Lights, Camera, Japan! Locations That Inspired Films


Japan's most famous director: Akira Kurosawa

Japan is no stranger to the world of cinema. The country's first movie theater opened in Asakusa, Tokyo in 1903 and Japanese films like Seven Samurai and Rashomon have gained international fame. But as much film as the country has produced, it has also been the subject of plenty of foreign films. In no particular order, here's a list of sites in Japan connected to famous American movies:
1) The Last Samurai - Kagoshima City. The Last Samurai is heavily fictionalized and romanticized, but the story is clearly influenced by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion. Led by ex-Imperial general Saigo Takamori, the Satsuma Rebellion was a reaction by the samurai of southern Kyushu against political reforms that stripped the samurai class of their traditional privileges and what they saw as the excessive Westernization of Japan. After several defeats at the hand of the government army the rebels were driven back to the hills near Saigo's hometown of Kagoshima, where he and rest of the last diehard holdouts famously charged to their deaths wielding only their swords (admittedly because they had run out of ammunition for their guns). Despite being a rebel Saigo Takamori is still a national hero in Japan, as he is seen as acting solely out of loyalty to the Emperor and concern for the good of the country- something like a Japanese Robert E. Lee. The city of Kagoshima maintains Saigo Takamori's grave and a museum dedicated to the Meiji Era that he helped bring about.
2) Lost In Translation Shinjuku Park Tower. Lost In Translation features locations all over Tokyo from the Rainbow Bridge to Shibuya Crossing, but the most prominent location is the Park Hyatt Hotel located in floors 39-52 of Shinjuku Park Tower. There's an amusing geography error in the opening scene of the film where Bill Murray's taxi is shown driving east from Shinjuku Station on Route 4 past the famous neon lights of Kabukicho, then proceeding to drop him off at the hotel. The catch? Shinjuku Park Tower is west of Shinjuku Station.  Of course, if this luxury hotel is as far out of your price range as it is out of mine, there's always Karaoke-Kan in Shibuya, where they filmed the karaoke scene in the middle of the movie.
3) Kill Bill - Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu restaurant, Tokyo. This Roppongi restaurant is famous for inspiring one of the major scenes of Kill Bill. Go for lunch here, the dinner menu is noticeably more expensive. The restaurant tries very hard create an old Edo feel, which may come across as trying too hard, but I personally liked it. The place caters to tourists, for better or worse, so at least you won't be the first foreigner the staff has ever seen. Also, your food will probably be out to you in less time than one of Quentin Tarantino's dialogue scenes takes. Remember that it's OK to call to your waiter to get their attention, I sat around for a while waiting for them to come to me as in an American restaurant, but apparently Japanese waiters expect you to signal to them first.
4) Mr. Baseball - Nagoya Stadium. This 1992 sports comedy may no longer be a famous American movie, but it gives me the chance to talk about Japanese baseball, so here we go. In 1997 the Chunichi Dragons moved across town from Nagoya Stadium to Nagoya Dome, so you'll have to go there if you actually want to see a top-level professional baseball game (Nagoya Stadium was renovated in 2010 and is still in use by the Dragon's minor league team). Interestingly, the Stadium is known for being easy on batters, while the Dome has a reputation of favoring pitchers, so Tom Selleck's character may have had a lot more trouble hitting home runs if the movie had been made just a few years later. The movie plays a lot of things up for laughs, but it's surprisingly accurate overall. Robert Whiting's book You Gotta Have Wa is the go-to source for more info on Japanese baseball.
5) Silence - Nagasaki (Prefecture and City). Poor Nagasaki, it used to only be famous for the atomic bombing, now due Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Japanese writer Endo Shusaku's critically-acclaimed novel it's also famous for brutal religious persecution. Lovely city, can't catch a break in the PR department. The entire prefecture is covered with sites connected to the history of Christianity in Japan, such as St. Francis Xavier church on the island of Hirado, to the ruins of Hara Castle on the Shimabara Peninsula where Amakusa Shiro made his last stand. Any sites predating the 1860's were destroyed by the Tokugawa persecution, but not far from Nagasaki Train Station is the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, which houses several early Japanese Christian artifacts that survived despite government surveillance. If you want to learn more of the story behind the film and novel, that should be your first stop.
6) Memoirs of a Geisha - Gion, Kyoto. This film does take flak for inaccuracy (there's one right in the title, in Kyoto dialect a geisha is referred to as a geiko) but if you ever wanted the real story, just head to the Gion district of Kyoto on the city's east side. At the request of several American scholars, Kyoto was spared from US Air Force bombing during WWII due to its historical value, meaning many of the city's traditional wooden tea houses and townhouses are still intact and Gion still has a very medieval feel. Actually seeing a Geiko performance can be tricky, as they tend to work solely with the highly secretive and exclusive Kyoto tea houses (Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was famously denied entrance) but the Gion Corner theater has regular shows where you can see Maiko (Geiko-in-training) perform several of their traditional arts and even be allowed to take pictures with them. Note to future Kyoto tourists, stopping or bothering a Geiko or Maiko in the streets of Gion is prohibited and considered incredibly rude, so just let the girls be.

Hayden Murphy