Thursday, August 8, 2013

Pacific Wolverine

Last week I watched the latest Wolverine film, and some time before that I saw Pacific Rim. Wouldn't you know it, they both contained myriad references to Japanese things and in the case of Wolverine took place almost entirely in Japan! I thought it would be fun to quickly examine how each movie deals with its portrayals of Japanese characters and places, as they present them rather differently and I thought that was neat. 

Now first off, I understand (or at least I think I do) that these movies are not meant to be taken absolutely seriously, one being about giant mentally controlled robots fighting giant Japanese-inspired monsters and the other being based on a popular comic book character. Still, I found their portrayals of their respective Japanese characters to be on opposite ends of the exaggeration spectrum. Let's see . . . 

Pacific Rim


Notable Japanese Characters: 1

Actor: Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori

Portrayal of Japan

The film revolves around the eternal struggle between giant monsters called kaiju (a Japanese name for giant monsters that is synonymous with that genre of Japanese films) and giant robots (piloted by humans) called jagers (pronounced yagers). Despite the film's inspiration being rooted in classic Japanese cinema, it spends little time in the Land of the Rising Sun, choosing to portray the events on a global scale and switching between countries fairly frequently at first. You can tell that the character designs are at least somewhat inspired by anime (just take one look at the Hong Kong and Russian pilots and Mako's hair), but Japan itself is portrayed as a modern developed country like any other, insofar as it is shown (which is not much, actually).

Portrayal of Japanese Characters

There really is only one major Japanese character in the film, Mako Mori. I've seen Kikuchi in a number of Japanese films (though not in Babel, oddly enough). She apparently has a reputation for being funny and weird in her films, according to my Japanese friends. It was kind of neat to see her playing a more straight-edged character this time around. Mako is essentially a by-the-book, no-nonsense strategist who plans the jager missions and eventually copilots one of the machines herself. She suppresses her emotions, possibly as a result of being traumatized at a young age when a kaiju wrecked her home city and killed her parents. She knows martial arts too (but apparently all jager pilots know how to fight). 

Mako Mori doing that hallway thing with her copilot Raleigh Becket, played by Charlie Hunnam. 

My Thoughts

Mako Mori is a pretty believable character, all in all. Aside from her speaking Japanese, having a Japanese accent in English, and obviously coming from Japan (as illustrated in flashbacks and the like), the movie doesn't really make big deal about her origins, which is kind of unusual for Hollywood. She doesn't spout tonnes of rhetoric about how the kaiju besmirched her family's honour, she doesn't have a katana hanging in her room that she routinely practices with, and she's not totally unscrupulous. She's just a woman who wants to kill her some kaiju! Also what is interesting is that her relationship with the main character, a rugged white dude with washboard abs, is surprisingly platonic, at least for the duration of the film. They don't get it on; they don't make out in a wild display of passion. While there is at times some sexual tension, the majority of the time they just seem to be two friends and colleagues who work well together. It's pretty cool and unexpected. I'm not saying people shouldn't get it on, but usually when there's a guy and a girl in a movie like this, it's only a matter of time, so I was surprised to find this wasn't the case. Who says men and women can't be buddies!?

The Wolverine

Notable Japanese Characters: 6

Actors: Tao Okamoto as Mariko, Rila Fukushima as Yukio, Hiroyuki Sanada as "Lord" Shingen, Brian Tee as Noburo, Hal Yamanouchi as Yashida, Will Yun Lee as Harada

Portrayal of Japan

Japan is an exotic and mysterious place full of things you can't understand, run by powerful zaibatsu, and the battleground in a never-ending struggle between yakuza and ninja. When travelling to Japan it is advisable to bring a sword, body armour, and several years' worth of martial arts training. You just might need it.

Ninjas -- damn.
Portrayal of Japanese Characters:

Most Japanese people, especially upper-class Japanese people, know martial arts to some degree and care deeply about honour, tea, swords, and things like that. All the characters are pretty stereotypical: a "feminine" unscrupulous heiress; her too-evil-to-be-true father, who is trained in dual sword fighting; her ninja former fiancĂ©; a whimsical and unscrupulous katana-wielding girl; a backstabbing and gutless politician; and of course the aged company CEO.  

Rila Fukushima as Yukio. With her unique facial features she kind of looks like someone ripped right out of a comic book. That being said, I think she looks AWESOME!  
My Thoughts

I'm a big fan of Hiroyuki Sanada, and seeing him in a movie doing samurai stuff is always fun. And also I'm in love with Yukio -- I love dames who kick ass, and she can be my bodyguard any day -- though I might find it difficult to accept the fact that she knows when I'm going to die. Anyway, I found Mariko, the love interest, to be your average "feminine" Japanese stereotype. Yeah, she can fight and stuff, but not very well, and she's always brooding and feeling sorry for herself and always needs stronger men and women to bail her out of sticky situations. These are traits I find decidedly unattractive, as my girl's got to be a positive ass-kicker! WOO! (I think I'm getting carried away.) 

Regardless, it's a fun movie that I'd actually recommend. It may be tempting to cry travesty at this film because of its blatant stereotypes. However, let us be reminded that The Wolverine is a comic book adaptation and that content in comic books, especially those published by Marvel and DC, is often sensationalized to the nth degree. In other words, they tend to stereotype EVERYTHING. So I found little fault with the film in that context, and the action scenes were brilliantly directed, shot, and edited, -- quite a treat, really. Just check your brain at the door and remember, JAPAN IS NOT REALLY LIKE THIS. I went there myself recently for the first time and I didn't see a single ninja!           

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