Words by Guillermo De Querol
When it comes to film, the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery has become particularly cliché at this point—Hollywood isn’t necessarily shy about its habit of shamelessly stealing ideas from international artists, only to re-package them into their own, whitewashed treatments (and rarely giving credit where it’s due).
It’s also no secret that some of the most influential filmmakers of all time have been of Asian descent. For nearly a century, they’ve played a vital role in establishing new trends and pioneering techniques that would later be appropriated by American studios hungry to steal that same lightning for themselves. To honor those original storytellers, we’re here to highlight a wide-ranging assortment of Asian titles that remain in relative obscurity in the West, despite serving as inspiration for some of the most popular movies to ever grace the big screen. We firmly believe every film buff should add these to their watchlist:
1. The Hidden Fortress (1958)
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve seen bits and pieces of this Japanese film, even if you’ve never actually seen The Hidden Fortress. The 1977 sci-fi blockbuster that ripped the movie industry wide open and spawned a multi-billion-dollar franchise owes a huge debt to this samurai classic directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Set in 16th century Japan, the story follows a young warrior and a battle-tested general who escort a renegade princess across enemy lines. Does that ring any bells? To George Lucas’ credit, he’s been very open about acknowledging his influences and admiration for the Japanese master (little known fact: he even helped secure funding for one of Kurosawa’s late-career masterpieces in 1980).
2. City on Fire (1987)
For such a self-assured A-list auteur, Quentin Tarantino has always been oddly comfortable wearing his influences on his sleeve. His catalog is littered with nods to the Asian flicks he soaked up as a teenager, with the 1992 movie that jumpstarted his career pilfering the basic premise from this rip-roaring Hong Kong staple.
You don’t have to peer too close at Ringo Lam’s City on Fire to spot the similarities with Reservoir Dogs. In both instances, an undercover cop infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves and gets caught in the crossfire after a planned heist goes terribly wrong—all culminating in a climactic Mexican stand-off near an abandoned warehouse.
3. Perfect Blue (1997)
A former J-pop idol loses her grip on reality after pursuing a full-time acting career in Satoshi Kon’s disorienting thriller—a prophetic masterpiece that provided a clear-eyed statement on the toxic dynamics of celebrity culture and predicted the all-pervasive presence of social media and online fandom in the blossoming days of the Internet age.
Then-emerging director Darren Aronofsky bought the American rights for the film before lifting scenes in their entirety in both Requiem of a Dream and Black Swan—the latter of which owes everything to the foundations Kon laid out in his groundbreaking debut.
Satoshi Kon talks about how Requiem for a Dream took from Perfect Blue (1997), dir. Satoshi Kon, Madhouse— Animation Obsessive (@ani_obsessive) August 20, 2021
These remarks come from a Perfect Blue lecture series that Kon did in 2007 pic.twitter.com/6ivLsgy6SF
4. Ringu (1998)
In 1998, Hideo Nakata’s word-of-mouth hit gained a cult following overseas and helped usher in a new wave of Asian horror films on top of an English-language adaptation that tried to replicate its winning formula, albeit to varying degrees of success.
A cursed VHS tape rumored to kill any soul to lay eyes on it supplies the bedrock for this ghoulish tale, which 25 years on remains a brilliant case study in building tension and an oft-imitated cornerstone in J-horror. Without delving too much into spoilers, suffice to say that first-time viewers will never look at their TV the same again.
5. Infernal Affairs (2002)
The fates of two moles on either side of the law collide in this high-octane crime caper, a landmark in Hong Kong cinema that cemented its status as a cross-cultural phenomenon following Martin Scorsese’s award-winning adaptation, which incidentally ended up nabbing him his long-overdue Oscar.
Though it’s come to be esteemed in the West for its influence on The Departed rather than existing entirely on its own terms, Infernal Affairs endures as an expertly mounted, unpredictable actioner that never overstays its welcome. Add in a star-studded cast led by Tony Leung and a clear-eyed treatise on Hong Kong’s burgeoning identity crisis, and you have an instant classic that firmly surpasses its American counterpart.
6. Lady Snowblood (1973)
Remember Kill Bill? Any die-hard Tarantino devotee owes it to themselves to watch the Japanese grindhouse splatter-fest that the former video-store clerk ripped off wholesale circa 2003.
Uma Thurman’s iconic yellow jumpsuit may be a direct reference to Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, but it’s Lady Snowblood that wielded the strongest influence on Tarantino’s over-the-top martial arts extravaganza. Non-linear flashbacks, ultra-stylized gore, climactic duels in the snow…The most important thing you need to know about this classic touchstone is that it follows yet another sword-wielding, all-around badass heroine who hacks and slashes her way through criminals while seeking vengeance for her murdered family.
7. Yojimbo (1961)
Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars—which attained the distinction of being the spaghetti western that speed-injected Clint Eastwood into the mainstream and defined his tough-as-nails public persona for the rest of his career—is widely considered to be an unauthorized remake of Kurosawa’s beloved samurai epic.
Both films tell the story of a nameless lone drifter who wanders into a small town and outwits two feuding gangs by slyly pitting them against one another. “Signor Leone, I just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film,” wrote the Japanese director before successfully suing the Italian. Hollywood would stretch Yojimbo’s bloodline even further in The Warrior and the Sorceress and Last Man Standing.
8. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Such was the glut of world-shaking Korean thrillers to come our way precisely 20 years ago—Oldboy and Memories of Murder, to name just a few—that western audiences are only now beginning to catch up to this gem. Conjuring up Hitchcock with shades of De Palma, Kim Jee-woon’s genre re-defying masterpiece plunges viewers into the depths of family strife, leaving an unforgettable mixture of awe and dread in its wake.
Though often lumped together with the neutered U.S. remake that sprung from it, A Tale of Two Sisters is in a class of its own—creating aftershocks that are still reverberating in contemporary world horror cinema.
9. Paprika (2006)
Zeroing in on a group of psychotherapists who infiltrate people’s dreams with the help of a revolutionary device, Satoshi Kon’s mind-bending science fiction pulls off the fine balancing act of grappling with lofty ideas about the subconscious while sweeping you over with a rip-roaring blend of psychedelic imagery. It is, full stop, one of the best animated movies of all time.
The film’s striking similarities with Inception—a monolithic box-office hit that copied much of its broad strokes and visual compositions—wasn’t exactly lost on audiences. Though Christopher Nolan’s standing in the zeitgeist is as strong as it’s ever been, Paprika’s fingerprints are smeared all over his 2010 film.
10. Battle Royale (2000)
Long before The Hunger Games, Fortnite, or Squid Game had made a dent on the pop culture landscape, Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku envisioned a dystopian set-up in which a select group of teenagers are instructed to kill each other in a twisted, state-sanctioned winner-take-all competition.
At once darkly comic yet shocking in its off-hand brutality, Battle Royale let loose a firestorm of wrath upon release before being rightfully re-assessed as a furious critique of the powers-that-be with a politically trenchant subtext that still carries weight today.
Published on March 2, 2023
Words by Guillermo De Querol
Guillermo is a freelance entertainment writer based in Madrid, Spain. His writing and festival coverage has been published across various outlets, including Little White Lies, Taste of Cinema, Film Cred, and Certified Forgotten. When he’s not watching or writing about films, he’s probably talking about them on Letterboxd or Twitter. Guillermo hopes to continue to provide valuable features at JoySauce.