Although the U.S. has a reputation for being the epicenter of film, there are plenty of times when American filmmakers turn toward their foreign counterparts for inspiration. It can be interesting to go back and view the original on streaming video, which can be more impressive than the American remakes. Take Japanese films, for instance; director Akira Kurosawa has inspired filmmakers for decades, and a Japanese horror film boom inspired American horror filmmakers in more recent years. Give the originals a try and watch these following four Japanese films.
The 2002 film The Ring gave American audiences a taste of the Japanese horror film — although they may not have realized it was based on a 1998 Japanese film called Ring, or sometimes Ringu. That, in turn, was based on a Japanese novel, loosely based on a Japanese folktale. In the modern film version, people who watch a grainy VHS tape featuring a decrepit well and a long-haired young girl turn up dead a week later. One woman’s detective work into the deaths leads her to watch the tape, which then inspires her to desperately track down a way to survive the curse — if there is one.
The Japanese version is especially interesting to watch because it calls to mind the Japanese folktale “Bancho Sarayashiki,” which partly inspired the novel. The well is host to the ghost of a servant who was murdered because she refused the amorous attentions of her lord. The lord then told her she broke one of his priceless plates, which she learned after her death was a lie.
Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa inspired what became some of the best American films of all time, films such as A Fistful of Dollars and The Outrage. It’s 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, though, with which you may be most familiar. Its inspiration is easily one of Kurosawa’s best. While The Magnificent Seven made the story more accessible to American audiences by centering on seven cowboys in a 19th-century Western town, the original 1954 Seven Samurai featured samurai in medieval Japan.
Seven Samurai is about seven samurai hired to protect a small town from thieving bandits who’ve attacked them repeatedly. The samurai train the farmers into defending themselves and eventually lead them to capture the bandits, getting rid of the problem once and for all. Along the way, much is lost, but the samurai teach the farmers and each other that honor always prevails.
One Missed Call
Thanks to the success of The Ring, more Japanese horror films saw American remakes. This includes 2008’s One Missed Call, based on a 2003 Japanese horror film Chakushin Ari, which translates to the same title. Based on a Japanese novel, the film centers on a woman who gets a phone call from the future in which she hears her own death.
While the U.S. version didn’t do well with critics, the original Japanese version received mixed reviews, but is widely praised for its dark atmosphere. The Japanese film inspired a sequel and a TV show.
Shall We Dance?
Fans of romantic movies will love Shall We Dance?, a 1996 Japanese film about ballroom dancing. The 2004 American remake of the same name, starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, didn’t do as well as the original — which won Best Film and 13 other Japanese Academy Awards.
The original Shall We Dance? is a fun exposure to 20th-century Japanese culture. A middle-aged businessman who feels adrift in life happens upon a beautiful woman in a dancing studio and signs up for ballroom-dancing classes to be close to her. He keeps his activities a secret from his wife and teenage daughter, and eventually becomes as enamored with the dance as the woman he’s meeting in secret.
If you haven’t seen the American remakes of these four Japanese films, it can be a fun experiment to watch one version shortly after the other and compare the two. Some American remakes hold up well, like “The Magnificent Seven,” while others fail to do justice to their counterparts, like the American “Shall We Dance?” You can be the judge as to which version you think is best.
About the Author: Fumiya Tanba is a graduate student of Japanese film. He publishes reviews of both classic and modern Japanese films on his website.