The recent Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow looks and feels like an anime—partly because it is based on an actual Japanese manga property (albeit one that has so far not been given the animated treatment). And we can speculate that a bunch of other Hollywood movies not credited as being based on any specific anime actually were.
While hyper-real fantasy pictures like Real Steel and Sucker Punch borrow the semiotics/visual vocabulary of Japanese animation, there are some films that lift whole storylines or shots from pretty famous properties developed by our neighbors in the east. Sometimes the filmmakers cop to it, sometimes they don't—but here are ten examples of movies inspired by anime to get you thinking.
1. The Lion King (1994)
Influence: Kimba the White Lion
In the early '90s, the VHS revolution was in full swing, but the internet was in its infancy—it would be a few more years before many people would be talking smack on message boards. So unless you were trading bootlegs at a convention, you were mostly ignorant of animation from other parts of the globe—which is probably what Disney was counting on when they totally ganked elements of The Lion King from Kimba the White Lion wholesale. Created by Osamu Tezuka as a manga in the 1950s, then broadcast as an animated series in the mid-1960s (including syndication in the U.S.!), the similarities to Disney's 1994 feature-film blockbuster go as far as exact shots (Mufasa on Pride Rock, his ghost appearing to Simba in the sky) to identical characters and story elements. In fact, Lion King star Matthew Broderick thought he was initially working on a version of Kimba.
2. The Matrix (1999)
Influence: Ghost in the Shell
Unlike filmmakers who are sheepish to discuss their influences, Lana and Andy Wachowski could not have been more direct: They pitched The Matrix to producer Joel Silver by showing him 1995's cyberpunk actioner Ghost in the Shell, saying "We want to do that in live-action." And indeed they did! From the green digital typography used to descend into the virtual world to jacking-in through ports in the back of a person's neck, the Wachowskis borrowed lovingly from Mamoru Oshii's Ghost as well as the overall cinematic speed-ramping language of anime. They even wore their thievery proudly with side-by-side comparisons on the making-of features! Talk about owning it. Oshii himself became tired of discussing the comparison, stating, "It is an entertaining movie, but I prefer their debut, Bound."
But the directors weren't done with anime: The 2003 direct-to-video feature The Animatrix saw the Wachowskis utilizing some of Japan's finest directors (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Mahiro Maeda) to take The Matrix franchise back to its anime roots. Then they went on to 2008's Speed Racer, the closest anyone’s come to approximating the actual psychedelic flourish of anime in live-action… for better or worse.
3. Van Helsing (2004)
Influence: Vampire Hunter D
This one really only goes so far as an iconic costume. The movie finds Hugh Jackman playing the eponymous vampire hunter who originally appeared in Bram Stoker's Dracula—only in that story, Abraham Van Helsing was an old, half-mad doctor. Here, he's a hunky stud vigilante who turns out to be the earthly incarnation of angel Gabriel. Van Helsing's signature Johnny Cash-style black duds and wide-brimmed hat also happen to be style of choice for a certain Vampire Hunter D, the bloodsucker slayer immortalized in dozens of novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi and two classic anime features that rely heavily on western motifs. Its concept of a "dhampir" (half vampire/half human vampire hunter) was also borrowed for the Blade movies.
4. Avatar (2009)
20th Century Fox / Toho
Influence: Princess Mononoke
When anything becomes successful, people tend to come out of the woodwork to claim it was stolen from this or that—especially when you're the most successful thing ever projected onto a plethora of large screens. Such was the case with James Cameron's Avatar, which was a target even before it hit theaters. There were charges of Ferngully-this and Pocahontas-that, but the spirit that the director's "Dances With Wolves-in-space" was really channeling was Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. It was the first anime feature to really gain worldwide box office traction, and featured many of Miyazaki's signature motifs, including environmental degradation, malevolent black goo, and a strong female heroine. Those are also signatures of James Cameron (well, maybe not the black goo), but both feature a human interloper entering a wilderness society, being "chosen" by the elements, falling in love with a warrior chick and ultimately fighting against the human oppressors who want to mine a metal out of the ground.
5. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan acknowledged that Satoshi Kon's colorful 2006 fantasia Paprika was a source of inspiration for him, in that both stories involve an electronic device that allows an outsider to access and affect a person's dreams. Of course, like The Matrix, Inception’s influences are myriad—from Total Recall to James Bond to Philip K. Dick's Ubik—though the most striking thing you can say when you put the two films side-by-side is how vastly better Paprika is, in the sense that it truly revels in dreams as a mental plane where anything the subconscious can muster will happen. Wolfgang Peterson (The Perfect Storm) announced he was working on a live-action version of Paprika just before Inception came out, and it's not hard to believe that Nolan's movie might have stolen his thunder considering we haven't heard a peep in four years.
6. Black Swan (2010)
Influence: Perfect Blue
Another masterpiece by Satoshi Kon was given the (informal) Hollywood treatment in 2010 in the form of Academy Award-winning psychodrama Black Swan, which took both specific shots and story details from Perfect Blue. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky had previously used several frames from this 1997 animated film for scenes with Jennifer Connelly in Requiem For a Dream, going so far as to buy the rights from Kon. When touting his ballet drama Swan during awards season, he acknowledged similarities—a talented young woman with a tenuous grasp on reality alienates her friends and overbearing mother in order to achieve fame, all while being tormented by a doppelganger who appears in reflections—but insisted he did not draw any inspiration from it.
7. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010)
Universal Pictures / Shueisha
Yes, director Edgar Wright was looking to the world of video games and martial arts movies as the primary ingredients in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. However, being that the original comic book's creator Bryan Lee O'Malley was deliberately aping the style and formatting of Japanese manga, the whole thing has anime in its DNA. The film pulls liberally from the old 8-bit Street Fighter and Mario Bros. games, but during the final boss confrontation with Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) the baddie uses hand signs straight from popular manga/anime Naruto to summon his deadly digitized sword.
8. Looper (2012)
TriStar Pictures / Toho
Arguably the most revered anime feature of all-time, Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 breakthrough Akira was a cyberpunk landmark that took sensory overload to new heights. Rian Johnson's Looper is a clever pastiche of sci-fi tropes—particularly The Terminator—and tells the tale of a young buck (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who murders people sent back in time by the mob, and what happens when he fails to kill his future self (Bruce Willis). Besides the time travel element, you also have a kid named Cid whose psychokinetic abilities will eventually turn him into a monster, something that also plays heavily into the Tetsuo character in Akira. The futuristic setting is much less Blade Runner and more Detroit ten years from now, but Johnson freely admits to cribbing from not only Akira but also Otomo's other manga work in the uncontrolled-id genre, Domu.
9. Pacific Rim (2013)
Influence: Neon Genesis Evangelion/Mobile Suit Gundam/Patlabor/etc
If Japan were to have a pop culture ambassador to the United Nations, it would be a giant robot. Since the dawn of Astro Boy and Gigantor, their culture has literally been stupid with big mechanical marvels, whether they're duking it out with Godzilla or transforming into a boombox. It's fair to say Japanimation has ripped itself off so many times it would be impossible to pinpoint one influence on Guillermo del Toro's mech-vs.-monster epic Pacific Rim. Besides the obvious "nations banding together to defeat giant creatures with big robot defenders" angle, popular anime series Evangelion has the drivers of said robots given a neural link to their rigs. Rim doubled up on this concept by having two drivers telepathically connected and sharing memories, but the influence is there. Both del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham have denied watching Evangelion, but do cite Gigantor (originally Tetsujin 28-go) or Mobile Police Patlabor.
10. Her (2013)
Spike Jonze's Her and the anime Chobits (created by Japanese manga collective Clamp) are both about average, antisocial dudes who fall in love with an artificial being. Although they both boast this central idea—and despite impassioned cries by anime fans—it really is hard to get past a fundamental difference, which is that Chobits' female A.I. named Chi has a body in which to "interact" with her man Hideki, whereas Samantha in Her is a disembodied voice (Scarlett Johansson) with which Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) can impart all of his innermost desires in order to simulate true intimacy. Eventually, both Chi and Samantha become transcendent beings, but Her is so different both aesthetically and emotionally that it's hard to say there's more than the kernel of the idea in Jonze's work.