So incredible is the cinematography of Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Rickshaw Man (1943) that the film’s many faults are not only easily forgiven, but transfigured into something close to virtues. This sentimental tale of surrogate fathers and sons, produced at the height of the Second World War, offers sedate family drama and some amusing moments of broad comedy. Its photography, however, is simply astonishing, offering an array of serene camera movements across immaculate compositions. The drama is serviceable at its best, but the images are phenomenal at their worst.
Tsumasaburô Bandô plays Matsugoro, a rickshaw driver and possessor of a Gumpian unflappability that ingratiates himself among his social betters. He transports young Toshio to the doctor after the boy injures his leg and soon becomes a family fixture despite his lower class status. When Toshio’s father dies unexpectedly, his mother beseeches Matsu to instruct the boy in the ways of manliness. The reformed brawler and outlaw’s bygone prescription for masculinity? Don’t cry, be ready to fight, and believe in yourself. Matsu becomes the boy’s hero after winning a public foot race, and he continues nurturing him through to adulthood while falling into unrequited love with the mother.
About the story not much more is worth saying. The images, however, rank among the most exquisite of Japanese cinema. Lensman Kazuo Miyagawa, the subject of Japan Society and MoMA’s retrospective in which the film screens, would shoot Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon a few years later, but The Rickshaw Man remains the superior showcase of his gifts. His camera glides through the village with balletic grace. Elsewhere he creates a charming effect with repeated use of the rickshaw’s shadow. Every frame is simply gorgeous. Miyagawa’s efforts culminate with a dreamy montage of superimposed rickshaws, dancing children and bobbing lanterns. In this brief, ecstatic sequence, everything is joyfully multiplied and wound together in a phantasmagoria depicting the end of Matsu’s life. Cheesy symbols like a rickshaw wheel grinding to a halt to signify his death could earn risible laughter if not for the humble spectacle of Miyagawa’s lustrous compositions.