On September 6, 1998, veteran screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto was visiting his daughter at a lodge in Kita-Karuizawa when he received some dismaying news: one of his colleagues—someone whose name he will forever be associated with—had just passed away. That colleague being none other than the internationally acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa. Hashimoto had collaborated with Kurosawa (always one to participate in the writing of his films’ scripts) a total of eight times, their combined efforts leading to classics such as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Throne of Blood (1957). And upon learning of his associate’s death, Hashimoto realized he was the sole surviving member of a once-prominent team of storytellers. All the other writers who’d participated in crafting Kurosawa’s movies—Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, etc.—had already passed on. Hashimoto, then a physically decrepit man of 80, was unable to attend the farewell gathering due to poor health, so he sent the following in a condolence telegram: “I want to ask a favor of our leader, Mr. Kurosawa. Tell everyone ‘Hashimoto’ll be here soon.’ Leave some space for me to sit with my legs crossed. It will probably be only a little while, so until then, Mr. Kurosawa, from Kita-Karuizawa […] goodbye.”
Hashimoto ended up waiting nearly twenty years to join his senior: pneumonia claimed his life on July 19, 2018, three months after his 100th birthday. An incredibly long time to be alive—especially for someone who’d suffered through an assortment of grueling health issues from a relatively young age. He was a twenty-year-old soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army when tuberculosis landed him in a sanitarium, where he remained for four years. In his early thirties, a herniated disc left him temporarily bedridden and proved so painful that mere vibrations generated by another person walking across the floor racked him with agony. A skiing accident in 1957 injured his neck and cost him a scriptwriting assignment. He went in and out of hospitals throughout much of his later life, and his 2006 memoir Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I contains a passage near the end in which the screenwriter once again predicted his days were running out. And yet, he endured: twelve years past that book’s publication and two decades after his previous self-determined prognosis that he was close to dying. That, in and of itself, is remarkable.
And that’s to speak nothing of his incredible body of work, both for and apart from Kurosawa.
Hashimoto’s attachment to writing began in the late 1930s, when he was a patient in the Okayama Disabled Veteran’s Rehabilitation Facility. Bored and restless, he spent many hours of many days staring at the ceiling until a fellow patient offered to loan him a copy of a film magazine. In it, Hashimoto happened upon a published film script, of which he proclaimed: “I’m surprised it’s so simple. [E]ven I could do better.” Confident in his abilities, he wrote a scenario of his own and mailed it to Mansaku Itami, the most celebrated Japanese screenwriter of his age. Much to his surprise, Itami wrote back with suggestions on how to improve and subsequently became his mentor. Hashimoto recovered from his illness and took a job in a munitions company, continuing to write until Daiei greenlit his adaptation of a Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story called In a Grove. When Kurosawa joined the project, they beefed up the script together, integrating a second Akutagawa story to increase the picture’s length; from that, Kurosawa proceeded to revise the amalgamation on his own (due to Hashimoto becoming bedridden) and created the world-renowned masterpiece Rashomon (1950).
Over the next twenty years, the duo collaborated on seven other projects, their working methods constantly evolving. Hashimoto’s health had improved to where he could now remain active throughout the entire screenwriting process; and to enhance what was already a sensational team, Kurosawa recruited a third man, Hideo Oguni, to serve as their “navigator”: to tell them when an idea was no good or when the story was straying off course. (As noted by the late film historian Donald Richie, the great artistic success of the 50s-60s films stemmed from the virtues of teamwork: of multiple artists playing to each other’s strengths.) In writing Ikiru and Seven Samurai, Hashimoto penned the initial draft himself and then extensively rewrote it with Kurosawa; the more experienced Oguni, meanwhile, sat off to the side and merely looked over their progress, handing back anything in need of further revisions.
Beginning with I Live in Fear (1955), Kurosawa introduced the “straight to final draft” technique, in which everyone simultaneously wrote their own version of an individual scene and critiqued each other’s work to get the best results. Hashimoto’s involvement during this particular phase wavered—he joined the production of The Bad Sleep Well (1960) late in the game and claimed never to have watched the finished product, for instance—always with a certitude that the previous method had been better.
After a brief return to partnership with 1970’s Dodes’kaden, Hashimoto ceased writing for Kurosawa; though he did remain, in two fleeting instances, present in the director’s later life. He helped shop around the script for Kagemusha (1980), personally convening with producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to help secure partial funding for the picture, before 20th Century Fox supplied the balance; and his final encounter with the director occurred in 1990, at the premiere of Dreams, a picture Hashimoto described in his memoir as the Kurosawa film he liked best. Even though Kurosawa made two more features before his passing, Hashimoto deliberately avoided seeing them, holding to his conviction that Dreams embodied a perfect and most personal closure for his associate’s career. And he forever held onto his last memory of them together, at the premiere: “He seemed honestly happy. It had been more than forty years since Mr. Kurosawa and I had met, but this was the first time I’d ever seen him with such an untroubled, happy smile.”
