Later on, when I was in high school, I saw old black and white movies by the late, famed director, Kurosawa Akira. Kurosawa made such classics as Shichi-nin no Samurai (The Seven Samurai), Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) and Sanjuro (the name of the main character), all of which were then re-made as westerns. The Magnificent Seven was a Hollywood hit, and Yojimbo and Sanjuro became the Italian westerns, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, starring Clint Eastwood. But it was those Samurai films from the 50s and 60s that really developed my interest in Japan.
Another of Kurosawa’s films, Hidden Fortress, was one of the influences on George Lucas when he set out to make Star Wars. Kurosawa, and Japan, had well and truly caught Hollywood’s attention. Encouraged by George Lucas, and in conjunction with 20th Century Fox, Kurosawa Akira made the film Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior), and later he filmed Ran (based on King Lear), with both films winning numerous awards.
Japan has been under Hollywood’s gaze since the 1950s, with the movie Sayonara (1957), starring Marlon Brando. James Bond visited the country in 1967 with You Only Live Twice. The movie about the bombing of Pearl Harbor titled, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” came out in 1970, and was remade in 2001, although I preferred the original.
I really enjoyed The Yakuza (1975), starring Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura, the first movie that got me thinking about the Japanese mafia. But it was Shogun (1980) that really captured my imagination, based on the superb novel by James Clavell. More lighthearted but still fun to watch was The Karate Kid, which came out in 1986. Black Rain (1989) starring Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, with Ken Takakura once again, was one of my favorite movies at the time, revisiting the theme of the Japanese Yakuza, and making me want to explore that theme in more depth at a later stage.
Mr Baseball (1992), a cultural comedy starring Tom Selleck, with Ken Takakura making an appearance once more as his Japanese coach, appealed to a different subset of Americans with its focus on baseball rather than crime, war or martial arts. 2003 was the year that Hollywood really stood up and took notice of Japan, with three distinctly different movies all coming out in the same year: Kill Bill vol.1, The Last Samurai (my favorite movie set in Japan so far) with Tom Cruise and Watanabe Ken, and the sad but humorous Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Following those were Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). Steven Spielberg reignited interest in Japan again with his TV series, The Pacific. Just recently released was The Wolverine, set in Nagasaki.
Many great movies about Japan are based on even greater novels and screenplays, and the book industry has also turned its eye in recent years to the Land of the Rising Sun. I fondly remember reading James Clavell’s Shogun after seeing the film, and enjoying it even more than the movie itself. I read Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, before seeing the movie, and was quite impressed by the film adaption.
Some of the best novels about Japan are by Japanese authors of course, such as Natsume Soseki, Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, and Takashi Matsuoka, to name just a few. In addition to books by Japanese writers, I am a huge fan of Barry Eisler, and his ‘John Rain’ novels, mostly set in Japan. One of these books has already been made into a movie, starring Gary Oldman and Shinna Kippei.
Another fine series of novels, with a focus on feudal Japan, are the Tales of the Otori series, written by Gillian Rubinstein, under the pseudonym, Lian Hearn. Benjamin Martin, an American author living in Okinawa, Japan, is currently penning a new and exciting series of books with a samurai/fantasy theme for young adults, Samurai Awakening.
Barry Lancet has just released a thriller called Japantown, which I haven’t been able to put down. It’s a crime thriller set in ‘Japantown’, San Francisco, and Tokyo, Japan.
2014 will see the release of my own debut novel, Gold of the Rising Sun, based in Osaka and Okinawa. It is an action/crime thriller about a young American English teacher, Joshua Hawke, working in Osaka. Joshua, through no fault of his own, becomes inadvertently involved with the Yakuza. To make matters worse, he finds himself being hounded by FBI agents, who are in Japan investigating human trafficking and drug smuggling between Osaka and California. After things turn deadly, Joshua finds himself on the run, and he flees to Okinawa with his Japanese girlfriend, where a most amazing discovery is unearthed. But will it save his life? You can see more teasers and find out more about my novel by clinking on the link below.
With so many excellent movies and books about Japan in circulation, more and more authors and moviemakers are thinking about Japan for their next project. Japan is a very popular market. Even when Hollywood blockbusters are based elsewhere, many movie stars still come to Japan to promote their films. Considering that Japan has also recently won the rights to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, it appears that once again Japan is firmly in the spotlight. This is wonderful timing for anybody who is writing a novel based in Japan to try and get his or her book published, or perhaps to sell a screenplay to Hollywood. At least I’m hoping that’s the case. Wish me luck!
Enjoy your week. Warmest regards,
© Chris Ryall 2013