When the samurai met the cowboy: why Japan welcomes Hollywood remakes
With Scarlett Johansson’s live-action Ghost in the Shell and a new version of The Magnificent Seven, Hollywood hasn’t stopped looking east for inspiration. But it’s not the Japanese who are getting uptight about cultural plundering
Friday 1 July 2016 09.27 BST
Critics of the time were unable to see past Sturges’ failure to match the original’s obsession with rigid Japanese social forms: Howard Thompson of the New York Times called the remake a “pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the original” that lacked the “ice-cold suspense” and “superb juxtaposition of revealing human vignettes” of Kurosawa’s film.
And yet, over the decades since, Hollywood has returned again and again to plunder Japanese culture with all the ruthlessness of Eli Wallach’s marauding banditos. At the tail end of the 1990s, the success of Hideo Nakata’s creepy supernatural chiller Ringu spawned a succession of US remakes and sequels, as well as a torrent of reworkings of other Japanese horror movies: Pulse, The Grudge, One Missed Call, and Dark Water are all based on Asian originals. More recently, Keanu Reeves’s 47 Ronin drew criticism for co-opting Japan’s national myth of the leaderless samurai who avenged their master, but casting the guy from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
This week has seen reports in the press that the classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub, which spawned six Japanese films and the more-famous-in-the-west Shogun Assassin (originally edited together for US audiences from the first two movies in the series) is getting a Hollywood remake, albeit with an all-Japanese cast, while there are renewed suggestions that the cult anime Akira could be remade as a live-action film, this time by Fast and Furious director Justin Lin.
In April, Scarlett Johansson found herself plunged into a twitterstorm after the first photograph of the Avengers star as cyborg policewoman Major Kusanagi in an upcoming live-action remake of cult sci-fi anime Ghost in the Shell hit the web. Criticism centred on the American actor’s cod-manga appearance, complete with black and blue cyber-wig. Some reports, denied by studio Paramount, even claimed producers initially considered using CGI to make Johansson appear more Japanese. A petition, now signed by more than 100,000 people, has called for an actor of east Asian origins to be cast in the role instead.
In Japan, however, there is widespread confusion over the controversy. “They’re thrilled that Johansson is playing an iconic manga character and believe that her presence will only help to further the popularity of the series,” noted John Berra, co-editor-in-chief of Asian film site VCinema and editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan series of books. “In this respect, the Japanese fans have been more level-headed than their western counterparts.”
Berra said cross-pollination between Hollywood and Japanese studios was now “largely accepted and greeted warmly at home when the results work”, noting the popularity of the recent Warner Bros version of Godzilla and Gore Verbinski’s remake of Ringu in Japan.
“Any remake must show respect for the source material through the appointment of the right talent and sufficient production values so that the original is not disgraced,” he said. “The Ring was massively popular in Japan, as although the ambiguities of the original were cleared up for western audiences, the concept and narrative remained largely faithful and the disquieting mood was effectively transferred to the US setting.”
The creative stream also flows both ways. Unforgiven, Sideways and (rather less successfully) Ghost have all been remade in Japan, and it’s even possible to spot the seeds of American industry in the early silent-era work of Tokyo Story’s Yasujirō Ozu, who borrowed from Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
Jasper Sharp, film critic and author of The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema (2011), believes more recent accusations of cultural theft should be given short shrift.
“Ghost in the Shell posits a world which is effectively borderless, where the boundaries between man and machine and the real and the virtual world are blurred,” he said. “Johansson’s character Major Kusanagi is a completely automated cyborg in the original stories, although she has a human consciousness. It’s therefore a moot point whether she is meant to appear physically Japanese or not, because anime characters in general are drawn to appear Caucasian.”
In September, a new version of The Magnificent Seven is due in cinemas, with Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke strapping on the Smith & Wessons to defend another poverty-stricken village, this time relocated north of the Mexican border. All things considered, it seems unlikely that Antoine Fuqua’s film will do any more to capture the feudal Sengoku period’s abiding sense of harsh social discombobulation than its 1960 forebear. But once again, there will likely be no complaints in Kurosawa’s homeland.
Sharp believes it is only when Hollywood plays “fast and loose” with Asian culture that problems set in, as in the case of Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), which tanked in Japan, due to its reliance on a cast of actors who were of mainly Chinese origin.
“Akira is actually particularly badly suited for a Hollywood remake, because it deals implicitly with issues such as Japan’s wartime defeat and its student protests in the 1960s,” he notes. “There’s a lot more to the film than meets the eye, and I suspect this will get buried beneath a straightforward action-picture formula in any remake.
“Lone Wolf and Cub was already ‘localised’ for American audiences with the dubbed Shogun Assassin re-edit in 1980. I’ve no real interest in seeing a Hollywood remake, but ultimately, if these films turn attention towards Japanese cinema, it can’t be a bad thing.”
Whether Kurosawa himself would have agreed remains a moot point.