Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I
by Shinobu Hashimoto, translated by Lori Hitchcock Morimoto

Legendary Japanese screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto’s memoir is drenched in nostalgia. There is nostalgia for the train stations in Tokyo and the post-war neighborhoods which they evoke. There is nostalgia for the pine forest of his youth, where he would go to cry when his parents were unkind to him, every tree of which was torn down to aid in Japan’s futile war effort. And most of all, there is nostalgia for the personalities of the Japanese film industry in the 1940’s and 50’s — chief among them: Akira Kurosawa.

Hashimoto was the sole disciple of director and screenwriter Mansaku Itami, a leading light in 1930’s Japanese cinema. Though Itami died of tuberculosis before his time, he had plans for Hashimoto — at that time a salaryman for a munitions concern who spent his free time screenwriting.

Itami’s designs lead to Hashimoto’s screenplays falling into the hands of Kurosawa and his producers. Kurosawa immediately recognized the potential of one script, which would go on to become Rashomon. Hashimoto’s third screenplay, another collaboration with Kurosawa (and this time adding Hideo Oguni, another ace screenwriter of the era) became the classic film Ikiru.

Writing advice from one of the great screenwriters

The memoir goes in depth into Hashimoto’s writing process, and it all stems, he says, from his mentor Itami’s emphasis on themes:

The most important thing in film production is the screenplay, and for the screenplay the most important things in turn are first, theme, second, story, third, characterization (and composition).

Kurosawa had the same approach to strong themes. “Themes shouldn’t be abstruse, you ought to be able to make out their form and see them clearly… Their characteristic is that they can be put into just a few words, and if it takes more, you’re not expressing but explaining. So, in my works, I’ve set themes that can be expressed in a single breath, and I intend to keep it that way,” Hashimoto quotes him as saying.

Akira Kurosawa’s script-craft—as with Rashomon, in order to seize a flash of inspiration he could jettison everything and make a dizzying leap for it, but the underlying essence … was straight-laced and meticulous advance preparation, an almost mulishly thoroughgoing rationalism—or rather, something surpassing rationalism that might better be termed perfectionism.

Just as PIXAR today rigorously attacks the weaknesses in a potential screen story, Akira Kurosawa insisted upon ‘wielding a hammer to tap a stone bridge before crossing it.’

The ideal reader of Compound Cinematics

If you are interested in the creative process behind some of the greatest works of cinema, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book. One need not be fully-versed in Japanese film history, but you ought to be familiar with Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai and Ran. Heck, you ought to be familiar with those films, regardless of your interest in this book.

The first part of the book is a bit difficult for a Western reader. It throws out a lot of place names and cultural concepts. But the parts on the mechanics of screenwriting, which comprise the majority of the book, translate perfectly. The struggle to craft a story and characters and themes that will resonate with an audience is universal.

Hashimoto is one of the unsung masters. And Kurosawa is a master who cannot be sung enough. A book on their collaborations is a treasure for practitioners of screen storytelling and fans of movie history alike.