The rich world of Japanese cinema has been in Hollywood’s cross-hairs for decades. With adaptions ranging from faithful remakes, awful interpretations, and shameless rip-offs, it is difficult to determine whether this trend is ultimately a good or a bad thing. At any rate, with remakes including Akira, Cowboy Bebop, and One Punch Man in the works, it’s clear that it won’t be stopping any time soon.
To help you distinguish between the ‘must-sees’ and the ‘avoid-at-all-costs’, Deakin Movie Club’s Jake Mazur and club associate and Japan-based writer Steve Csorgo have broken down and provided their insights on the best and worst American adaptions of Japanese films throughout the decades.
GOOD: The Ring (2002)
The Ring was key to bringing Japanese horror (J-horror) to broader audiences. A remake of Ringu, itself based on Koji Suzuki’s novel, it is one of those rare American remakes that equals the original. So widely successful, the movie spawned numerous sequels and paved the way for other terrifying J-horror adaptations, the most notable of which being The Grudge, which was released two years later. Iconic moments such as the dreaded videotape and the chilling opening, a fantastic soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, a tense mystery set against the clock, and an unsettling but memorable ending combine to make The Ring unmissable. Whether or not it is to your liking, if you give it a chance, you will not only gain a new understanding of numerous pop-culture references, you will also never be able to look at your TV the same way again.
BAD: Dragonball Evolution (2009)
Dragonball Evolution’s only strength is as a contender for the worst adaption of all time. Adhering to only the most basic elements of its source material, it is Dragonball in name only. While a faithful and interesting live-action Dragonball would be difficult for even the most competent film studio, the awful special effects, lifeless acting, and tedious script render Dragonball Evolution one of Hollywood’s most cringe-worthy remakes. It is clear that its main purpose was to tap into a global sensation and trick unknowing fans into paying for tickets. Fortunately, its tiny runtime of just 85 minutes means that if you are ever forced to watch it, it’ll be over before you experience too much pain.
GOOD: Detective Pikachu (2019)
Assassin’s Creed, Hitman, Ratchet & Clank … Hollywood adaptions of video games are notoriously bad. That’s why most of us simply shrugged when we first heard the news of Detective Pikachu. Thankfully, this adaption of the 2016 video game of the same name surpassed our low expectations and blew us all away! The film lovingly renders the original 151 Pokémon in a vibrant, creative world and hits all the key nostalgia notes for those who grew up obsessed with the franchise. While parts of the film, such as the dragged-out final battle scene, may come off a little childish, the story contains enough maturity and depth to keep adults from tuning out. This is a perfect example of how to create a film for all ages.
BAD: Godzilla (1998)
I must confess, this movie is a guilty pleasure of mine. I was young at the time of its release, and it is everything a boy would love—a giant mutated reptile terrorising New York City. Later, after watching the original Godzilla series, I came to understand why this film is so detested by the fandom. It completely lacks the themes, ideas, and tone of the original entries. Indeed, some would argue that Godzilla himself is missing from it. This movie’s ‘Godzilla’ is far from an unstoppable threat to humanity, doing more fleeing than destroying, and the ending—with the exception of one instance of sober reflection on humanity’s nuclear-related mistakes—is as distant from the original Godzilla series and its themes as it possibly could be. Toho, the owners of the Godzilla licence, were so disappointed with the film that they revoked the American studio’s contract to produce a trilogy and instead attempted to counteract the hatred for the American attempt by kick-starting their own Godzilla series. This contempt is most evident in Toho’s handling of the rights to the American Godzilla, which they purchased only to rename the creature ‘Zilla’ and later have it be killed on screen. Ultimately, Godzilla (1998) feels less like the first American Godzilla and more like an attempt to cash in on the Jurassic Park franchise. Although, it is not the worst movie out there, it is easy to understand why many dislike this film or don’t consider it to be connected to the Godzilla series at all.
GOOD: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
In the 1960s, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s library of masterpieces was swarmed by western producers starved for fresh ideas. One gem born of this fad was 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars was based on Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film Yojimbo, meaning ‘the bodyguard,’ directed by film legend Sergio Leone, and starred Clint Eastwood in his first leading role. Although it is not an American adaption, this western film set cinema trends for the next decade. Its sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, were also major hits.
Unfortunately, while Leone’s film is an almost shot-for-shot remake of Yojimbo, it was never credited as such, leading to a successful lawsuit against the Italian director. While this plagiarism is hard to forgive, both films still stand as riveting interpretations of the same story in different yet equally fascinating time periods and cultures. The film’s unique circumstances also reveal fascinating insights into some coinciding ideas of the East and West. While cowboys and samurai may seem like polar opposites, they are seen here as near-identical cultural symbols of rebellion, valour, and stoicism, as well as inaccurate caricatures from an exaggerated and glorified age. Supported by remarkable acting, stunning cinematography, and a thrilling narrative, both deserve to be remembered as vital pieces of cinema history.
