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Mightier Than the Sword: Shinobu Hashimoto at 100

Can a screenwriter influence—even change—the course of film history? With his script for Rashomon (1950),Shinobu Hashimoto, who turned 100 this year, did just that. The filmlaunched its director—Akira Kurosawa—to world fame and brought international audiences to the glory of Japanese cinema. Hashimoto’s script provided the foundation for these outcomes, and though it wasn’t his first scenario, it was the first of his works produced as a film. This was a remarkably audacious beginning for a writer who penned nearly eighty scripts during a lengthy career and who collaborated with many of the great directors in Japan’s golden age of cinema: Kurosawa, Tadashi Imai, Mikio Naruse, Kihachi Okamoto, Masaki Kobayashi. His scripts helped to build the magnificent edifice that cinema became in these years.

Hashimoto’s story began, like so many in his generation, with a life derailed by the war. Leaving a job with Japan National Railway, he enlisted in the army in 1938 but succumbed to tuberculosis and spent four years in a veteran’s hospital recovering from the illness. Lung disease was epidemic during the war years, targeting soldiers and factory workers, and death rates hit their second highest level in Japan’s history with the disease. Perhaps this experience with the illness and the disruption that comes with a soldier’s life is one reason that many of his scripts dealing with war or warriors have a critical edge to them. 

Hashimoto languished at the hospital, which to him seemed like a prison.  But a chance meeting with another disabled veteran opened a new world to him when he was given a magazine on Japanese cinema that contained a sample screenplay. To Hashimoto, what he saw seemed so simple that he was confident he, too, could do it. He impulsively asked who Japan’s best screenwriter was. It was Mansaku Itami. In the hubris of youth, Hashimoto resolved to write something and send it to him.

Itami was a respected director and writer in the late silent and early sound era whose best known work today may be his script Muhomatsu no issho, which was filmed in 1943 by Hiroshi Inagaki and again by Inagaki in 1958 under the title The Rickshaw Man, with Toshiro Mifune. Itami was impressed by Hashimoto’s initial script and sent him a detailed critique with suggestions for revision. He soon became Hashimoto’s mentor, guiding the younger man’s writing until tuberculosis claimed his life in 1946. Bereft, Hashimoto resolved to follow Itami’s last advice to him and try scripting a literary adaptation instead of writing an original work.

“Hashimoto’s script and Kurosawa’s film brought Japanese cinema to a burgeoning wave of international film distribution that lasted for a generation.”

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