Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I Book Excerpt and Giveaway

"Don't try to write cleverly or skillfully. The first draft just needs to line up the necessary elements." - Akira Kurosawa
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Cinema Sentries has teamed up with Vertical, Inc. to award one lucky reader Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I by Shinobu Hashimoto, who brought the director a treatment for a film that became Rashomon. Hashimoto subsequently was part of the team that produced Ikiru and Seven Samurai.  Mat Brewster highly reommends it in his review.  

In addition to the contest, Vertical, Inc. has provided us with an excerpt from the chapter "SEVEN SAMURAI II":

Mr. Kurosawa read drafts thoroughly.

No, it went beyond thorough or meticulous. He held his breath and stilled his head, his entire body not moving in the slightest, and rather than looking at each character and each line, he seemed to take in each 200-character sheet as a whole, less reading than absorbing everything written there. Even when he turned pages, he shifted neither his face nor his frame, nor his eyes. It was like some unending tense standoff, a seasoned blade hand pointing an unsheathed katana right at an opponent’s face and watching for moves with his entire body and soul. As I confronted this, the oppressive tension bore down on me too, and I almost lost my sense of time.

I have no idea how much time elapsed since he’d started reading. He spent a certain amount of time absorbing a sheet, moved on to the next, and then to the next…When Mr. Kurosawa finally finished reading the manuscript of 297 half-sheets, he let out a breath. A long sigh. Long enough to make me wonder just how much air the human body could possibly hold. Then, through the lingering note of his sigh he murmured, “Hashimoto… Scenarios require kishotenketsu, it would seem.”

Kishotenketsu, a venerable piece of scenario terminology, referred to the introduction (ki), development (sho), climax (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). The term itself, however, was musty, so we said Start, Development, Climax, and Last, using the English words for all but Development (for which we preferred the modern “tenkai”). Since these were divided and placed into four boxes, we called kishotenketsu “the four boxes” or even “big box” for short—as in “What happened to the big box?” or “How’s the big box?” In any case, it meant that the structure (assemblage) of a scenario had four indispensable elements and stages.

With a self-deprecating, bitterish smile Mr. Kurosawa said, “Trying to string together climaxes from beginning to end to make a movie was woefully wrongheaded in the first place, I guess.”

I sank into silence. Halfway through, I’d felt a strange something I’d never experienced before; it was the overstrain and contradiction of completely ignoring the four stages of assembling a story, the “four boxes,” and composing a film out of nothing but climaxes. So dumb a folly—my mind went dead silent like a vacuum. Not just A Samurai’s Day, but now The Lives of Japanese Swordsmen, was kaput.

Eventually, I managed to utter, “Right…no way a film can be all climax from beginning to end.”

Yet Mr. Kurosawa was the great Akira Kurosawa, and I myself an up-and-coming writer of whom much was expected, and we, of all people, had been foolish enough to become besotted with something that even a total novice understood to be impossible, that could not be turned into a scenario? At times, humans could be remarkably foolish and do stupid… No, it was all due to A Samurai’s Day. Not only I, but Mr. Kurosawa as well, were shaken by that bungle, and our impatience for the next work, more like our irritation, in some way ended up begetting a fey baby like The Lives of Japanese Swordsmen.

Mr. Kurosawa changed the subject somewhat. But it wasn’t as if he’d severed all attachment to our goblin Lives of Japanese Swordsmen. “By the way, Hashimoto… What were these traveling swordsmen?”

I looked at Mr. Kurosawa, unable to discern his point.

“Tacticians of old were like today’s pro baseball players.”

“…?”

“You could command a high endowment with just a sword, and some even became daimyo. Just like a pro ball player who goes from team to team fetching a high price on the strength of his bat alone.”

I nodded. “Yes, I see.”

“As a trend, an astonishingly large number of people must have rushed to the way of the sword…but aside from famous ones that might come up in these lives of master swordsmen, I doubt most of them would have had the money to become traveling swordsmen…I mean the expenses of being on the road. Without some silver on you, how do you ever roam the country on a journey to hone your skills?”

“Hmm, I wonder… That, I think we could find out if we looked it up though. Mr. Kurosawa, I’ll look it up.”

