Book Review: Compound Cinematics by Shinobu Hashimoto

by Jason Suzuki

I always saw Teruya Nogami’s book, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, as an essential companion piece to Kurosawa’s own autobiography. Something Like an Autobiography ends just as Rashomon is achieving international success and that film is when Nogami started working with Kurosawa. She gives us many great anecdotes about the filmmaker and his films, offering more insight into him and his process. Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I fits this criteria perfectly. Shinobu Hashimoto was a screenwriter and a frequent collaborator to Kurosawa and the genesis of his relationship with the filmmaker started with Rashomon, his first screenplay.

Rashomon though was really just his first screenplay to be turned into a film. Hashimoto introduces himself and his time during the war. While injured at a military hospital that is when he first learned of scenario writing for film and decided to pursue that along with his regular career. His mentor was filmmaker Mansaku Itami, father to Juzo and a sort of mentor as well to Nogami, creating yet another link with Waiting on the Weather.

This is first and foremost a book concerned with screenwriting, mainly the unique collaborative processes of Kurosawa. Hashimoto gives autobiographical details only when necessary to move things forward to the next bit about screenwriting: how he was first introduced to it, how he got in touch with Itami to receive his lessons and advice on his scripts, how he met Kurosawa to co-write RashomonIkiruSeven Samurai and more with him. This really turns the book into not only a continuation of books offering insights into Kurosawa through specific aspects of his work, but a book that I think would be useful for screenwriters as well. If anything, after reading it you want to try out the three or more person way of writing a script that Kurosawa used and continues to tinker with.

And while I love Kurosawa and the backstories this book provides, I feel Hashimoto should have given more time to his other works. He focuses too much on Kurosawa, pretty much structuring his story around the chronology of Kurosawa’s films. Hashimoto did other brilliant works apart from Kurosawa like HarakiriThe Sword of Doom, and Castle of Sand and while we do get some stories about those scripts, I would have loved to get a backstory to the genesis and process with each one as thorough as the ones Hashimoto does for the first three films he did with Kurosawa listed above. The man even wrote for Naruse, so needless to say Hashimoto is a major voice in Japanese film, and it’s a shame to realize how narrow the focus of his book is once you realize all the other things he did.

While we do get the great backstories to certain films, such as how Akutagawa’s story “Rashomon” was thought of to be paired with “In a Grove” we do not get enough in my opinion. Or rather, we don’t get enough of how the writers worked on a film’s subtext. Kurosawa stated he never wanted to make a film that didn’t have some social significance so certainly much thought must have been given to meaning just as much to character and plot. We get the reasoning for having seven of the samurai as opposed to fewer or greater, Kambei even gives his reasoning for this number in the film, but why have one with a peasant background? Kikuchiyo is such an iconic character it would have been great to hear the details of his inception which must have come from Kurosawa given the fact that he wrote binders of information about each character in the film. Hashimoto spends too much time detailing the stories of works most who are reading would be familiar with. And on more than one occasion you find him talking about films he professes to never having seen.

You get a sense that a large part of Hashimoto’s distaste for the majority of Kurosawa’s post-Seven Samurai work stems from his disagreement with Kurosawa’s change in screenwriting method. For the hardcore fans of Japanese film this book is a must, it might contain as many insights as you would like. For screenwriters I see this book as basically essential in how Hashimoto details what was and still Kurosawa’s completely unique approach to writing screenplays. If nothing else there is a really nice table in the back of the book that lists all of Kurosawa’s films, mentioning the writers, producers, assistant directors, cinematographers, etc.

Entries from the Book:
“Collaborative screenplays don’t easily produce classics or masterpieces, but characteristically avoid turning out poor or botched works. Thanks to passing under multiple pairs of eyes, holes don’t go unnoticed.”

“Completing a work requires facing various difficulties and obstacles. One such miscarriage and I might become prone to miscarrying, getting into the habit of giving up and quitting whenever the going gets tough.”

“You could be a film director your whole life and just maybe make one film like that. SoJaws will be his best…No matter what he goes on to shoot nothing will be better. (from director Yoshitaro Nomura)”

“For an Akira Kurosawa to appear not just in Japan, but in China and South Korea, was a fine thing for the film world, but as someone who knew the real Akira Kurosawa, I’d like to give some advice and a warning to those promoting producers shrewdly perpetrating PR-jacks, to the people who are honored as “Kurosawas” themselves, and to their entourage.”