The exoticism of Japanese culture (and of all Asian cultures, really) has been a staple in America for a very long time. The Japanese-American relationship has a very complicated and disturbing history. From Japanese internment camps to the popularity of Geisha Halloween costumes, it’s all been shrouded in a sense of Otherness, which also happens to hold some allure. But one thing that has always been fascinating to Americans is Japanese pop culture—movies, anime, and manga are all deeply entrenched in Western nerd-culture.
In the 1990’s, it really began to slip into the mainstream with huge successes such as Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and Digimon. In the 2000’s, J-Horror (Japanese horror cinema) became all the rage, and we saw a slew of Americanized remakes such as The Ring and The Grudge. So what is the commonality? The obsession with technology, that’s what. Japanese stories are often deeply interested in asking questions about the relationships between technology and humanity. As our society becomes overwhelmed by new technologies at an increasingly rapid rate, it only makes sense that we are going to want to mirror that in our own cinemas. Japan just happened to be way ahead of the game.
Perhaps now more than ever, people are noticing that Hollywood has a secret idea-stash–anime and manga. Being inspired is by no means a bad thing, but for goodness’ sake, give credit where credit is due. Why does it seem like the Japanese-inspiration is being treated like Hollywood’s dirty little secret? Let’s expose 15 times Hollywood blatantly ripped off Japanese material.
15. Van Helsing
When Van Helsing hit theaters, it was reasonable to assume that the character was an original re-imagining of Bram Stoker’s character of the same name from the Gothic classic, Dracula. Upon a closer look though, it becomes immediately clear that this Helsing is a lot more like a certain anime character than an old man with a mad-scientist tendency. In Vampire Hunter D, D is a half-human who slays vampires (OK, Blade might have ripped this off a bit too), while sporting a bold cowboy-steampunk look. The look was obviously appropriated by Hollywood, right down to the long dark coat and big black hat. And Vampire D is no hidden treasure either. He has been the subject of dozens of novels and two big anime feature films. Ironically, in all of his iterations, Vampire D’s style has obviously been largely influenced by images of the Wild West. It seems Hollywood decided to take it back.
14. Speed Racer
Based on a 1960’s manga/anime series, Speed Racer hit theaters in 2008 starring big names including Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci and John Goodman. Written and directed by the Wachowski siblings (who already had a history of taking inspiration from Japanese pop culture), the film was a pretty big disappointment. The only real appeal was the sense of nostalgia it elicited from those who watched the anime series growing up. It opened with a tribute to its source, which is a respectable nod. Otherwise, it succeeded in being a hyper-stimulant with an obviously overblown budget. The overwhelming presence of CGI begs the question, why did Hollywood feel the need to turn this anime into a live-action film, when it so clearly worked best as it was in animation format? Speed Racer is yet another case of Hollywood not quite understanding the magic of anime.
13. Pacific Rim
Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham cite Gigantor (an American cartoon based on the manga and anime, Tetsujin 28-go) as an influence on their 2013 blockbuster, Pacific Rim. Conveniently though, they deny having ever seen Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime most fans can attest to as being the stronger source material. Neon Genesis Evangelion can be credited with reviving the 1990’s anime scene after a short slump. It was a huge success, and Pacific Rim seems to have quietly helped itself to a number of plot points. The most obvious is the basic premise that nations have to band together to defeat a giant creature. Then there’s the detail about the robot pilots having a neural link to their rigs. Nonetheless, Pacific Rim borrowed from Japanese pop culture (likely from several sources) to create something American audiences would drool over. Action, adventure, and thrills kept audiences enthralled and wanting more. A highly anticipated sequel is expected in 2018.
Originally a Japanese book, and then an anime film, Paprika is set upon the premise of dream technology, which is being misused to trespass into patients’ minds during dream therapy. Sounds familiar? Though Inception has been heralded for its uniqueness, Christopher Nolan has been open about using Paprika as inspiration for his 2010 film. Though it did not hit the mind-bending depths of its predecessor, Inception still managed to pleasantly baffle audiences everywhere and take home a ton of awards. However, if you saw Paprika first, you may be distracted by the many similarities. And since originals tend to be more special to people, you may find that Inception doesn’t hold a candle to the 2006 anime film. Paprika has its own notoriety. It was huge in Japan and has an international cult following. Time magazine has even named it one of the 25 best animated films of all time.