It was the middle of December, and though a sunny day the wind was biting.

The request I’d made of planning personnel at the Toho arts department had been attended to right away, and I got word that the findings, reported to Sojiro Motoki, would be conveyed to me in person by him. But since this had come from Mr. Kurosawa, I thought it was only right to hear it together with him, and so I asked Sojiro Motoki to meet me at the Kurosawa residence.

There I was holding my hands out over a large brazier, face to face with Mr. Kurosawa, when the diminutive Sojiro Motoki arrived looking all busy. The tip of his nose was red, no doubt due to the cold.

“Ah, I’m late, sorry, sorry…” Sitting between the two of us, and with our heads together, he cut to the chase. “About traveling swordsmen… A phenomenon from the late Muromachi through the Warring States era, tacticians could wander freely all over Japan even if they didn’t have money.”

Both Mr. Kurosawa and I remained silent.

“That is to say, if you went to a dojo and undertook a bout, they’d treat you to dinner and give you a handful of dried rice when you departed the next morning. This dried rice, boiled rice that had been dried out, you could either bite into as-is or soften back with hot water. So as a tactician all you needed to do was arrive at the next dojo within the day.”

“Mr. Motoki,” I asked, “it’s all good and well if there’s a dojo the next day. But what if there isn’t?”

“No problem. You just go to a temple.”

“A temple?”

“Yeah, because this was in the time before inns. Temples would protect travelers with no place else to go. So, if you went to a temple, they’d feed you and allow you to stay the night, and in the morning when you left they’d hand you that handful of dried rice.”

I asked further, “If there’s neither a training hall nor a temple, what do you do then?”

Sojiro Motoki, however, was completely unruffled. “We’re talking from late Muromachi to Warring States, crime was rampant all across the country, and the wilds were full of bandits and brigands who’d pop up. So if you simply went into some village and spent the night on look-out for burglars, any village would let you eat your fill…and hand you dried rice when you set out.”

My heart skipped a beat, and I asked Motoki to make sure. “Farmers hiring samurai?”

“Yup.”

I looked at Mr. Kurosawa for a moment. Mr. Kurosawa, visibly struck, was also looking at me. As our eyes met, we unconsciously gave each other a firm nod.

“Done,” Mr. Kurosawa said in a low, deep voice.

“Done indeed.”

Mr. Motoki watched our exchange in puzzlement, but the next instant he gulped with expectation.

I confirmed with Mr. Kurosawa, “The number of samurai… How many samurai should the farmers hire?”

“Three or four is too few. Five or six, maybe seven or eight… No, eight is too many, I’d say seven.”

“Then it’ll be seven samurai.”

Mr. Kurosawa lifted his face and looked out into space as if to issue a challenge. “Yes, seven samurai!”

Sojiro Motoki, who had been holding his breath, began to smile. Two scenario writers had buried their sharp fangs into some huge prey. The theme and story could be gleaned from our snippets of conversation. Farmers would hire seven samurai, fight incoming bandits, and win… Material where the story and theme were this concise and complete, and this perfectly overlapping, was rare; it was a one-in-a-hundred project.

The work was pregnant with something that could make it incredibly fun.

“Hashimoto!” Mr. Kurosawa flung out at me. It was like the rebuke of an animal trainer dispensing reminders to a too-eager horse or groom at the starting gate. “Don’t try to write cleverly or skillfully. The first draft just needs to line up the necessary elements.”

I nodded and he continued, “And there’s a lot of action in this scenario. If there’s too much action in the stage directions, it’ll lag and be hard to read. For scenes where stage directions stretch on, don’t stick to the present tense of scenarios, just go ahead and use the novelistic past tense here and there, got it?!”

From COMPOUND CINEMATICS: Akira Kurosawa and I by Shinobu Hashimoto (c) 2006 HASHIMOTO Shinobu. English language edition published by Vertical, Inc., New York, 2015. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The contest is only open to residents of the continental U.S. Upon notification, recipients will need to provide their own valid address (within 48 hours of email notification); no P.O. Boxes. Failure to do so will forfeit prize and another winner will be randomly selected. Cinema Sentries does not enter into any contract or guarantee with prize participants or any visitors to our site. 

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