It’s often said these days that “Hollywood is running out of ideas.” When that happens, where do all creatively-starved, idea hungry people go? To Japan, of course! Just in the past 5 years, these films have all been influenced by Japan in ways big and small. Is this the coming of yet another Japanese renaissance in Hollywood? Decide for yourself!
Christopher Nolan’s answer to The Matrix is brain-bending but far from perfect—it’s a film about the hijacking of people’s dreams that’s shot with such literal grit that it feels more like an edgy video game than a trip through someone’s mind. But some of the opening scenes begin on what is unmistakably a Shinkansen, or Japanese bullet train, and one of the pivotal characters is played by none other than Ken Watanabe, an actor whose praises I’ve sung in another blog. Japanese influence pervades the production design and the zen-like themes. If the film proves anything, it’s that Japan doesn’t have to be front and center in a given narrative to help make a movie hella-cool.
The Karate Kid (2010)Amazon
In this remake of the classic film, Will Smith’s son goes toe-to-toe with Chinese bullies who don’t like his foreign-ness—or something—and can’t cut the mustard, at least at first. Things change, of course, after he meets a Yoda-like Jackie Chan and starts learning kung-fu. Just a few cheesy-cool training montages later, and the kid is a lean, mean fighting machine. This movie is OK. Jaden Smith shows promise as the titular hero, and Jackie Chan is quietly effective in the role originated by Pat Morita. But speaking of Morita, that’s really the only reason to mention this movie at all: It wouldn’t have been made without the first Karate Kid! If you haven’t seen it (for shame!) then go get it NOW. It’s one of the best in a series of coming-of-age 80s flicks that I could name, and was probably responsible for the huge karate craze that hit America during that time. The new movie hits many of the same story beats and the kung fu is undoubtedly more real than the original karate was, but it’s weird to see children (rather than teenagers) being so violent toward one another. And, ah, note to the marketing team: Shouldn’t it be, “The Kung-fu Kid” this time around? Just sayin’.
The Wolverine (2013)Amazon
Sitting in my room reading Wolverine comics as a kid, I was struck by the story of his past in Japan—even at that time, I thought it would have been a great movie! By all reports, Hugh Jackman has redeemed the pile-o-bull that was X-Men: Origins with this outing, which not only transports Wolvie’s story to the Land of the Rising Sun but ups the ante considerably by making him mortal again. Apparently they shot quite a bit of this in Tokyo, although I wasn’t fortunate enough to actually see filming in progress! Hugh Jackman’s awesomeness goes without saying, but it’s also nice to see Rinko Kikuchi, who rocked in a completely different kind of film called Babel and will wow us again with her new one, Kumiko, Treasure Hunter. A Hollywood movie that takes place in Japan, actually filmed in Japan with good Japanese actors happens maybe once every ten years; remember The Last Samurai?
47 Ronin (2013)Amazon
OK, I confess: I dig Keanu Reeves. He is the anti-Nicholas Cage—Cage goes whole-hog crazy in his roles, while Keanu often achieves a kind of zen that some might view as lazy. What he and Cage do have in common, I think, is that they both seem to care deeply about whatever projects they’re involved in. That said, if you’re waiting for me to say that Keanu goes all Neo in this fantastic retelling of the original Japanese story, I can’t tell you because I haven’t seen it! One look at the trailer was enough for me, thanks. Still, as silly as it likely is, if this fable gets people interested in the true story of the 47 Ronin (“masterless samurai”) of the 18th century, then I’m all for it! If you must see a movie on this topic, catch the 1941 film by Kenji Mizoguchi. It’s quite good, even without CGI dragons. 😉
Japan’s big radioactive dinosaur hardly needs an introduction, yet he keeps handing his business card to Hollywood execs. While it didn’t work in Matthew Broderick’s awful 1998 camp-fest, this new one will surely score the lizard a new house in Beverly. Ken Watanabe and a bunch of demolished world cities star in this remake, which has been successful enough to inspire Toho, the original producers of Godzilla, to continue making stomping-monster movies in Japan. Who knows, maybe we’ll see some scary stuffed toys just in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Big Hero 6 (2014)Amazon
In this story about a young man who loses his brother and gains a big, inflatable robot with a heart of gold, the biggest heroes are the people at Pixar. Not only is the world depicted a fantastic city blending American and Japanese influences, but the protagonist himself is Japanese! Apparently even the cute countenance of Baymax, the titular robot, is based upon a Japanese bell that one of the artists saw when scouting for the movie in Japan. Despite some recent missteps (um, Cars? Planes?), Pixar is a big deal, and the fact that they have so much faith in the international viability of Japanese popular culture, and express this faith so beautifully, makes me smile.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)Amazon
Three words: What. A. Ride! In his best film since Minority Report, Tom Cruise is in top form as a PR man whose only job is to smile for the camera, priming the country for a final assault in a losing war against aliens. His life gets a lot harder when a vengeful general decides to send him into the field. Totally unprepared for battle, he promptly dies—and wakes up at the start of his journey, slate clean, with only his memories as proof of his experiences. Aided by a badass Emily Blunt (almost but not quite channeling Ripley), he learns to fight over the course of his thousands of deaths, morphing into the Cruise that we’ve all come to know and eventually banishing the alien threat—or does he? This visually clever, surprisingly emotional sci-fi romp is based on the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, which also spawned a manga of the same name. Comparisons to Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers have no doubt been made ad nauseam, but why stop making them when they fit so well? My favorite scene of all stands out precisely because it isn’t an action piece, with Cruise kicking ass all over the place. Instead it’s Cruise freaking out, begging for sweet mercy before being dropped into the chaotic alien nest within which he will surely perish over and over again.