Takashi Miike’s terse, 3D drama Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai gets its UK release this week. Yûya Ishii’s delightfully vibrant comedy, Mitsuko Delivers, hits our screens later in the month. So, as Japanese filmmakers once again prove they’re up there with the very best, Greg Evans takes a look at some of the Japanese directors and films that changed western cinema forever.
Miike’s terse, 3D drama Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai gets its UK release this
week. Yûya Ishii’s delightfully vibrant comedy, Mitsuko Delivers, hits our
screens later in the month. So, as Japanese filmmakers once again prove they’re
up there with the very best, Greg Evans takes a look at some of the Japanese
directors and films that changed western cinema forever.
If we were to draw up a list of the most
influential nations in the history of film, Japan would undoubtedly come out on
top. It’s hard to think of another nation that has remained so consistently
good for so long. From the age of the silent movie to the modern era, Japan has
been a visionary force in the world of filmmaking. From horror to gangster
films, from epic wars to intimate dramas, there’s no doubt that the film world
owes a huge debt to the Land of the Rising Sun.
While Hollywood was still celebrating fading
stars such as Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, on the other side of the globe, Akira Kurosawa was changing film forever. It was in 1950 that his
masterpiece Rashomon was released.
This epic film, tells a tale which is as subtle as it is clever, by relating
three different interpretations of the same crime. These days, the idea of a
story within a story, has been done to death but when Rashomon came out it was
ground breaking. Combine this, with ever changing and contrasting characters
and a strong message about morality and identity, then Rashomon becomes
something truly special.
Kurosawa deservedly received an honorary Oscar
for Rashomon but his stock grew considerably more when, just four years later,
he released The Seven Samurai. The film tells the relatively simple
story of a group of seven, skilled samurais, hired by a small village to combat
an impending bandit attack. What made this straightforward story so appealing
were the characters, who develop throughout the film, as a sense of comradeship
grows, not only between the samurai and the villagers, but also the audience.
The amazing thing about The Seven Samurai was
its success both at home and in the west, specifically America. Americans loved
the film so much that they remade it as The
Magnificent Seven, which did a
glorious job of retelling Kurosawa’s tale in the western format, whilst
remaining true to the original source material. What is clear about The
Magnificent Seven is that every one involved loved Seven Samurai. So much so,
that arguments reportedly broke out between actors, disputing which characters
they wanted to play. When you the likes of Steve
McQueen, Yul Bryner and James Coburn
fighting over roles, you know that you must be doing something right!
Kurosawa would go on to direct several more
incredible films, including Yojimbo and
Ran (Main Picture), but while he was beginning his
craft, another master’s career was coming to an end.
Yasujiro Ozu is considered one of the all time
greatest directors. He started making films as late as 1927 and was prolific –
completing 54 features before his death at the age of 60. His most telling contribution
would be 1953’s Tokyo Story which
follows an elderly couple leaving the countryside to visit their family in
the thriving metropolis of Tokyo. There, they quickly discover that their
children’s lives have dramatically changed and that the modern world is leaving
them behind. Heartbreakingly bleak, yet equally optimistic, Ozu’s static camera
work is so undervalued and overlooked that it deserves a retrospective of its
own. The line “isn’t life disappointing?” is crushingly honest.
Not every film that came out of Japan in the
1950s was as stylish as those of Kurosawa and Ozu. But one, in particular, was
just as influential. In 1954, the first Godzilla
film was released and one of Japan’s most successful icons was born. Coming
shortly after World War II, Godzilla was accused of exploiting the atrocities
that the nation had experienced during the war. However, such criticism didn’t
deter the crowds and Godzilla became a huge hit.
Kaiju, which roughly translates as monster, did
major business in Japan and has a dedicated following. Twenty-eight films
featuring the monster lizard have been made and, over the years, several other
characters have been invented for him to do battle with. Mothra, Rodan, Gamera and King
Ghidorah have fought their way through the decades, and even King Kong was drafted in for the
ultimate giant monster fight. As with Seven Samurai, the Godzilla films crossed
over and became big hits in America too and were treated to their own remake.
However, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film
was a catastrophic failure. Despite starring big names like Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno and perhaps the best special
effects ever seen in a Godzilla film, it just didn’t have the charm or charisma
that fans had come to love. A reboot is rumoured to be in the works but, since
that ill-fated film, the famous monster returned to his homeland.
Another Japanese genre which has made a quite a
big impact in the States is J-Horror – Japan’s very own horror genre. Its main
themes tend to focus on psychological and suspense elements, with a strong
focus on the paranormal as an antagonist. Films like The Ring, The Grudge and Dark
Water and several other remakes have, however, received a critical
lashing. Only The Ring remake really received any noteworthy approval. Despite
the fact that Hideo Nakata (The
Ring) and Takashi Shimizu (The
Grudge) directed some of the American versions, the remakes were accused of
abandoning the sense of dread and terror that came with the originals. Yet,
despite these problems, they still made money at the box office and, with a
Ring 3D in the works, J-Horror remakes show no sign of letting up.
One unique Japanese genre that has, so far,
avoided the scourge of the remake is Anime. Barring the awful The Last Airbender, Hollywood hasn’t even attempted to touch any of
these profound and artistic animations. There are perhaps two good reasons for
this. One is quite simple. Many (if not all) Anime films often come with a
dubbed English version of the film. The argument for English remakes of foreign
films, is that people are too lazy to read subtitles. It’s hard to believe this
is true, but Anime is fortunate that a dubbed version doesn’t look too out of
sync or clumsy. Things don’t tend to get lost in translation and the story
flows without any problems. The second reason is that the vast majority of
these films are so visionary and complex that it would take a director of great
credibility to pull it off. Take Ghost
in the Shell for instance. Mamoru Oshii’s
1995 film, which centres around a special cyborg police force investigating
the hacking of robots, was both visually stunning and poetically philosophical. It explored the theory that the
identity and soul of a robot is its own and isn’t just confined to its
mechanical body. Quite often questions are asked like: “What exactly is the
definition of ‘human’ in a society where a mind can be copied and the body
replaced with a synthetic form?” And, “Where is the boundary between human and
machine when the differences between the two become more philosophical than
physical?” Could you even imagine a film starring the likes of Tom Cruise or Cameron Diaz having that sort of dialogue in it? So far the only
Anime film even considered for a live action remake is Akira. Some of the biggest names in film have been linked with the
project but production has been shut down four times in less than ten years.
Perhaps this is testament to just how good the original film is.
So, in the 21st century, where does Japan stand
in terms of world cinema? Well in a bizarre turn of events Japan has started to
make its own remakes. Just last year, two films came from Japan which could be
considered remakes. First was Takashi Miike’s fantastic 13 Assassins, which was
in more ways than one, a homage to The Seven Samurai. The characters were very
similar and certain plot points were the same, although the film was a great
samurai movie in its own right. There was also Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty, inspired by Mary Norton’s The Borrowers.
Sweet and magical, Arrietty isn’t the best Ghibli film, but after the
success of Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro in the west, Ghibli
must have noticed the potential of making a western style story their own.
While film buffs are generally damning of
remakes, perhaps we should look upon them with fresh eyes. If a remake is
promoted properly and is honest about being a remake, then keen fans may be
willing to seek out the original for themselves. What is even more encouraging is
how American directors are trying their hand at making Japanese style films. Quinten Tarantino was very open in his
admiration for Japanese kung fu films when he made Kill Bill. One of those he mentioned, was the infamous Shogun Assassin, allegedly one of the
bloodiest films ever made, which was itself cited in the making of the Tom Hanks film; Road to
Perdition. One of the biggest
films out at the moment is The Hunger
Games. The comparisons between that and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale have been unavoidable, but the fact
that this sort of reference has emerged shows that maybe rather than remaking
Japan, Hollywood has started to think like Japan. After all, imitation is the
greatest form of flattery.