Asian remakes are neither new nor scarce in Hollywood. In fact, you’ve probably seen a Hollywood remake of an Asian film without knowing it was a remake. Remember “The Departed,” the four-time Oscar-winning crime film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson? It’s actually a spin on the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs.” Or how about the 2014 sci-fi hit “Edge of Tomorrow” with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt? It’s based on a popular Japanese novel, “All You Need Is Kill,” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.
While you could argue that “The Departed” and “Edge of Tomorrow” are two successful remakes that have seen domestic and international success, the majority of other Asian remakes have not been so lucky (let’s not start with the 2009 disaster that was “Dragonball: Evolution”). So what’s with Hollywood’s obsession with Asian remakes—and why do they, more often than not, fall flat?
Here’s a brief history: In the 1950s and 1960s, the only popular Asian remakes were spaghetti western versions of Akira Kurosawa’s work. Then, in the ’90s, there came a never-ending onslaught of poorly done remakes of Japanese and Korean horror films.
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It wasn’t until the early 2000s that we started seeing a steadier influx of Asian remakes across film genres. Major studios have even bought copyrights to numerous Asian novels, comics, anime series, and TV dramas, with an eye on turning them into feature films.
Along with “Ghost in the Shell”—a remake scheduled for 2017 that’s recently been criticized for having Scarlett Johansson play an Asian lead—other manga- and anime-based remakes that Hollywood is eyeing include “Death Note,” “Akira,” “Robotech,” and “Bleach,” just to name a few.
It seems like the internet has played a role in Hollywood’s sudden and keen interest in Asian entertainment. It’s a difference of access. Thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll, Korean dramas and Japanese anime have a far larger audience compared to just a decade ago—and an audience that doesn’t rely on millions of investment dollars. That means the marketability and audience for these Asian series are already established, and on a global scale at that.
The problem is that most Asian remakes don’t receive the justice they deserve. They’re often so drastically altered or are simply such poor imitations of their originals that the cultural and thematic tropes—what make the stories so complex and appealing in the first place—are left out. All the significant Asian roots are erased.
Again, this is nothing new. Kurosawa critiqued Sergio Leone’s 1964 remake “A Fistful of Dollars” for its blatant omission of many Jidaigeki film elements that the original “Yojimbo” had embodied—most notably the Jidaigeki samurai code of honor and the presence of a noble Japanese social hierarchy. Even Andrew Lau, director of “Infernal Affairs,” expressed dissatisfaction with the American remake of his own film, despite its box office earnings. He felt that “The Departed” was too Americanized.
These two directors express what many Asians and Asian Americans have been saying for years—and what the recent “Ghost in the Shell” controversy is really bringing to light: the remakes aren’t ever as good because they tend to whitewash the entire film.
And, despite most of these films flopping, there’s no indication that Hollywood has a real interest in more culturally sensitive casting and playwriting. (Another example from last fall: Most “Death Note” fans were outraged to hear that Caucasian actor Nat Wolff would be portraying the Japanese protagonist Light Yagami in the American remake.)
If Hollywood is going to remake immensely popular Asian stories, they must put in more effort to maintain the stories’ cultural roots—especially at a time when the audience has grown to be global—or else be haunted by the never-ending echo of “the original was better.”