Chad Stahelski, the John Wick director tasked by Sony with turning hit samurai game Ghost of Tsushima into a movie, has said that he wants to make the film in Japanese, with a cast of Japanese actors. And he noted that Sony is “on board” with the move.
“So, I think if we did this right, it would be visually stunning,” Stahelski said. “It’s character driven. It’s got an opportunity for great action, great looks. And honestly, we’d to try to do it, all in character. Meaning, it’s a Japanese thing about the Mongols invading Tsushima island. A complete Japanese cast, in Japanese. Sony is so on board with backing us on that. I’ve been going to Japan since I was 16. I have a love of the country, love of the people, love of the language.”
On the face of it, this is a bold move. Although Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and Netflix’s Squid Game have shown that audiences’ willingness to watch subtitled films and TV is growing in the U.S. and elsewhere, it would still be new — and financially risky — territory for a Hollywood-made action blockbuster to be filmed in anything other than the English language.
Stahelski acknowledged this and appeared to suggest the decision would limit the budget available to the movie, but that this was something he was happy to work around.
“No one is going to give me $200 million to do a technology-push movie without speaking English. I get it,” he said. “So, I have to be clever and I have to figure out what’s fiduciarily responsible to the property, to the studio and still get what I want out of it and still make it something epic. […] And I think America in general, or at least the Western audiences in general are getting more and more used to that because of the influence of Netflix and streamers and stuff, where we get so much more of world content.”
From one angle, this is something of a gamble for Stahelski, Sony Pictures, and PlayStation Productions, the arm of the company dedicated to turning PlayStation games into movies (which, in the wake of the success of the Uncharted movie, also has a Gran Turismo film due in 2023). But from another, it is perhaps the only option available to them. Times have changed since the likes of the 2003 film The Last Samurai, which starred Tom Cruise. Making the Ghost of Tsushima film in English, or with Western actors, would likely bring accusations of inauthenticity, cultural appropriation, and whitewashing.
Indeed, some of these criticisms were leveled at the game, which was made in deference to the classic samurai movies of Akira Kurosawa, but by a majority white staff in the Bellevue, Washington offices of developer Sucker Punch Productions. Ghost of Tsushima has both English and Japanese language audio tracks available, as well as a black-and-white “Kurosawa Mode.” But it is fair to say that the game shows only a surface understanding of the cultural and political significance of samurai.
How deeply to explore these themes in a movie with “great action, great looks” is a question the Massachusetts-born Stahelski — who says Kurosawa is “in the top five biggest influences of my life as far as film goes” — will need to grapple with. But in committing to making the film in Japanese, he’s cleared the first hurdle.