Of course, those eight assignments with Kurosawa made up only a small portion of Shinobu Hashimoto’s career, not to mention his ideas on the cinematic medium. In discussing his screenplay for Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962), Hashimoto stated “those of us who make movies feel differently than those who watch them” and asserted the anti-feudalism themes of the aforementioned picture had been applied by filmgoers and critics and was not his intent as the writer. He might’ve been onto something: history’s full of artists who scoffed at interpretations of their work. On the other hand, one cannot help but recognize a certain (perhaps subconscious) leeriness toward authority figures as well as militarist traditions that imbues some of Hashimoto’s scripts. His other Kobayashi-directed project, the outstanding Samurai Rebellion (1959), shows members of a family standing against cruel demands imposed by their superiors. And I recently saw a picture he co-wrote for Tadashi Imai called Broken Drum (1958), about a samurai who discovers his wife slept with another man during one of his journeys—at a time when adultery was punishable by death. It was only because of his (regular) long absences, demanded by the shogun, that his wife, under tremendous pressure as revealed in a series of flashbacks, did what she did; he knows this, and yet he morosely insists she take her own life for the sake of an unfair tradition—especially since others in their village, including men in authority, are aware of it. The characters don’t rebel as in Kobayashi’s pictures, but their abhorrence for the dark side of Japan’s feudalistic social structure and reluctance to follow codes of “duty” and “honor” comes through nonetheless.
Other notable credits in Hashimoto’s résumé. Three of Kihachi Okamoto’s most popular films: Sword of Doom (1966), Samurai Assassin (1965), and Japan’s Longest Day (1967). Miki Hirate (1951), the second script of his to be produced, based on a historical figure who, like Hashimoto, suffered from tuberculosis. Mikio Naruse’s first color picture, Summer Clouds (1958). For Shiro Moritani, he penned the original Submersion of Japan (1973), likely the most intelligent and thoughtful disaster movie ever made.
And, in discussing Hashimoto’s career, it would be remiss to overlook I Want to Be a Shellfish, a Tetsutaro Kato novel he adapted first as a teleplay in 1958 and then again, for the big screen, the following year, for which he also assumed directorial responsibilities. (Of the two, the fleshed out theatrical version is the superior effort.)
I Want to Be a Shellfish’s narrative is set during and immediately after the events of World War II. It begins with a civilian barber named Toyomatsu Shimizu (played in both versions by Frankie Sakai) radiantly voicing support for the war, happily asking customers to wait while he steps outside to wish luck to disembarking troops…until he receives a conscription notice with his name on it, at which point his mood swiftly changes to the dejected. The tendency to read anti-authority themes in Hashimoto’s work becomes somewhat justified at this point. In the Imperial Army, Shimizu’s verbally admonished by his superiors, chastised for taking too long to report to his bunker after doing officers’ laundry, instructed to pop the blisters on his feet by walking long patrols at night (during an air raid). Worse still, after two American planes are shot down over Japanese soil, our protagonist and one of his comrades are ordered by a bloodthirsty captain to stab the pilots (who are already dead and strapped to trees) for the sake of boosting morale. Years later, Shimizu’s arrested and tried by the Americans for the “crime,” at which point he explains his actions and why he had no choice in the matter. In the Imperial Army, disobedience to a superior officer was equivalent to disobedience to Emperor Hirohito himself and, thus, punishable by death. Here we have a man whose rapturous love for the military has already been proven naïve, who was berated and disrespected by his higher-ups, who wanted nothing to do with the barbaric act he’s on trial for, and who only did so because of the consequences of failing to follow orders. And though he was one of two soldiers convicted for the dual “executions” of that day, only Shimizu receives the death sentence (his former comrade gets twenty-five years’ imprisonment). The implication is the Americans are looking for someone to take the fall, especially since the captain who gave the order in the first place committed suicide.
Given that the film channels a negative connotation in its portrayal of both Japanese wartime figures and postwar western authorities, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to suspect an anti-authority undercurrent in common with what’s been perceived in some of Hashimoto’s other work. I imagine the screenwriter would’ve dismissed such an allegation; he probably viewed I Want to Be a Shellfish as nothing more than the story of an ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary circumstance under the universally despised canopy of war. But, intended or not, it’s fun to speculate in context with the rest of his career, and it’s certainly food for thought. If it exists at all, however, it plays second fiddle to the picture’s blatantly stated, domineering antiwar theme, which sounds unambiguously in the conclusion. Shimizu, hours away from his execution, pens his wish that, should he be reincarnated, he return not as a person or an ox or a horse but, rather, as a shellfish at the bottom of the sea, away from war and poverty and the other miseries of human existence. Hashimoto would return to this narrative a third time, writing the script for Katsuo Fuzukawa’s 2008 adaptation. It also marked the closing film assignment in his long, prodigious career.
When film historian Stuart Galbraith IV interviewed Hashimoto in 1999, the screenwriter’s health was, in a word, ghastly. “He was so frail then,” Galbraith recalled. “Drool kept running down the sides of his mouth, his black shoe polish-dyed hair was stringy and half grown back to white, and he was wrapped in about five blankets. My interpreter, Yukari Fujii, and I kept trying to cut it short, given his condition, but he insisted we do the full interview, which lasted maybe four hours.” For Hashimoto, the stories of his experiences working with Kurosawa were worth telling, health and comfort be damned. “On the cab ride back to the station,” Galbraith continued, “I told Yukari how glad I was that we caught him in time, that he surely wouldn’t last another month. Instead, he outlived virtually all of his contemporaries, nearly twenty years after that interview, and was productive during some of that time.” If that isn’t an account of an admirable person, I don’t know what is. An intelligent storyteller as well as a man with an interesting (if somewhat unenviable) life, Shinobu Hashimoto was one of the truly great film artists of his day; and when he passed away at age 100 last month, what little remains of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema suffered yet another crushing loss.