Shinobu Hashimoto, one of the most revered screenwriters in Japanese film history, passed away last July after making it to 100 years old. Known for writing jidaigeki films (period stories often about samurai or ronin), especially collaborating with Akira Kurosawa, his 60+ credited works were as versatile as they were unique within their genres, from terrific dramas like Ikiru and I Live in Fear, to crime mysteries like The Bad Sleep Well. His streak with Kurosawa ended with the box-office bomb Dodeskaden (1970), yet he worked with a variety of formidable auteurs and was prolific through the late ’80s. He even directed three features, his drama about post-World War II relations between Japan and the U.S., 1959’s I Want to Be a Shellfish, the highlight.
To get a sense for just how deeply Hashimoto influenced the art of screenwriting, let’s dive into some of his best-known works.
Some spoilers follow.
Hashimoto’s first credit revolutionized the traditional single protagonist perspective. Rashomon pinpointed a simple but important fact: If these stories are made from the memories of characters—memory is fallible, and people are prone to lies and exaggerations—why not give each perspective its due, telling the tale of a married couple ambushed by a rowdy criminal (Toshiro Mifune) through each person’s memory, aggrandizing the positive aspects of whoever’s telling the story while villainizing those of the other two, until objective truth is impossible to grasp, but humanism and naturalism thrives.
Kurosawa’s intimate treatise on taking full advantage of our lives in order to leave this world a better place than the state in which we entered it, Ikiru is a rare screenplay that unrolls in four acts. Takashi Shimura’s lowly bureaucrat finds out he has terminal cancer, tries to find meaning through hedonism and, when that doesn’t work, attempts to live vicariously through a lively young girl. The fourth and final act switches perspectives from the film’s firth three: With the bureaucrat now dead, we see his friends and family deconstruct the motivations behind his surprisingly altruistic actions mere months before his demise. This change in point of view emphasizes the ultimate moral point of this beautiful tale, that what we do is perhaps more important than who we are.
Seven Samurai (1954)
There isn’t an ounce of fat in Seven Samurai’s tightly structured screenplay—an epic story of honor, bravery and sacrifice—though one element stands out: the both scrupulous and perfectly streamlined introductions of its main characters. It’s no easy task to properly familiarize the audience with seven protagonists, no matter how long the narrative. The first act of Seven Samurai accomplishes this by focusing on a single, distinct characteristic of each of the seven ronin and finding the most economic ways of expressing them. We meet the eventual leader (Shimura) of the seven as he rescues a child from a kidnapper, establishing his calm under pressure and providing the audience with a bonus thrilling action set piece in the process. Some intros are subtler (and possibly more effective): The leader warns another possible recruit that death is very likely during this dangerous mission. The recruit simply smiles in satisfaction. His desire to die honorably in battle tells us everything we need to know about him through this simple gesture.
Throne of Blood (1957)
When it came to adapting Macbeth, screenwriters Kurosawa, Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima veered away from openly transferring Shakespeare’s text to a jidaigeki setting, instead placing the tone and themes of the story into the near-horrific descent of a paranoid general (Mifune) into his own personal hell as he desperately seeks power he can’t control. Through the genius touch of applying the gloomy and eastern gothic nature of Japan’s Noh theatre to Shakespeare’s tragedy, full of ghosts and insanity, Kurosawa, Hashimoto and collaborators beautifully bring together East and West traditions.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Hashimoto’s work has inspired countless copycats (see also: The Magnificent Seven), but none as easily identifiable as The Hidden Fortress’s direct inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars, now known as Episode IV: A New Hope. Up until The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa’s rousing adventure of a group of ragtags transporting a princess to security though a ruthless empire, such stories were told through the perspective of the dashing hero. By instead taking serious the points of view of two lowly peasants—who still provide comedic relief—Hashimoto’s script not only subverts our genre expectations, but provides protagonists more relatable to the audience.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Perhaps Hashimoto’s most accomplished screenplay outside of his work with Kurosawa, Harakiri’s is a story of a ronin father’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) revenge against a samurai order that wronged him, both a brutal critique of authority, and a more subjective tale of grief. In an interview found within Criterion’s blu-ray edition of the film, Hashimoto says there are two versions of every script: one the author intends, and one the audience perceives. He wrote Harakiri as a subjective story, but admits that whatever grander messages the audience takes from it are valid, too. Regardless, Hashimoto meticulously unravels the mystery at the core of the narrative. All we know during the first act is that Nakadai’s character shows up at a feudal lord’s home, asking to commit seppuku. Instead of an exposition dump for a back story, the character’s past and motivations are parsed out throughout the acts that follow, the film at once a procedural, a melodrama and a revenge fantasy, the tones bound by the audiences’ need to keep uncovering bits of the mystery.
The Sword of Doom (1966)
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
It’s one thing to ask audiences to relate to an anti-hero with dubious motivations who eventually does the right thing. But to construct a jidaigeki around a sociopathic ronin (Nakadai) who kills anyone who gets in his way, whether traditional samurai enemy or an innocent poor old man, and to keep the audience’s attention without disgusting them? Movies can be told from the perspectives of despicable characters, and can work when those characters are interesting, or provide something to say about the world they inhabit. Hashimoto creates Nakadai’s character as a calm and calculating snake-like being, as opposed to a mustache-twirling cartoon villain, exploring once again how systems of authority that reward violence can nurture characters like Nakadai’s. He’s basically a product of his upbringing and times, using the feudal rules of samurai life to his benefit in order to leave a trail of blood behind him.