In cinemas this autumn, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the former star of the hit American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, appears in The Grudge, a remake of the Japanese horror film Ju-on. In it, an American student (Gellar) in Tokyo encounters the malevolent ghost of someone who died in a state of extreme anger, leaving behind a spirit "grudge". Eerie forms are seen on closed-circuit TV, and an unnerving black-haired, white-faced child loiters around the house. In both theme and technique, The Grudge is similar to another successful remake, The Ring (formerly Ringu by the Japanese director Hideo Nakata) - a movie that, as Gellar is no doubt aware, had a star-confirming effect on the career of actress Naomi Watts.
Horror is merely one facet of Japan's influence on the American movie. Andy and Larry Wachowski, the creators of the Matrix trilogy, have pointed to anime (Japanese animation) classics such as Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell as strong influences. While audiences were impatiently awaiting the release of The Matrix 2 and 3, the Wachowskis commissioned a set of nine short anime films as prequels to their trilogy's story and themes, releasing them on DVD as The Animatrix (a title that might reasonably have led some renters to expect Jessica Rabbit in leather and whips).
Anime also featured heavily in Quentin Tarantino's two- volume opus Kill Bill. For Vol 1's introductory "chapter" about O-Ren Ishii, a character played in live-action segments by Lucy Liu, Tarantino hired Oshii's Production IG animation studio to create a hyper-violent anime short, explaining Ishii's journey from murder-scarred childhood to kingpin of the Tokyo underworld. The character designs were provided by another famed animator, Katsuhito Ishii. The comic-art insert was one of many nods from Tarantino to his primary influence: Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood (1973), which features anime montage, a revenge plot, a beautiful sword-wielding female lead and over-the-top gushers of blood.
Both Kill Bill and Lady Snowblood could be categorised as samurai films - or, more specifically, as chanbara, a subcategory reliant on vengeance plots and stylised violence. "I'm really particular about the blood," Tarantino told Time Asia. "I say, 'I don't want horror movie blood, all right? I want samurai blood.' You can't pour this raspberry pancake syrup on a sword and have it look good. You have to have this special kind of blood that you only see in samurai movies."
But Kill Bill also contains elements of Japanese yakuza (gangster) films. When Tarantino was filming his previous movie, Jackie Brown, he invited Kinji Fukasaku on to the set. Fukasaku, who has since died, was the pre-eminent director of yakuza movies, having revolutionised the genre in the 1970s by rejecting the comforting myth of giri-ninjo, the underworld code of honour, in favour of character motivations based on fear and greed. His subsequent Battle series of films (beginning in 1973 with Battles Without Honour and Humanity) provided hit after hit, and before his death in 2002, Fukasaku returned to the theme with the internationally controversial Battle Royale, which depicts a desert island in the near future to which groups of high-school children are taken by a crime-obsessed government in order to slaughter each other. More recently, Tarantino has praised the work of Takashi Miike, whose Ichi the Killer (2001), itself based on a comic by Hideo Yamamoto, pushed beyond all the boundaries of taste with an extraordinarily gory depiction of a yakuza gang war.
Long before Fukasaku, Miike, Fujita and Oshii was Akira Kurosawa. His innovations - Seven Samurai (1954), for example, pioneered the use of multi- ple cameras to allow the rapid selection of varying perspectives - were widely imitated in the west. Seven Samurai itself was remade by Hollywood in the popular western The Magnifi-cent Seven (1960), but Kurosawa's legacy has not faded with time. DreamWorks is planning to remake Ikiru (To Live), a Kurosawa film admired by Steven Spielberg. According to the Hollywood magazine Variety, this will be shot by Jim (In America) Sheridan.
A 500-student film school dedicated to Kurosawa is due to open in Tokyo in 2006, and Kurosawa's eldest son, Hisao, recently told the Japan Times that a film school will be dedicated to his father in California some time next year. Kurosawa's influence has spanned the Hollywood greats - giants such as Martin Scorsese, Spielberg and George Lucas have acknowledged a debt to him.
But the example of Kurosawa also shows that influence flows in both directions. John Ford's classic westerns had a strong impact on the director, as did the detective stories of Georges Simenon (helping to inspire Kurosawa's Stray Dog of 1949), and the novels of Dostoevsky. For some of his most memorable works, Kurosawa reached even deeper into the west's literary heritage: his Throne of Blood (1957) is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, while Ran (1985) draws heavily on King Lear. As Donald Richie pointed out in his book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, the work of classic Japanese directors - Kurosawa included - was influenced by the ideal of wakon yosai ("Japanese spirit, western culture"), the slogan that guided Japanese society during its period of modernisation after the Second World War.
Japanese film continues to be influenced by the west. Oshii's Ghost in the Shell (1995) draws on cyborg/human themes raised in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). Miike and Ishii have acknowledged the influence of the director David Lynch. In 2001, Nakae Isamu remade the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr vehicle An Affair to Remember (1957) in Between Calm and Passion. According to the Tokyo-based film critic Mark Schilling, Koki Mitani shot All About Our House (2001) in homage to Billy Wilder - with a style, Schilling writes, "squarely in the Hollywood screwball tradition".
At this point, the bi-directional influences get a little surreal. "I went out to dinner with Kinji Fukasaku and Kenta [Fukasaku's son] and I was going, 'Man, I love this movie! It is just so fantastic!'," Tarantino told the Japanese film journalist Tomohiro Machiyama during a Kill Bill press junket in 2003. "And I said, 'I love the scene where the girls are shooting each other.' And then Kenta starts laughing. So I ask, 'Why are you laughing?' He goes, 'The author of the original Battle Royale novel would be very happy to hear that you liked that scene.' And I go, 'Why?' And he says, 'Well, because it's from Reservoir Dogs!'" It was as if Tarantino had looked in a mirror and found himself staring at the back of his head.
The Japanese-American hall of mirrors is enhanced by the global nature of the film industry. Tarantino-esque stylistic homages have perhaps peaked, but other links deepen. Cinematography has long been an international technical skill. Film financing draws on a global variety of sources. The Grudge, ostensibly an "American remake" is a multi-layered presentation of influences. Shot by Takashi Shimizu (who made the original Ju-on), it placed a handful of American actors in suburban Tokyo, while funding, as the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has noted, was provided by "an American studio owned by a Japanese corporation". The picture may speak English, but whose movie is it?
Ian Garrick Mason is a freelance journalist in Toronto. He also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe