Akira Kurosawa has been described as “The Man Who Invented Hollywood”, specifically the late 20th century Hollywood that ultimately became the manufacturer of blockbusters, because so many of Hollywood’s greatest and most commercially successful movies were based on his Japanese films; for example, The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Seven Samurai (1954) and Star Wars was largely based on Hidden Fortress (1958).
However, while Kurosawa’s place in the global cinematic pantheon is assured, the influence of his co-writers has largely been forgotten, especially in the West. Foremost among those co-writers were Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, who, alongside Kurosawa himself, wrote the scripts for many of his greatest movies, including the aforementioned Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress.
While both are magnificent screenwriters, with each of them writing more than a hundred screenplays over their long careers, Hashimoto may just edge Oguni in the greatness stakes, because in addition to his work with Kurosawa he also wrote several other classic scripts for major Japanese directors, including those for Hara-Kiri (1962) and Sword of Doom (1966). Like Oguni, his contribution to the extraordinary Kurosawa canon and to Japanese cinema in general is deserving of infinitely greater celebration than is currently the case.
Incredibly, unlike Kurosawa and Oguni, Hashimoto is still alive – indeed, he is only one year away from his 100th birthday. One wonders whether the Japanese Emperor celebrates his subjects who reach a hundred in the same way that Queen Elizabeth celebrates British subjects who reach the milestone, namely by sending them a congratulatory card or telegram. Regardless, Hashimoto’s 99th birthday earlier this month (he was born on April 18th 1919) was widely celebrated by cinephiles, and rightly so.
Hashimoto’s first successful screenplay, co-written with Kurosawa, is one of the greatest screenplays ever written and its title alone has effectively transcended cinema to become an almost universally recognisable psychological condition or construct. It was Rashomon (1950), which was based on a 1922 short story, In The Grove, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who is regarded alongside the likes of Anton Chekhov and James Joyce as one of the great innovators in the short story genre. In the story, as in the screenplay, the same incident – the murder of a samurai – is recounted from four different perspectives, showing how difficult, if not downright impossible, it is to establish a definitive “truth”. Arguably the story works even more successfully in cinema than in literature, because the immersive power of cinema often makes a viewer adopt (and believe) the viewpoint of a character more completely than a story does a reader. To this day, nearly seventy years on, Rashomon stands as one of the screenplays and films that most dizzyingly plays with a reader/viewer’s sense of perspective, making them actively question the truth of what they are reading or seeing, and in that regard ranks alongside more modern brain-twisters such as The Usual Suspects (1995).
Rashomon not only launched the screenwriting career of Hashimoto and relaunched the directing career of Kurosawa after he had already spent nearly a decade making films, but it effectively introduced the rest of the world to Japanese cinema, which, a mere five years after the end of World War Two, was the proverbial “hard sell” to Western audiences. However, just as the great Italian neo-realists such as De Sica made the world see the former Fascist state in an entirely new light, so Rashomon, particularly as it was set in Japan’s past (specifically the samurai era of the Middle Ages), enabled Japan to be recast as a country trying to rebuild itself after the calamity of the war, which of course culminated in the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What followed throughout the rest of the 1950s, as Kurosawa and Hashimoto (often working with Oguni) co-wrote a series of classic movies, was a golden decade of creativity comparable to the golden ages of artists in other fields, from Shakespeare’s early 1600s (between 1600 and 1610, he wrote his greatest works, including the four great tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello) to The Beatles’ decade-defining 1960s.
After Rashomon, the next collaboration between Kurosawa, Hashimoto and Oguni was Ikiru (1952), which translates into English as “To Live”. Like Rashomon, the film had a literary origin, in that it was inspired by The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the 1886 novella by Tolstoy that has been adapted for the screen several times in several different countries, most recently in Hollywood as Ivans XTC (2000), the film that showed the world Danny Huston was far more than just the son of John. Kurosawa, Hashimoto and Oguni transplanted Tolstoy’s late 19th century Russian tale of a judge, his illness and death to 20th century Japan, turning the judge into a bureaucrat but retaining the same fatalistic view of life. Ikiru was not the breakthrough and breakout success of Rashomon, but it proved that Rashomon was not a one-off and that instead a brilliant new cinematic writing and directing team had arrived.
The next film that the trio worked on was, if anything, even more astonishing than Rashomon. Seven Samurai (1954) is arguably the greatest Japanese film ever made and is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made anywhere, as demonstrated by its consistently high position in polls of critics and film-makers. The Magnificent Seven (1960), which Americanised the original by setting it in the Wild West of the 19th century, is a terrific movie but Seven Samurai is a truly great film and therefore a great work of art. It is set in the Japanese equivalent of the Wild West, the Sengoku period or “Age of Warring States” (which lasted from the middle of the 15th century AD to the beginning of the 17th century AD), when samurai (highly trained fighters) were swordsmen available for hire by all and sundry. In Seven Samurai, the titular seven warriors (as disparate a bunch as Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner et al) are hired by the inhabitants of a village that is continually being plundered by bandits. In one of the many telling differences between the Japanese original and the American remake, the Japanese villagers are so poor that they cannot even afford to pay the samurai they are trying to recruit but can only offer them food. However, food is the only currency that matters in this war-torn time and land.
