Shinobu Hashimoto explains how Akira Kurosawa’s notebooks made their films so great

By herbertlui on February 23, 2020 — 7 mins read

Hashimoto and Kurosawa. Image: Criterion

You don’t have to watch Akira Kurosawa’s movies to be familiar with them; his work was the inspiration The Magnificent Seven, and for George Lucas when he was writing the original Star Wars. I’d watched Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as a student in a short-lived attempt to watch lists of “the best 100 movies.” 

Kurosawa was incredibly diligent in writing down his thoughts, memories, and ideas. He writes in his memoir Something Like An Autobiography (here’s the bootleg PDF for anyone ballin’ on a budget with a laser printer):

I’ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthrough. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed. 

The relationship between memory and creativity is an interesting one indeed. For those curious like myself, here’s an example of what Kurosawa actually does with his notebooks, in Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I by frequent collaborator and acclaimed screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto. Here is a description, set when the two were working together on Seven Samurai

As I arranged manuscript paper and pencils on the table and prepared for work, Mr. Kurosawa also took his tools of the trade out of a red Boston bag. This time, however, it wasn’t his usual warabanshi half-sheets but a thick college notebook. 

Wondering why, I peeked over and saw a circle, drawn in pencil and labeled “Kambei” underneath, containing a portrait of the central figure among the seven samurai called Kambei. 

Starting with his height, about five foot five, and medium build, the notes went into great detail. The way he wore his straw sandals, his gait, how he answered others, how he turned around when called to from behind, his demeanor and behavior vis-à-vis all sorts of situations, with ample illustrations throughout, sprawled on and on in the college notebook.

I felt like I’d been smacked in the head with a club out of the blue. 

It had felt like me alone for A Samurai’s Day, me alone for The Lives of Japanese Swordsmen, me alone for Seven Samurai — always me alone suffering exhaustion and hardship while Mr. Kurosawa went fishing by the Tama River or attended art exhibits, ball games at Korakuen, and Noh plays, enjoying himself without a care in the world. I’d resented being the one to pull the lonely, short end of the stick, but mutely Mr. Kurosawa, too, had been working on the foundations of a giant structure as the muscle propping up the whole edifice out of sight, continuously fraying his nerves. 

But what was with this breadth and depth of characterization? 

It was in no way customary or ordinary and surpassed the limits of thoroughness, approaching the bizarre.

In writing a scenario, everyone first slaps together a theme and story of sorts, but characterization, carving out the characters, is tiresome and also where you can cut corners. Once you’ve organized the story to a certain degree and built the big box (the four boxes of composition) and decided on how it will begin, you’re prone to shirk on carving out the characters, their settings, and just start writing. Everyone knows how important it is, but it’s tiresome and annoying and even seems redundant given that personalities and such naturally begin to be established once you do start writing and the characters get going.

But that’s wrong. Even though people have a frightening number of commonalities, each of us has special characteristics and is different. That’s how we get drama. If you don’t flesh out the characters, if you write them in a hackneyed way, then the actors will express them in a hackneyed way. It’s only when you sculpt the characters and imbue them with characteristics that ingenuity and effort come into the players’ performances.

A work’s tension and richness of nuance are determined by the clarity of the scenarist’s image of his characters going into the writing. If you don’t attend to it thoroughly before you begin on the text, no matter how seasoned you are, your experience and technical proficiency won’t cover for you. 

It’s not an overstatement to say that the quality of a script hinges on the tiresome, annoying, and oft-shirked sculpting of the characters.

Mr. Kurosawa silently turned the pages of the college notebook in which he had carved out the characters. 

Kambei, being central, took up nearly half of it, but Heihachi, Kyuzo, Katsushiro, Gorobei … images of the seven samurai probably filled up the thick notebook. 

Predicting that this time the work’s outcome hinged on the coloration of the personalities of each of the seven samurai and adamantly refusing to cut corners that bore no cutting, expending the maximum amount of effort afforded by one’s talent—it could be left at that, but what was this gluttony and determination for fleshing out the characters?

Akira Kurosawa—the greatest characteristic of the man’s screenplay writing was not cutting comers that shouldn’t be cut and, to an unthinkable degree for ordinary people, sparing no accumulation of effort. 

Didn’t his godly bolt of inspiration in the case of Rashomon, and his perfectionism that exceeded rationalism in the case of Ikiru, both owe to this power of execution, to this refusal to cut comers, to sparing absolutely no accumulation of effort? 

I sat unmoving in front of my manuscript paper, my eyes fixed on a point in space. I couldn’t put down a single word. The first shockwave had passed, but now the second was beginning. It was more vivid than the first and exposed something that had been lurking in the back of my consciousness.

Someday, not so far from now, as a writer I will surpass Akira Kurosawa. It’s only a matter of time. 

I’d never thought it very deeply or consciously. A wriggling within the recesses of my heart, that while I had Akira Kurosawa in my sights and worked under him for now, I’d surpass him and eventually take the lead as a scenario writer, accepted as fact, never doubted, was yanked off like a mask … exposed by a real college notebook that smashed my self-serving self-regard to smithereens. 

At this rate, forget about surpassing him. 

In order to overtake him, I would have to be even more scrupulous than he was in fleshing out characters. But even if I could make up for it with energy and stamina, the problem was—the pictures. He could draw pictures, but I couldn’t. What could make up for this handicap? Unless I made up for it, I couldn’t possibly surpass him.

At this rate, forget about surpassing him. 

In order to overtake him, I would have to be even more scrupulous than he was in fleshing out characters. But even if I could make up for it with energy and stamina, the problem was—the pictures. He could draw pictures, but I couldn’t. What could make up for this handicap? Unless I made up for it, I couldn’t possibly surpass him. 

And for that … In any case, once this job was done, sidelining everything else, I had to get to this … 

“Hashimoto … “

Startled, I raised my face. Mr. Kurosawa had finished reading his notebook, lain it on the table, and turned toward me as I’d just sat there in front of my manuscript paper.

His arms were crossed; there was a frown on his face and something seemed to be on his mind.

The passage is great, not just because of the detail Hashimoto goes into on Kurosawa’s eye for detail, but also in understanding how Kurosawa prepared in a way that he wouldn’t be tempted to cut corners later on (by building the foundation of a character’s personality ahead of time, and not just freestyling in the writing process). Also, Hashimoto, as an apprentice, talks about yearning to become better than his master, only to realize the gap in between them was wider than he’d thought. 

If you liked these passages, two books can provide a deeper understanding of Kurosawa’s and Hashimoto’s processes:

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