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Book Review: Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I, by Shinobu Hashimoto

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: Continue reading

What did master director Kenji Mizoguchi teach his actors?

Japanese master director Kenji MizoguchiOn the Criterion Blu-ray for Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho dayu) (1954), actress Kyoko Kagawa explains what she learned about acting from Kenji Mizoguchi, the master Japanese director of Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu:

Mizoguchi taught me the fundamentals of acting: the attitude one must take towards preparing for a role, and also not to act from your head. Strip away everything that’s unnecessary and become as purely– In other words, become your character. Understand your character’s feelings and express them precisely. When you think about it, that’s obviously what’s expected of an actress, but it’s also the most difficult thing.

Mizoguchi was an influence on many filmmakers, from Jean-Luc Godard to Andrei Tarkovsky to Akira Kurosawa. What Kagawa describes sounds like nothing so much as The Method, popularized by Lee Strasberg at The Actor’s Studio and actors like Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro. But the acting in Sansho reminds me of the more extreme acting seen in Stanley Kubrick films.

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Which was more important to Akira Kurosawa, the script, the shooting or the editing?

The script.

In 1963, film scholar Donald Richie wrote an article for Films and Filming magazine in which he put the question to the master director:

Recently, I asked him, if he had to choose among them, which was most important, the script, the actual shooting, or the editing. He told me: “All three, naturally; still, if the script is no good, then it doesn’t matter how well you shoot or edit.”

The article is reproduced in the Criterion edition of High and Low, a rare Kurosawa film set in contemporary times. Despite the modern setting, this kidnapping story still has Kurosawa’s unmistakeable painterly eye. A dark sequence, where the villain of the film walks down an alleyway filled with junkies is, I think, about as close as Kurosawa ever got to making a zombie movie. And in this black-and-white film there is a single, powerful use of color that I believe must have inspired Steven Spielberg’s famous sequence in Schindler’s List with the girl in the red coat.

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