BAD: Death Note (2017)
The 2003 manga Death Note is no stranger to adaptions. An anime, six live-action films, and even a musical make it one of the most widely told stories in Japan today. While the exceptionally faithful 2006 anime is the best adaption of this tale of twisted justice, all have been successful in retelling Death Note’s intricate story. That is until Netflix released their 2017 Death Note film. The most disappointing element of this American attempt is its whiplash pacing. It crams Death Note’s complex narrative and rich world-building into a mere 100 minutes. While there are plenty of other problems with the film, including cringe-worthy dialogue and forced teen-drama, these issues could have been partially resolved if it were a TV series or set of films. Why this format was ever decided upon is a mystery and a disappointment to fans everywhere.
GOOD: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
After the poorly received 1998 entry, American studios tried again in 2014 to give Japan’s famous monster the Hollywood treatment. The resulting Godzilla (2014) film was well received, although myself and others had various criticisms to offer. However, when 2019 rolled around, Legendary—the studio behind the 2014 film—released a sequel that blew us all away. Focusing on the aspects of the franchise that place Godzilla as a defender of earth rather than its attacker, this movie introduces new lore surrounding the monsters Godzilla must face and work alongside. Although it is a fresh story, there are enough nods to the original movies to keep old-school fans satisfied. As a foundational movie for an expanding franchise, aptly named the ‘Monster-verse’, this movie does a sensational job. If you are a Godzilla fan or enjoy a good monster fight, you owe it to yourself to see it.
BAD: Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Arguably the best bad adaption on this list, it’s likely that Ghost in the Shell would have become a cult classic if it weren’t for the vastly superior original series. Scarlett Johansson does a remarkable job emulating the stoic personality of Major Motoko Kusanagi, and Pilou Asbæk nailed the fan-favourite character Batou. The inclusion of revered Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano was also a creative way to pay respects to the story’s country of origin. The effects, while sometimes a little overboard, create an aesthetic true to its source that also feels original. Despite this, as a huge Ghost in the Shell fan, this 2017 rendition disappointed me by simplifying the original’s nuanced narrative into a spoon-fed, clear-cut ‘good vs. evil’ story. Gone is the moral ambiguity and complex world-building that rewarded the attentive and critical-thinking viewer of the series. It’s a film made for an audience watching Netflix while scrolling through memes on their phones. Regardless, its success indicates that this simplified format is likely to bleed into future anime remakes. Like it or not, we’d better get used to it.
GOOD: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Walking into the cinema to watch this movie, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I vaguely recalled that it was based on a Japanese comic series and that it was considered part of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre (whatever that was). I now feel lucky to have gone into this film blind. The atmosphere and story were so engrossing that I would not have wanted it any other way. This film successfully builds a bleak but intriguing world for you to lose yourself in. It’s a world filled with believable characters that you care for and devastating consequences for each action. Although I still don’t know an awful lot about the franchise’s origins, I do know that I am counting the days until the sequel is released, and I can once again immerse myself in the world of human-machine hybrids and crazy death sports.
The trend of Hollywood remakes of Japanese films and franchises is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Godzilla is finally gaining the international respect it deserves, Detective Pikachu has demonstrated a turning point for video game adaptations, and Alita is a manga adaption worthy of its predecessor. However, other offerings, like 2017’s Death Note, show that Hollywood still has a long way to go before earning true respect from devoted fans of Japanese media. Perhaps it is faithfulness to the source material or the taking of initial themes to interesting new places that lead to a successful remake. On the other hand, less favourable remakes may be frowned upon for detracting from and becoming shallow echoes of the originals. It isn’t clear what separates successful and unsuccessful adaptions. One thing is for sure, though; if Netflix ruins Cowboy Bebop next year, there will be hell to pay.
Who doesn’t appreciate sitting down to relax with a movie? At the Deakin Movie Club, we have a passion for both our studies and great movies, and we believe that enjoying the latter can help focus on the former. As the actor Warwick Davis once said, ‘There’s nothing better than going to the movies and going into another world and forgetting about everything that’s happening outside.’ Getting away from the stress of your studies, even for just an hour or two, may be just the thing you require to meet new people, rest, and re-establish focus on the pursuit of your goals here at Deakin University. With this in mind, the Deakin Movie club was established with the aim to help students interact with the greater Deakin society, encourage both participation in events and rest from studying, and create an environment where students can openly and enthusiastically discuss movies.