Written by Forrest Maynock
The influence of post-WWII Japanese film on global filmmaking is extraordinary. Hollywood, in particular, borrowed much from Japan following the war, but many filmgoers remain oblivious. I, as a cinephile, am very discouraged by this common trope in the media and felt compelled to write about some of the prominent cases of borrowing.
Akira Kurosawa, more than any other Japanese director, influenced Hollywood filmmaking. Many of his 30 films are viewed in the west as masterpieces, with directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola citing Kurosawa as a major inspiration.
Several of Kurosawa’s films are considered major influences on future subgenres of film. For example, his 1949 film Stray Dog is believed to be one of the first examples of a “buddy cop” film, and his 1950 masterwork Rashomon has led to the creation of the term “Rashomon effect” to describe a single story told differently by multiple characters.
When discussing Kurosawa’s impact on the films of Hollywood, I believe that there is no better place to start than Seven Samurai (1954). This film has been remade, redone, reworked, and borrowed from more than any other film I can think of. There is the obvious The Magnificent Seven (1960), a watered-down Hollywood remake that is somehow more widely recognized by the public in the west than what it copied. Then there is A Bug’s Life (1998) which has a similar structure and many of the same story beats as Samurai. Another near remake would be the 1980 sci-fi film Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) which, again, borrows much in terms of story and structure from Seven Samurai. In addition to influencing the plot and structure of films, Seven Samurai is regarded as one of the first films to utilize the plot element of gathering the heroes together for a mission, and many of the film’s unique shots can be seen referenced in films to this day. Kurosawa’s innovative editing techniques from the film can also be seen in many Hollywood films.
Kurosawa’s influence does not end there. In 1961 Kurosawa made Yojimbo. Then, 3 years later, in 1964, Sergio Leone made A Fistful of Dollars, an almost shot-for-shot remake of Yojimbo. In the world of cinema, most recognize the fact that A Fistful of Dollars is a remake, but in the public eye, only a small minority realizes this fact.
Another major cinematic work partially inspired by Kurosawa’s work is 1977’s worldwide phenom Star Wars. The direct influence can most visibly be seen in Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress which has several direct parallels, such as a comedic duo who can be compared to the two famous droids R2-D2™ and C-3PO™ from Star Wars. Also, the story of a princess trying to make her way back to her kingdom is similar to the 2nd act of Star Wars where Princess Leia must escape the Death Star™ and return to the rebel base. These similarities are much more surface level, but, still, few filmgoers would know these sorts of details.
The influence of post-WWII Japanese films on Hollywood films does not end with Kurosawa. Godzilla, for example, is often referred to as “The King of Movie Monsters” in some film circles and filmmaker Steven Spielberg even cited the American version of the original Godzilla film as a source of inspiration for Jurassic Park. Quentin Tarantino also borrowed heavily from the 1973 film Lady Snowblood for his 2004 smash hit Kill Bill vol. 1. The influence can be seen directly in the musical choices and framing of the story. The revenge element is also particularly pronounced.
There was also a wave of American remakes of Japanese horror films in the early 2000s. This trend started with the 2002 film The Ring, which is a direct remake of 1998’s Ring. Following the success of The Ring, there was a wave of Japanese horror film remakes that in almost all cases resulted in negative reviews.
One of the most controversial “borrowings” in cinema (and literature) history would be the The Hunger Games franchise, which seemingly borrowed many ideas and material from the 2000 film/1999 novel Battle Royale. Again, many in the American filmgoing public have little knowledge of this phenomenon.
So what can be done about this lack of film knowledge?
Sadly, not much can practically be done, other than acknowledging an influence here and there, or dropping a bit of film trivia into an everyday conversation with a friend. These sorts of acknowledgements are important not only as a guideline of what has been done before, but also in providing a well-developed history of cinema. Film is not simply entertainment, it’s an irreplaceable part of many cultures across the world. If you, the reader, have any major interest in cinema, then knowing these things is important, and remember, “knowing is half the battle!!!”
That’s from G.I. Joe by the way.