He worked with the acclaimed Japanese director on films including “Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai” and “Ikiru.”
Shinobu Hashimoto, a screenwriter whose creative partnership with director Akira Kurosawa helped launch Japanese cinema to international prominence in the 1950s, died July 19 at his home in Tokyo. He was 100.
The cause was pneumonia, according to Japanese news media reports.
Working into his 90s, when a stroke effectively ended his career, Hashimoto wrote more than 70 screenplays for acclaimed directors including Tadashi Imai, Masaki Kobayashi and Mikio Naruse. But he was best known for his work with Kurosawa, in widely imitated films that ranged from the sword-fighting period piece “Seven Samurai” (1954) to lyrical explorations of justice and mortality in “Rashomon” (1950) and “Ikiru” (1952).
In a process of creation-by-committee, Kurosawa worked with a stable of writers that included Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni, who batted ideas around the table at the director’s home in Komae. Yet few writers worked as closely with Kurosawa as Hashimoto, a onetime railroad employee who turned to writing on a lark, amid a four-year battle with tuberculosis.
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The illness, diagnosed soon after he enlisted in the army in 1938, ended his military career and landed him in a veterans hospital next to a reader of Japanese film magazines. When Hashimoto took a look at one of the magazines, he found that it contained a sample screenplay – and decided he could write something far better.
“No, no, they’re not that easy to write,” he recalled his neighbor telling him.
“No, compared to this, even I could do better. Who’s the greatest Japanese writer of these?” It was, he learned, a man named Mansaku Itami. Hashimoto announced that he would quickly dash off a script and mail it to the writer.
It took him more than three years. But the result, inspired by Hashimoto’s experiences at the veterans hospital, so impressed Itami that he became a mentor for the young man, offering line-by-line feedback and suggesting he adapt an existing story for the screen. Hashimoto chose “In a Grove,” a 1922 short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
His treatment, originally long enough for just 40 minutes of screen time, formed the core of “Rashomon,” a tale of rape and murder told from four different perspectives. Flashbacks recount the film’s central act of violence from the point of view of a bandit, a woodcutter, the dead samurai and his wife; the truth, however, is never fully revealed.
While it opened to mixed reviews in Japan, “Rashomon” won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and received an honorary Academy Award for best foreign film. Its release marked a pivotal movement in film history: Kurosawa was catapulted to cinema stardom, and his Japanese forerunners, most notably directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, were given wide attention for the first time.
Movie critic Pauline Kael later hailed “Rashomon” as “the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth,” and the movie went on to lend its name to “the Rashomon effect,” a term used to refer to incidents in which individuals recall events in different, even contradictory ways.
Hashimoto next worked with Kurosawa on “Seven Samurai,” a 3 1/2-hour epic about a group of unemployed samurai who are recruited to defend a village from bandits. The film is widely credited as the first movie in which, as movie critic Roger Ebert once noted, “a team is assembled to carry out a mission – an idea which gave birth to its direct Hollywood remake ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ as well as ‘The Guns of Navarone,’ ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and countless later war, heist and caper movies.”
Hashimoto’s subsequent scripts for Kurosawa included “Throne of Blood” (1957), which adapted Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), which featured a pair of bumbling peasants that director George Lucas credited as the model for his “Star Wars” characters C-3PO and R2-D2.
Perhaps his finest work was “Ikiru,” or “To Live.” A loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” the film began with only a vague suggestion from Kurosawa, who wrote on a sheet of paper: “A man with only seventy-five days left to live.”
In the hands of Hashimoto, the nameless, jobless protagonist became Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a civil servant who learns he is terminally ill. “I just can’t die,” he tells a stranger at a bar. “I don’t know what I’ve been living for all these years.” In search of existential meaning, he helps a group of women replace a neighborhood cesspool with a playground.
In a documentary on the film, Hashimoto recalled that his original script was trashed and reworked at the suggestion of his colleague Oguni, who urged him to place the protagonist’s death at the center of the film rather than at the end. (As in “Rashomon,” the movie utilized flashbacks to advance the story.)
Such changes, he once told director Yoji Yamada, were always part of the process of making a movie, though the transition from screenplay to celluloid was sometimes fraught. “It is like being a farmer who plants seeds and constantly cares about the weather and water or worries if there are insects,” he said. “It is work that requires persistent patience.”
Hashimoto was born in Hyogo Prefecture, on the main Japanese island of Honshu, on April 18, 1918. He worked for a munitions firm before quitting to become a screenwriter.
His other film credits included scripts for Imai’s “Darkness at Noon” (1956), about police torture; and the popular Kobayashi samurai film “Harakiri” (1962), which Hashimoto said he wrote in 11 days.
He also started a production company, Hashimoto Pro, and directed three movies. His first, “I Want to Be a Shellfish” (1959), based on a novel about a Japanese soldier wrongly accused of war crimes, was remade in 2008 and marked Hashimoto’s final film script.
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Hashimoto was awarded the Jean Renoir Award for lifetime achievement, given to a foreign screenwriter by the Writers Guild of America, in 2013. He shared the prize with his late collaborators Oguni, Kikushima and Kurosawa, and outlined much of their working process in a memoir, “Compound Cinematics,” published in 2006.
In his own memoir, Kurosawa recalled facing some resistance to the “Rashomon” script he wrote with Hashimoto. Three of his assistant directors told him they couldn’t understand the story. He tried, then, to explain his and Hashimoto’s ambitions, absent the visual poetry of the film:
“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings – the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are . . . You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.”