MMC!‘s proposed collection of Tai Katô films continues with another exceptionally titled movie – Fighting Tatsu, the Rickshaw Man (1964). Adapted by Katô and Noribumi Suzuki from Gohei Kamiya’s novel, Shafu yukyoden – kenka tatsu (Fighting Tatsu‘s Japanese title) is a lighter take on the yakuza genre, injecting a romantic comedy into its story of mob politics and gang warfare. The film still manages its share of bloodshed, untimely deaths, and wild, riotous street fights to satisfy strict genre fans.
The movie opens in 1898 with scruffy and truculent rickshaw driver Tatsu (Ryôhei Uchida) arriving from Edo to Osaka ready to start his career with the town’s only rubber-wheeled carriage. Before even leaving the Victorian-designed train station, Tatsu bumps into a high-ranking official and gets into a brawl with him, his assistant, and his bodyguard. When told to mind his place and defer to the official, Tatsu proclaims that they live in a new era where all are “born equally now.” By these first few minutes, the film’s main character is immediately and perfectly defined – headstrong, independent, egalitarian, pugnacious – and no question is left as to how Fighting Tatsu will develop its dramatic conflicts.
Fighting Tatsu‘s first act proceeds like an elaborate meet cute, with a fair amount of Japanese shouting and brawling peppered throughout. Rickshaw work in Osaka falls under the purview of the Nishikawa yakuza, but Tatsu refuses to accept any subordination, putting up a sign declaring he only transports “luggage” and not people, thereby falling outside of the Nishikawa’s control and brawling with any of the gang’s thugs who disagree. He then provides a ride to Kimiyyako, a young geisha set to be “married” to boss Yosaburo Nishikawa to whom she is a mistress. Tatsu gets around his “no passengers” rule by treating his rickshaw’s occupants as luggage, however Kimiyyako’s complaints become too much for him and he throws her and his cart into the river.
Captured by the Nishikawa gang, Tatsu is forced to admit that he fell in love with the geisha the moment she hit the water, and when boss Yosaburo demands that Tatsu join his clan, the rickshaw driver refuses and instead proposes marriage to Kimiyyako. Charmed by Tatsu’s brash nature, Nishikawa lets his mistress decide and when she chooses Tatsu, boss Yosaburo sends the pair off that night to the resort where he planned to marry Kimiyyako. At the inn, Tatsu is mistaken for Yosaburo, as the reservation is in his name. When he discovers that Kimiyyako was courted by Yosaburo for three years, he returns her to Nishikawa and refuses to consider their pairing any farther, falling in to sullen mood thereafter.
The abortive romance of Tatsu and Kimiyyako becomes a backdrop to an escalating gang war between the Nishikawa clan and Ryuun Yajima, a martial arts master who arrives to Osaka, pressures the police into arresting Yosaburo for fishing with dynamite, and then muscles in on Nishikawa’s turf with a rival crew. Tatsu remains independent from the yakuza, but loyal to the fair-minded and locally beloved Yosaburo, opposing Yajima throughout. In the process, Tatsu gradually becomes a less self-centred individual, even if he remains as mulish ever. Unlike Cruel Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Fighting Tatsu does end happily with Yajima presumably defeated and Tatsu and Kimiyyako finally married in a dignified, private ceremony.
Kevin Thomas suggests that Fighting Tatsu recalls Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), while its slant on “romantic comedy seems positively Shakespearean in its robust complexity.” Hyperbole notwithstanding, the cinema (Japanese or not) loves a stranger arriving to town and creating disorder, and so the comparison to Kurosawa’s films are natural, although Tatsu is not nearly as composed or as calculating as Toshiro Mifune’s bodyguard. Katô’s Bard-like machinations to frustrate Tatsu and Kimiyakko’s romance – pride, coincidence, mistaken identity – are certainly elaborate enough and bespeak not of high cultural associations with Shakespeare, but rather the commercial and popular aims that connect both storytellers. In its way, Fighting Tatsu anticipates the American action-comedies of the 1980s with their disheveled, garrulous, iconoclastic heroes, their unorthodox behaviours, and their fraught romantic subplots.
If Cruel Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate reflects Japanese anxieties over the developing counterculture, particularly its radicalizing student and leftist movements, then Fighting Tatsu might describe a positive vision of the changing times. Tatsu is free-thinking, independent, and staunchly resolute in his personal dignity unhindered by prejudices of class or culture. His assertiveness certainly leads to complications – brawling at any moment, angering his love – and that’s much of the film’s fun, but Tatsu’s opening declaration of his inherent equality cannot be underestimated. Katô’s other 1964 film is just as much a product of its time as Cruel Story, but prefers to valourize its unconventional hero rather than condemn the corruption of its society. It’s a welcome response to the feel-bad experience of Cruel Story and an appreciated alternative to the twisted tales by Tai Katô that will follow here at MMC!
Still to come, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him and I, the Executioner!
Credits: Not much writing (at least in English) can be found on Fighting Tatsu with the exception of Kevin Thomas’ discussion of the American Cinematheque’s retrospective, “Songs of the Wandering Gambler: The Films of Tai Kato.”