11. The Hunger Games
Before The Hunger Games hit theaters, the internet blew up with debates about whether or not author Suzanne Collins had ripped off the Japanese book and its film adaptation, Battle Royale. Hunger Games critics and fans alike were passionate on both ends of the argument. As for Collins, she says she had not heard of Battle Royale before penning her own story. She admits it was mentioned to her after she handed in her manuscript, and that she asked her editor if she should read it. However, her editor suggested not putting that world in her head, and continuing her own original work instead. The similarities are difficult to ignore, with the future setting and the children being dumped on an island for a fight to the death. However, many defenders of Collins are quick to note that hers is a story of revolt, not survival, as is Battle Royale. On the topic of inspiration, Collins claims reality TV and the Iraq war fused together for her story.
Despite wild aesthetic differences between Her and the anime Chobits, some anime fans have felt strongly that Her is a case of blatant theft. Both stories feature socially awkward male leads who fall in love with non-human women who eventually achieve transcendence. So, thematically, they are undeniably similar. Furthermore, some conversations in Her about human relationships with machines also mirror conversations in Chobits. It’s difficult to look past that, even when you factor in the fundamental difference. In Chobits, the love interest is an AI and is therefore able to interact with Hideki. However, in Her, Theodore develops a “relationship” with a disembodied voice, which allows him to act out his own desires to mimic intimacy. The film was a major critical success, and how much of that Jonze owes to Chobits is unclear as he has never claimed it as an inspiration for his own work.
Disney is obviously no stranger to ripping people off, but when it comes to Japanese inspirations, they just can’t get enough and seems as though they really don’t want you to know it. When it comes to Frozen, it does seem that Disney’s claim of having re-imagined The Snow Queen is less likely than having ripped off an anime, Saint Seiya. Let’s see. One sister, the older one, has supernatural ice powers and though she is kind, she ends up taking a turn for the worse. The other sister, the younger one, has no powers but is determined to save her sister and her kingdom. By the way, that’s a description of Saint Seiya, not Frozen. There’s undoubtedly a fundamental similarity between the two stories, and when Frozen opened in Japan, viewers took to Twitter to point it out. Given Disney’s reputation, it’s easy to assume they know exactly what they are doing. But they do it so well. Frozen is a mega-hit, rip-off or not.
8. The Matrix
Before the recent Ghost in the Shell controversy, the anime had already been liberally borrowed from for the Wachowski siblings’ sci-fi game-changer, The Matrix. Though the film is not technically a remake, the siblings were never shy about discussing the similarities between the films, and their intention to bring Ghost in the Shell into a live-action sphere. They are in fact said to have pitched The Matrix to producers by showing them Ghost in the Shell. Moreover, the special features of the film have them pointing out the borrowings. Later on, they went on to create The Animatrix, bringing their film back to its anime roots. With the success of The Matrix, a timeless classic that pays extensive homage to Ghost in the Shell, one really has to wonder why Hollywood needed to do it again…this time, with Scarlett Johansson. In any event, the Wachowskis are clearly huge fans of anime and manga, and they created their film out of love, not malice.
7. Dark City And Looper
In the fall of 2016, Akira got its third UK theatrical release, and revisiting the masterful anime film got a lot of people talking about the many ways it has inspired filmmakers over the years. The 1988 classic is probably the most influential piece of work from its generation, and most are happy to admit that it inspired them. Dark City director, Alex Proyas, has even referred to his film as a homage to Akira. That being said, some of the imagery is a little too close for comfort, and the word ‘homage’ seems sugarcoated. The cyberpunk benchmark was also openly and heavily borrowed from for Looper.
Perhaps most notable are the similarities between the characters Cid and Tetsuo. Director Rian Johnson said, “You can see the range of stuff I drew from, from Terminator to Akira.” In the circle that is Japanese/American referent material, Dark City itself went on to inspire The Matrix alongside the anime Ghost in the Shell.
6. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Yet another Disney controversy, this time it’s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire. As is their usual platform, Disney denies any wrongdoing, and claims to have not heard of the popular Japanese anime with which their film shares an alarming number of similarities. The basic premise of Nadia: Secret of Blue Water follows a young boy and his unlikely female friend as they go on a submarine adventure and find the secret world of Atlantis, at the center of which lies a dangerous, shiny, power source. That should sound incredibly familiar to you, because it’s also the premise of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. But wait, the “coincidences” continue. Other shared details include the male protagonist’s big round glasses to the female lead’s jewel necklace which turns out to be connected to the Atlantean power source. Not to mention a host of other mirrored characters, like the second-in-command and the doctor. Disney claims their inspiration came from a Jules Verne novel, which is the same author who wrote the book that inspired Nadia. How convenient.
5. Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky backed himself into a corner when he claimed that there were no connections between his film Black Swan and the anime film, Perfect Blue. It later came to light that he had in fact purchased the rights to remake Perfect Blue, all the way back in 2000. Aronofsky’s interest in remaking the film comes through clear as day in Black Swan, so it’s unclear why it wasn’t billed that way. Both films center on a young woman whose stardom is up-and-coming, but slowly drives her insane. From seeing double, to increasing paranoia, and murder–the films parallel each other too closely to be a coincidence. In fact, many of the visuals are strikingly similar. To be clear, Aronofsky claims Perfect Blue only inspired his treatment of Jennifer Connolly’s character in Requiem for a Dream. So what happened? Maybe Aronofsky bought the Perfect Blue rights, forgot all about them, and then just happened to re-imagine the entire film. It could happen to anyone, really.
Leaping technological bounds made Avatar a cinematic masterpiece, but people remain unconvinced that it’s an achievement in storytelling. Really, it’s narrative fell relatively flat based on the fact that it was full of plots and ideas we had all seen and heard before. Ferngully meets Pocahontas, right? Been there, seen that. What some viewers didn’t realize was that the real film being ripped off just might have been the anime film, Princess Mononoke. The film is a critical examination of the relationship between humans and nature, and the environment, delivering a thought-provoking experience. Princess Mononoke was one of the first anime films to gain international attention and featured some key aspects you may recall from Avatar. For example, the escape into a wilderness society, falling for a different and strong heroine, and choosing to fight the status quo that humans are destroying the land for precious metals. In truth, the film is a jumble of reiterations from many sources, with some really cool special effects.
Transcendence did not fair well with critics who called it out on its inconsistencies and plot holes. It’s really unfortunate too, because the concept itself is very intriguing–a man who uploads his consciousness to a computer so he can effectively live forever. If you wanted Transcendence to be better than it was, fear not, it was over a decade earlier in Japan. The anime film Serial Experiments Lain explored all the same themes and plot lines in a much more comprehensible way. There are some key differences, like the main character being a young woman rather than a male AI researcher. But ultimately, everything you wanted from Transcendence, thematically, is there in Lain. Perhaps the most frustrating part of Transcendence is that it seems to have taken so much from Lain but then did it worse. The lesson here is if you’re going to steal, make it worth it.
2. Ghost In The Shell
Ghost in the Shell, a live-action big studio picture based on the beloved long-running manga/anime series, was trouble right from the start. When news hit that Scarlett Johansson had been given the leading role of Motoko Kusanagi, controversy hit. This casting choice was not only confusing, but offensive, which was immediately pointed out by many activists and fans of the original series. Hollywood was attempting to blatantly Whitewash a Japanese classic legacy before it even hit theaters. But Ghost of the Shell is just the latest in a very long story of Hollywood’s problem of representation. Moreover, it is also the latest in another equally problematic story, a product of Hollywood’s eagerness to rip off Japanese pop culture, as demonstrated in this list. But at least the movie is great, right? Wrong. Despite the striking visuals, the film has been accused of lacking depth, and of not understanding its source material. Ghost in the Shell quickly became a ghost in the cinema.
1. The Lion King
“We are all connected in the great circle of life,” so we should definitely be allowed to steal each other’s ideas. Or so, says Disney. Okay, to be fair, Disney has always vehemently denied that The Lion King was made under any influence from Kimba the White Lion. But no one really believes that to be true. Here’s why. In the 1960’s, a Japanese cartoon syndicated for the US was developed, based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka. That cartoon was Kimba the White Lion. When Disney put out its first fully original picture, not based on well-known fairytales, it turned out to be indeed based on something–Kimba. Right down to the name (Kimba, no wait, Simba), and other characters like the baboon, hyenas, and the young lioness with whom Simba (no wait, Kimba) falls in love. Through all of the denial, there was one honest slip by Simba’s voice-actor, Matthew Broderick. He admits that at first he thought the role was for Kimba, who he remembered from the cartoons. Nice try Disney, we’re on to you.