The film was The Rickshaw Man (1958), a Toho production starring Toshiro Mifune. The film was directed by Toho's own epicmeister Hiroshi Inagaki (although the film is not an epic) and features a fine supporting cast including Yoshio Inaba, Bokuzen Hidari, Hideko Takamine and Chishu Ryu.
The film is set around the turn of the 20th century. Mifune does his blustery tough guy routine, a la Gonzo in Red Lion or Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, as the title character, Matsugoro, or Wild Matsu as he's known around town. He's a troublemaker, always getting into brawls and taking on all comers. He's a pain in the ass, but he's got a good heart. When a close friend dies, leaving a wife and small son behind, Matsu steps in to provide a male role model (although keeping a respectful distance from the widow whom he, of course, worships from afar).
We observe Matsu's life and death and it's all very sad in the end, but overall the film is suffused with such a joy in just being alive and having a shared human experience in a small Japanese town -- it's very transporting. That's what I appreciate about Japanese period pictures: You can't get much further away from contemporary 21st century America than, say, Tokugawa-era Japan. People speak of escapist entertainment -- well it doesn't get any more escapist than this in my book. So what are we waiting for? Let's bust out of this mother!
Here's a trailer.