As I’ve covered in at least 2 other blogs, Hollywood often explores Japan’s imaginative reservoir in search of the next potential blockbuster. While some Western films are clearly remakes of Japanese stuff, others are a bit less clear cut. Let’s take a look at a few of these remakes and not-so-sure remakes.
Lake Houses & Love Letters
The Lakehouse 2006Amazon
You may remember this early 21st-century weepie starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock (back again after their success together in Speed). It chronicled the plight of two people who, although desperately in love, are actually separated in time by something like 2 years—they communicate via letters and stuff, ’cause we haven’t figured out how to email into the past. Whether you liked it or not, the premise at least seems original…until you realize that it isn’t. 😉
Love Letter 1995Amazon
A few years before I came to Japan, the above move, Love Letter, totally took Japan by storm. It’s the story of…well, just read the above description of The Lake House and you’ve basically got the idea. In addition to uber-popularity in it’s own country, this film was apparently beloved in Korea as well, so much so that it was very quickly remade with Korean actors for local distribution. I guess Hollywood got the memo, huh? I don’t think The Lake House made any secret of its Japanese origins, though. A cute idea, yes…original, no.
(Exploding) Trains, Trains & Automobiles
If you haven’t seen Speed, the one about the bomb on the bus, then there’s honestly not much I can do to help you. No, really—You need to stop reading this blog and just go get it, stat. Sandra Bullock is hot and resourceful, Keanu Reeves is remarkably focused, and the supporting players—most noticeably Dennis Hopper as a pissed-off former cop—are golden. But you already know this, right? Anyway, when I saw this in high school, my young mind was pretty convinced that it was one of the most original action films I’d ever seen. Well, the execution was awesome. But original?
Runaway Train (1986)Amazon
According to Wikipedia, at least the grain of the idea for Speed might have emerged upon viewing the 1986 film Runaway Train, starring a very young Jon Voight, Rebecca DeMornay (yessssss!) and Frances McDormand, apparently unchanged for more than 30 years in film. 😉 Anyway, same sort of speeding-vehicle-that-will-be-destroyed-upon-stopping plot device. So here, the evolution from train to bus movie is pretty clear. But who got the idea for the train thing in the first place?
Bullet Train (1975)Amazon
Shinkansen no Daibakuha (The Bullet Train Explosion, or just Bullet Train) was a 1975 Japanese film that, in the guise of an action/disaster flick, apparently critiqued the lack of safety precautions aboard and around the then newly-minted bullet trains. There’s a speeding train, and a shady plan to gum up the works by blowing it up with a bomb that goes off if it slows down. Sound at all familiar? My wife made the jump from this movie to Speed, and it took a bit of digging to discover the movie in the middle. Hard to tell exactly what came from what, but I enjoyed the ride.
Robots in Mirror are Closer than they Appear
Charged with cleaning up the trash on the now-dead planet of earth, Wall-e is alone until another robot finds him. Fortunately, there is romance and companionship of a sort; unfortunately, Wall-e discovers just what kind of beings could have destroyed their own planet with such gusto. Wall-e was understandably praised for cute characters, surprisingly serious story telling, and…um, originality?
My wife ruined my rosy Pixar-love by telling me that Tezuka Osamu, the undisputed “God of Manga” in Japan, already tackled similar issues with his Robita character, who you have to admit even looks a bit Wall-e-ish. From what I understand, there’s not a lot in the robotic realm that Hollywood can do that Osamu hadn’t already covered before he died—whether Wall-e is directly inspired by Robita is not for me to say, but at least I can plug Tezuka Osamu’s work and put things into perspective.
Seen one Yakuza Film, Seen ’em All
Leon The Professional (1994)
I dig Luc Besson. And I love The Professional, the story of an aging assassin (Jean Reno) who takes a troubled girl (Natalie Portman, maybe debuting here?) under his wing. The bloody scenes and stylized climax were rightly praised for their Besson-esque verve and atmosphere, but could you really call this an original film? It’s actually not a lot different from some of the yakuza (“Japanese mafia”) films I’ve seen. Apparently, elements like the girl-meets-hired-gun stuff and literally killing in the flower fields are old tropes in those movies, although I’d have to watch many more to know. Well, Luc Besson has never been afraid to go with his inspirations (remember The Fifth Element?). Would it be fair to say that he was likely going for a yakuza-type feel here?
Bingo, we have our answer! Wasabi wasn’t directed by Besson, but he produced it, and the Japanese influence is more starkly clear here. Just look at the title, not to mention the fact that this time the damsel in distress is played by Ryoko Hirosue (a good thing!) and that Jean Reno actually goes up against the yakuza this time. Well, I hope this encourages you to look out for Japanese-inspired stories in novels, films and otherwise!