film “The Life of Matsu the Untamed.” Both films are set during the tumultuous yet hopeful Meiji era (1868–1912) of Japan’s history.

In “The Rickshaw Man,” Mifune portrays the eponymous rickshaw man—a weathered character named Matsugoro, known as “Wild Matsu” to the locals of the small Japanese town of Kokura.

As the story unfolds, a policeman enters an inn and informs the older lady proprietor that Matsu, who was expelled from town the previous year for some undisclosed transgression, has reportedly returned and is hiding somewhere nearby. Despite discovering that Matsu is being concealed at the inn, the policeman opts not to arrest the rickshaw man (the first hint that Matsu isn’t quite the ruffian he appears to be).

Inside the room, Matsu writhes in pain, clutching his bandaged head. It is revealed that he had a disagreement with a man over transportation fees. Unwilling to back down, Matsu’s confrontation escalated into a physical altercation. However, Matsu unwittingly engaged in combat with a master swordsman and was struck on the head with the man’s scabbard.

Toshio Yoshioka (Kaoru Matsumoto), in “The Rickshaw Man.” (Toho Company)
Toshio Yoshioka (Kaoru Matsumoto), in “The Rickshaw Man.” (Toho Company)

Indeed, Matsu’s life as a rickshaw man entails hard work transporting people to various destinations across the countryside. As such, he cherishes his moments of relaxation whenever they come.

One of his favorite pastimes is attending plays at the local theater. However, when the ticket booth manager refuses to let him in for free, a customary privilege for rickshaw men, Matsu is turned away. Eventually gaining entry with the help of another individual, Matsu’s presence creates quite a scene, leading to trouble with the town’s officials once again. Fortunately, a mediator intervenes and resolves the conflict between Matsu and another hostile party he had clashed with, averting further escalation.

One day, while navigating his rickshaw through town, Matsu comes across a young boy named Toshio Yoshioka being bullied by other children. Later, Matsu discovers Toshio injured and transports him to his parents’ home in a well-to-do neighborhood. Toshio’s parents, Kotaro (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a kind army officer, and his beautiful wife Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine), welcome Matsu’s assistance.

So close, yet so far away: Yoshiko Yoshioka (Hideko Takamine) and Matsugoro (Toshiro Mifune), in “The Rickshaw Man.” (Toho Company)
So close, yet so far away: Yoshiko Yoshioka (Hideko Takamine) and Matsugoro (Toshiro Mifune), in “The Rickshaw Man.” (Toho Company)

Matsu is somewhat similar to Mifune’s portrayal of Kikuchiyo in “The Seven Samurai,” in that both characters are loud, brazen, and rather crude men of action, who don’t put up with the arrogant behavior of others. However, here, we have a more complex characterization since Matsu’s personality is peeled back in layers like an onion. It’s entertaining just seeing how the character adapts to his new surrogate family as time goes by.

Mifune’s performance in this role is remarkably subtle, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where his character’s true emotions begin to surface, until the poignant conclusion. Despite Matsu’s occasional boisterous and headstrong nature, he is also portrayed as a sensitive man with his own desires and selfless intentions.

For instance, when potential marriage suitors visit Yoshiko and attempt to persuade her to remarry, Matsu eavesdrops while working nearby in the garden. Witnessing Yoshiko’s reluctance to consider remarriage, Matsu empathizes with her pain. However, being of a lower social class, he restrains from offering physical comfort, feeling bound by both societal constraints and a sense of loyalty to Yoshiko’s late husband.

Mifune skillfully portrays Matsu’s internal struggle, showcasing how his love for Yoshiko, coupled with his reluctance to express his feelings, gradually erodes the edges of his strong yet sensitive personality. As a result, he eventually turns to excessive drinking and is later found drunkenly singing to himself at local taverns.

(L–R) Matsugoro (Toshiro Mifune), Toshio Yoshioka (Kaoru Matsumoto), and Yoshiko Yoshioka (Hideko Takamine), in “The Rickshaw Man.” (Toho Company)
(L–R) Matsugoro (Toshiro Mifune), Toshio Yoshioka (Kaoru Matsumoto), and Yoshiko Yoshioka (Hideko Takamine), in “The Rickshaw Man.” (Toho Company)

This dichotomy is fascinating. On one hand, Matsu is a rebellious figure who defies societal norms, yet on the other, he is a principled individual who restrains his emotions. We see this when it comes to Yoshiko, honoring her late husband and respecting class restrictions.

“The Rickshaw Man” is an emotionally charged film that gradually captivates viewers and maintains its intensity until its bittersweet conclusion. Some may call this film a “weepy.” I’d concur, but it’s a remarkably well-crafted one.

“The Rickshaw Man” is available on the Criterion Channel.
‘The Rickshaw Man’ Director: Hiroshi Inagaki Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Hideko Takamine, Hiroshi Akutagawa Not Rated Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes Release Date: May 3, 1960 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.