Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

New Statesman -- November 22, 2004

Gaijin takeaway

America may seem an ever more dominant force in the world's film industry, but Hollywood has long been seeking inspiration from overseas. Welcome to the great American movie - Japanese style

by Ian Garrick Mason

This fall, Sarah Michelle Gellar, former star of American television’s popular teen series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, appears in The Grudge, a remake of the Japanese horror film Ju-On. In it, an American student (Gellar) in Tokyo encounters a malevolent ghost whose former owner died in a state of extreme anger, leaving a spirit “grudge” behind. Eerie forms are seen on closed-circuit TV, and an unnervingly black-haired and white-faced child loiters about the house: in both theme and technique, The Grudge is similar to another successful remake, The Ring (formerly the Japanese Ringu, directed by Hideo Nakata) -- a movie which, as Gellar is no doubt aware, had a star-confirming effect on Naomi Watts’ career.

But for all its recent success, Japanese horror is merely one facet of that country’s ongoing influence on American movies. The past couple of decades, for example, have seen the rise of cyberpunk-themed anime (Japanese animation). Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of the immensely popular Matrix trilogy, have pointed to anime classics like Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s more recent Ghost in the Shell as strong influences on their own editing of action sequences. And while their audiences were impatiently awaiting the 2003 release of the second and third movies in the trilogy, the Wachowskis commissioned a set of nine short anime films as prequel explorations of The Matrix’s themes and back-story, releasing them on DVD as The Animatrix (a title which might reasonably have led some renters to expect Jessica Rabbit in leather and whips).

Anime also featured heavily in Quentin Tarantino’s recent two-volume opus, Kill Bill. For Volume 1’s introductory “chapter” about O-Ren Ishii, a character played in live action segments by Lucy Liu, Tarantino hired Mamoru Oshii’s Production I.G. animation studio to create a hyper-violent anime short which explains Ishii’s rise from murder-scarred childhood to kingpin of the Tokyo underworld -- character designs for which were provided by another famed animator, Katsuhito Ishii. Yet this comic-art insert was only one of many nods that Tarantino gave to his primary influence: Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 film Lady Snowblood, which features montage shots from the comic series the film was based on, along with a revenge plot, a beautiful, sword-wielding woman as the main character, and over-the-top gushers of blood.

In plot and premise, both Kill Bill and Lady Snowblood could be categorized as samurai films, more specifically as chanbara, a subcategory defined by its reliance on vengeance-based stories and stylized violence. "I'm really particular about the blood,” Tarantino told TIME Asia in a 2002 pre-release interview, “so we're using a mixture depending on the scenes. I say, ‘I don't want horror movie blood, all right? I want Samurai blood.’ You can't pour this raspberry pancake syrup on a sword and have it look good. You have to have this special kind of blood that you only see in Samurai movies.”

But Kill Bill contains elements of Japanese yakuza (gangster) films, too. When Tarantino was filming Jackie Brown, he invited director Kinji Fukasaku onto the set. During his life Fukasaku was the pre-eminent director of yakuza movies, having revolutionized the genre in the 1970s by rejecting the prevalent and comforting myth of giri-ninjo, the underworld code of honour, in favour of character motivations based in fear and greed. His subsequent “Battle” series of films (beginning with 1973’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity) provided hit after box office hit, and before his death in 2002 Fukasaku returned to the theme with the internationally controversial Battle Royale, which depicts a near-future desert island to which groups of high school children are brought by a crime-obsessed government in order to slaughter each other. More recently, Tarantino has praised the work of Takashi Miike, whose 2002 film Ichi the Killer (itself based on a comic by Hideo Yamamoto) pushed far past all of the bounds of taste with its extraordinarily gory depiction of a yakuza gang war triggered by the search for a sadistic, brainwashed assassin.

Long before Fukasaku, Miike, Fujita, and Oshii, was Akira Kurosawa. His cinematographic innovations -- Seven Samurai, for example, pioneered the use of multiple cameras on set in order to allow the rapid selection of varying perspectives in the editing room -- were widely imitated in the West. Seven Samurai itself was remade by Hollywood into a popular 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven, but Kurosawa’s legacy has not faded with time: DreamWorks is planning to remake Ikiru (“To Live”), a Kurosawa film admired by Steven Spielberg, and which, according to Variety, will be shot by In America director Jim Sheridan. A 500-student film school dedicated to the director is due to open in Tokyo in 2006, and Kurosawa’s eldest son Hisao recently told the Japan Times that a Kurosawa film school will be dedicated in California sometime next year. His influence is felt through other directors, too: American giants like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas have all acknowledged a debt to Kurosawa.

But Kurosawa’s example also shows that influence flows in both directions. John Ford’s classic westerns had an strong impact on the director, as did the detective stories of Georges Simenon (helping to inspire Kurosawa’s 1949 film Stray Dog), and the novels of Dostoevsky. For some of his most memorable works Kurosawa reached even deeper into the West’s literary heritage: his 1957 Throne of Blood is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, while Ran (1985) draws heavily on King Lear for its plotting and themes. Indeed, as longtime Japan observer Donald Richie pointed out in his book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, the work of classic Japanese directors -- Kurosawa included -- was influenced by the ideal of wakon yosai, “Japanese spirit, Western culture”, the slogan which guided Japanese society during its period of modernization after the Meiji Restoration.

Western influence on Japanese film is just as vibrant today. Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell duology (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was released this September) draws by necessity on cyborg/human themes raised in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Takashi Miike and Katsuhito Ishii have acknowledged the influence of director David Lynch; Nakae Isamu remade An Affair to Remember, the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr vehicle, into 2001’s Twixt Calm and Passion; and according to Tokyo-based film critic Mark Schilling, Koki Mitani shot All About Our House as a homage to his idol Billy Wilder -- Mitani’s style, Schilling writes, lies “squarely in the Hollywood screwball tradition”.

Bi-directional influence can get a little surreal. “I went out to dinner with Kinji Fukasaku and Kenta [Kinji's son] and I was going ‘Man, I love this movie! It is just so fantastic!’”, Tarantino told Japanese film journalist Tomohiro Machiyama during a Kill Bill press junket in 2003. “And I said, ‘I love the scene where the girls are shooting each other.’ And then Kenta starts laughing. So I ask, ‘why are you laughing?’ He goes, ‘the author of the original Battle Royale novel would be very happy to hear that you liked that scene.’ And I go ‘why?’ And he says, ‘well, because it's from Reservoir Dogs!’” It was as if Tarantino had looked into a mirror and found himself staring at the back of his head.

The hall of mirrors effect is only enhanced by the steadily more global nature of the film industry. Tarantino-esque stylistic homages have perhaps passed their peak by now, but other links continue to deepen. Cinematography has long been an international technical skill, with rapid adoption of new techniques. Film financing draws on a widening variety of sources; even Kurosawa found international co-productions necessary back in the 1970s and 1980s. And The Grudge, ostensibly an “American remake”, goes even farther: shot by Takashi Shimizu, the same Japanese director as the original, it placed a handful of American actors in suburban Tokyo, while funding, as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis noted, was provided by “an American studio owned by a Japanese corporation”. It may speak English, but whose movie is it?

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