Seven Samurai is nearly four hours long but not a moment of screen time is wasted, as Kurosawa, shooting the script he had written with Hashimoto and Oguni, shows the recruitment, the training and ultimately the going-to-war of the group of samurai. And it is war that they go to, rather than a skirmish or a Wild West shoot-out, as the bandits launch wave after wave of attacks upon the village but are eventually defeated by the samurai, of whom only three survive at the end. Thus, Seven Samurai transcends the samurai movie genre and becomes one of the greatest war films ever made, especially because it depicts a period (found in the history of most countries and not just Japan) when civilisation itself seems to have collapsed and war is all that is left.
It is not only the brilliance of Kurosawa’s 1950s films that amaze but their range. After Seven Samurai, Kurosawa and his pair of co-writers travelled from Japan’s distant past to its terrifying present, and specifically its struggle to survive and reinvent itself after the horror and shame of defeat in World War Two. I Live In Fear (1955) is the story of an elderly Japanese man (played by Kurosawa’s go-to leading man, Toshiro Mifune, in one of his more unusual and uncharacteristic roles) who is so frightened about the prospect of nuclear apocalypse that he seeks sanctuary in what he supposes will be the safety of South America. Of course, after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a decade earlier, nuclear destruction was not just an abstract concept for Japan but an appalling reality, and Kurosawa and his co-writers, who on this occasion were assisted by a fourth writer, Fumio Hayasaka, convincingly create the sense of a man whose whole life is so consumed by fear that he is almost unable to live at all. Consequently, “I die in fear” might be a more appropriate title.
After a samurai movie (more accurately, the samurai movie) and a contemporary drama that addressed Japan and indeed the world’s greatest contemporary fear, Kurosawa, Hashimoto and Oguni turned to Shakespeare, creating in Throne of Blood (1957) one of the greatest cinematic adaptations of a Shakespeare play. In the process, they showed how adapting Shakespeare for cinema was not fundamentally about slavishly adhering to lines written in a foreign language (as English was to Kurosawa and his co-writers) but about recreating on film the atmosphere and ambience of a play. Throne of Blood was inspired by, and loosely modelled on, what is arguably Shakespeare’s most atmospheric play, Macbeth, which of course has an utterly evil ambience. Once again, the Kurosawa “team” returned to Japan’s medieval past to show a successful general, Washizu (played by Mifune in what was a more typical role for him), becoming a Macbeth-type dictator as he is preyed upon and led astray by mysterious spirits (who derive more from the highly stylised and visual Japanese noh theatre than the more literary Western tradition of tragedy) and of course his wife, who is a true equivalent of Lady Macbeth in her desire for power. The result was one of the greatest ever Shakespeare films and arguably the greatest ever foreign-language Shakespeare film, a title that only the great Hamlet and Lear of the Soviet director, Grigory Kosintsev, can also lay claim to.
By the late 1950s, Kurosawa was not only the greatest and most internationally successful post-war Japanese director but effectively the cinematic equivalent of the post-war Japanese economy, which was also rising from the ruins of Japan’s ultimately disastrous World War Two. And perhaps the high-point of his work with Hashimoto in this decade was Hidden Fortress (1958), a film that is relatively little known today but that deserves to be far more widely known for the Hollywood sci-fi movie it would inspire – Star Wars.
Hidden Fortress, in which Kurosawa recruited yet another screenwriter, Ryuzo Kikushima, to work alongside himself, Hashimoto and Oguni, is the story of two peasants who are recruited to escort a princess (and what remains of her family’s wealth) to safety. George Lucas substituted robots for peasants (and gold for the plans of the Death Star), and thus came up with the basis of Star Wars, just as John Sturges had simply swapped Japan’s samurai past for America’s cowboy past to create The Magnificent Seven. In both instances, the ensemble story-telling of the original, whereby the stories of a relatively large number of characters are told simultaneously, was doubtless assisted by the ensemble screenwriting. Kurosawa was himself a successful screenwriter who wrote about thirty scripts for other directors and when it came to his own movies he would undoubtedly have bounced ideas off writers like Hashimoto and Oguni before co-writing the scripts films with them. In that respect at least, Kurosawa and his writers’ approach was closer to that of classical Hollywood, where large teams of writers would often work on a single screenplay, than it was to the cinema industries of most other countries outside America.
Hashimoto would work with Kurosawa again after the 1950s, including on Dodes’ka-den (1970), Kurosawa’s first colour film about the “colourful” characters living in a slum or shanty-town, but the pair never quite recreated the greatness of their post-war work. Instead, Hashimoto’s greatest scripts of the 1960s were written for other Japanese directors, in particular Hara-kiri (1962), which was directed by Masaki Kobayashi. This was another samurai story but this time it was the story of a samurai who eventually commits “hara kiri”, or suicide. In a superb short interview that is available on YouTube, Hashimoto recounts the story of writing Hara-kiri, which he produced in just 11 days. It was this formidable work-rate, allied to an insistence on maintaining a scrupulously high standard of writing, that allowed him to produce so many screenplays over more than five decades in cinema.
Nevertheless, as with so many of even the greatest screenwriters, Hashimoto’s name remains synonymous with a single director, Kurosawa, which was surely why his 2006 biography, Compound Cinematics, was subtitled, “Akira Kurosawa and I”. The book itself is more than just a memoir, as it documents how his scripts were written and co-written, making it one of the least known but none the less most important books on screenwriting that exists. The man who did so much to create the cinema of Kurosawa, which in turn did so much to create the American cinema of the second half of the twentieth century, deserves to be far more widely known, and his biography-cum-book on screenwriting is the perfect place to begin for anyone unfamiliar with him.