Photo credit: Elena Rose Photography
What do Star Wars, Kill Bill, The Matrix, Pacific Rim
, and Big Hero 6
— several of my all-time favorite films — have in common?
They are examples of internationally successful American story franchises that owe their originality, sense of fun, and straight-up awesomeness to something very particular: a deliberate, imaginative, and ultimately loving blend of Western and Eastern story elements.
Take Star Wars
, for instance. In the 1960s, a young George Lucas was strongly influenced by the films of that titan of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa himself was a fan of Western literature and movies, and directed remakes of Macbeth
(Throne of Blood
) and King Lear
), but embedded them in Japanese history and culture. One of Kurosawa’s films, The Hidden Fortress
, is the story of “two arguing peasants who help an outlaw princess and a samurai mentor escape the clutches of enemy imperial forces.”1
Sound familiar? Lucas’s interest in Buddhist philosophy underpins the entire concept of the Force, and the word “jedi” comes from the Japanese word “jidaigeki” — which refers to period dramas featuring samurai — an homage to the very source of Lucas’s inspiration. In fact, it’s not too difficult to argue that Star Wars
is a wuxia-style martial arts epic reimagined as a space opera.2
As a kid who was a science fiction fan, an Asian American, a film buff, and a martial artist, Star Wars
hit all my buttons — and those of millions of other people around the world, for several decades and more to come.
More recently, Quentin Tarantino, that master of cinematic remixing, formed Kill Bill
from elements of “grindhouse cinema” — a mix of Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks, samurai movies, blaxploitation films, and spaghetti westerns. The story of Kill Bill
bears overwhelming resemblance to the Japanese film Lady Snowblood
The anime Ghost in the Shell
inspired the Wachowskis to make The Matrix
.4 Pacific Rim
is Guillermo del Toro’s entry into the Japanese monster movie genre,5
and Big Hero 6
is Disney’s heartwarmingly successful blend of American and Japanese animation traditions, in a story that takes place in San Fransokyo.
These stories were written by North Americans who were heavily influenced by Asian artists and stories. They melded Eastern ideas, traditions, and aesthetic sensibilities into their own Western-dominant narratives to create fresh, exciting, and joyful work. With America and China being the two largest cinema markets in the world today, and the increasingly global and Internet-connected nature of our cultural conversations, the creation of and appetite for films, books, shows, comics, and other art that speak to both Western and Eastern audiences will only increase.
It’s vital to recognize that there is a sometimes subtle but important difference between borrowing another culture’s traditions or customs for garish exploitation, and the potentially wonderful creative fruits of genuine cross-cultural inspiration.
As an author and an Asian American, I rejoice at this. I’ve always sought out and reveled in stories that spring from the energy of cultural cross-pollination, that reflect the diversity of my own artistic influences. I had a vision in mind — a vibrant, compelling, shameless blend of East and West — from the moment I began writing my novel Jade City
. Before Orbit acquired the fantasy series, I wondered, in those moments of doubt so endemic to the creative process, if the book had any commercial value, or if I was writing it purely to satisfy my own desire to mash together ideas I desperately wanted to see mashed together. (Answer: yes and yes.)
I have long had a fondness for mafia stories: The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Scarface
, but most of all, The Godfather
— Puzo and Coppola’s masterwork story of family and Family. But gangster films abound in Asia as well: I consumed Triad action flicks like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow
and Hard Boiled
, Johnnie To’s Election
, and Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza series Battles Without Honor and Humanity
. Along with crime dramas from both sides of the Pacific, I drew upon all the kung fu movies and epic fantasy novels I’ve loved, and the result is a gangster fantasy saga with magical jade and family tragedy, set a fictional city of vicious street fights and politics. A heady blend of East and West that I’ve always wanted to bring to life on paper.
Amid today’s concerns over cultural appropriation, it’s vital to recognize that there is a sometimes subtle but important difference between borrowing another culture’s traditions or customs for garish exploitation, and the potentially wonderful creative fruits of genuine cross-cultural inspiration. I believe a savvy audience can tell the difference by asking themselves: Is this cultural element being copied outright to convey a sense of “otherness” or exoticism? Or has it been respectfully, lovingly, incorporated into the artist’s unique vision, to create something exciting that stands wholly on its own? It would be a terrible shame, not to mention a colossal lack of imagination, if attempts to dissuade the former ever stop us from recognizing and celebrating the latter. Because I want my jedi and my kaiju. And I have more books to write, too.
1 “Origins of the Jedi (and Other Star Wars Stuff),” Today I Found Out, September 30, 2014.
2 Pedro Olavarria, “Why Star Wars Is Actually A Martial Arts Flick,” Fightland, January 29, 2015.
3 Steve Rose, “Found: Where Tarantino Gets His Ideas,” The Guardian, April 6, 2004.
4 Steve Rose, “Hollywood is Haunted by Ghost In the Shell,” The Guardian, October 19, 2009.
5 “Guillermo del Toro, On Monsters and Meaning.” All Things Considered, produced by NPR, interview, July 12, 2013.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the award-winning author of the YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer
. Born and raised in Canada, Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado who now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Jade City
is her adult debut.