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This lovely lady had a “Ringu” on her finger…

In 1998, Kouji Suzuki’s Japanese horror novel, “Ringu,” was adapted into a film starring the lovely Nanako Matsushima as a reporter chasing some kind of mysterious horror that is killing teenagers. Matsushima, pictured above, was ubiquitous in Japan when I first arrived in 1999–I thought she was stunning then, and my opinions on that, along with her looks, haven’t changed! I saw Ringu only years later, when the idea of a girl jumping out at her victims via a VCR tape and a TV was already becoming dated, but I watched many episodes of the drama, “Great Teacher Onizuka,” or GTO, in which she starred and met her co-star and husband, Takashi Sorimachi (I try to forget that last part!). Anyway, Ringu had creepy atmosphere to spare, and it both thrilled and chilled despite its cheesiness. I guess that’s why it was destined for an American remake.

…which was passed to THIS British babe for the Hollywood treatment!

Before Naomi Watts played Valerie Plame Wilson or Princess Di, even before she was King Kong’s girlfriend, this incomperable British beauty was given “The Ring” for the American version in 2002. It spawned a sequel in 2005, which I am (ashamed? Proud? Indifferent?) not to have seen. As a concept, The Ring is a curious mix of East/West hybrid horror. I think it can work either inside or outside of Japan even today. As long as the nasty ghost-girl jumps out of a smartphone screen instead of a television, I think we’re all set.

Believe it or not, these coyboys were once samurai!

Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, and lots of great Western-style action make “The Magnificent Seven” a classic cowboy flick…putting aside the fact that it was actually a classic samurai flick first! It was based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, “The Seven Samurai,” exchanging guns for swords but otherwise keeping all the other good stuff intact. This surprised me when I first heard it; could you really adapt a story that well across such a vast culture gap, I wondered? But after being immersed in Japanese popular culture, it makes total sense to me. Japanese samurai period dramas (so-called “jidai geki”) share many similarities to Westerns (so-called “seibu geki”). The band of samurai lawmen riding around in Japan’s most famous jidai geki, “Mitoko-mon,” aren’t much different from the “mysterious strangers” that show up to mete out justice in our Westerns. It just proves that people everywhere dream of protectors who they can believe in.

A wiz-bang racecar movie by the Wachowski siblings…that sped right past me

According to close sources, the 2008 racecar romp “Speed Racer” is based on the anime “Maha Go-Go!”, which premiered during Japan’s postwar fascination with F-1 racing. I guess I heard the classic chorus, “Go Speed Racer! Go-go Speed Racer!” as a wee tyke, but if there was a serious fanbase in America at the time, this Transformers-playing, Marvel-reading dude wasn’t among them. I dig the Wachowskis, but even five years wasn’t enough to take the sting out of what they did to my inner fan in 2003 (see below!) so I didn’t bother to see it. Like everything they do, though, it’s clear that they pulled all the stops with this candy-colored explosion. Just watching the trailers made my eyes hurt, but I’ve heard it’s become somewhat of a cult classic. It’s hard not to want to experience a movie where the main character’s name is actually, ah, Speed Racer. Maybe I’ll give it a test drive.

Richard Gere likes dogs and dancing

I must confess, I don’t know much about Richard Gere personally. I know that he was married to Cindy Crawford, that he’s a Buddhist who’s for freedom in Tibet and is really quite tight with the Dalai Lama, and that he’s very generous when filming (my friend had one of his movies filmed at her place, true story!). If you look at Mr. Gere’s filmography, you will see no fewer than three films demonstrating that he sometimes takes his interest in Asia with him to work. One of these movies is the China-themed “Red Corner.”The other two are “Shall we Dance” and “Hachi.” “Dance” was remade from a Japanese film about a typical businessman who becomes infatuated with a dance teacher decides to spice up his humdrum life with dancing lessons. We feel the repressed passion behind the face of Kouji Yakusho, who has graced Japanese screens large and small for decades. I also liked the comedic power of Naoto Takenaka, a smooth-headed actor/comedian that appears frequently on Japanese variety shows. The socio-cultural reasons why Yakusho doesn’t want to reveal his new passion are perfectly drawn here, and I was skeptical that this could translate given America’s relative openness to new hobbies, etc. Somehow, though, both are satisfying, although the original is more exuberant because the characters are so button-down to begin with! But I would recommend both.

As for “Hachi,” it’s based on the half-mythic story of Hachiko the dog and his master, a university professor. Let me tell you, “loyal” doesn’t begin to describe Hachiko. He waited outside the university every day for the guy to come out, rain or shine—not even master’s sudden death from a heart attack detours him. It’s a story of love and patience, one that is immortalized just outside of Shibuya Station (see above). It is also crushingly boring when transplanted to Anywhere, USA and stretched to movie length. To put it mildly, this one’s a dog, folks.

I took the red pill–and I’ve been high ever since!

Honestly, “The Matrix” changed me. It blew my mind. It stretched out its seductive tentacles, grabbed me and my college sweetheart, and made us go see it in the theater no fewer than four times. It was a revelation of “Star Wars”-esque proportions, a wakeup call for a new millennium…which, sadly, had been kind of done before in Japan. You will see shades of “The Matrix” in Japanese anime like 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell,” about a near future where cyborgs rule and the line between reality and dreams is thin. Skin-tight costuming, kung-fu, and the blurring of good and evil are a constant in some genres of Japanese manga as well. Look closely at the opening credits, and you will see many kana, the characters making up one part of the Japanese alphabet. “The Matrix” is a pastiche of Asian stuff, but owes its coolness to Japan. Let’s just forget the 2003 sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” and especially “The Matrix Revolutions.” Both of these almost make me wish I’d taken the blue pill in the first place.

I think I saw some Japanese foot-soldiers riding around in Darth’s helmet

In writing Star Wars, George Lucas is often quoted as saying that he was inspired by “The Seven Samurai.” Several years ago, I visited a museum exhibit called “The Art of Star Wars” that pretty much confirmed the franchise’s devotion to a samurai aesthetic; just look at the Jedi robes, Vader’s weird military helmet, light-sabers standing in for katana swords, etc. But the devotion is more than costume-deep. Codes of honor, restrained but deeply loyal friendships, and recognition of forces (I’m not gonna say it!) outside of our control but nonetheless ready to harness, were all hallmarks of ancient Japan that still persist in some part today. The point is, it’s cool to realize that one of America’s greatest pop-cultural institutions owes something to the East.

Godzilla, King of the Blockbuster Monster Francises

So now you know that the Japanese contribution to American cinema goes beyond endless iterations of Godzilla. As he comes stomping back into theaters soon (yes, they are doing another one even after the awfulness with Matthew Broderick in 1998!), please remember all of the cool stuff to come out of Japan before judging him too harshly.

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