Wolverine and Hollywood’s Perception of Japan

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Many of you who live outside of Japan were probably fortunate enough to see Wolverine back in late July / early August. However, Japan didn’t get its theatrical release until last weekend (September 14). And as someone who loves both comics and Japan, the month and a half wait was a bit excruciating.

Well, I finally got to see the movie last weekend, but I came away with mixed feelings. Yeah, I did enjoy it, however there were a few things that kind of jumped out at me. More specifically, the things that caught my attention were Hollywood’s perception of what Japan is.

Yes, there were some very bemusing parts that I enjoyed immensely and there were some other details that I felt were extremely cliche’. With that being said, let’s explore how Japan is viewed in the eyes of the movie making machine.

Language and People

One of the things that I appreciated about the film is that it actually used Japanese actors for a majority of the Japanese roles. Granted not all the roles were filled by Japanese actors, but hey, I can appreciate the effort.

Likewise, when Japanese people were speaking to one another, they weren’t speaking in English. They were actually speaking in their native Japanese. Similarly, not every single non-English word was put into subtitles. Only the conversations important to the story were translated.

These things bring an element of authenticity. While minute, it does add a lot to the whole cultural experience of being a non-Japanese bopping around Japan. Therefore, I think it’s safe to assume that if you visit Japan, the majority of people you meet will be of Japanese decent; you won’t understand everything you hear; and you’ll quickly realize that just because some people can speak English, doesn’t mean they will speak English with one another.

Cultural Misunderstandings

In the film there are a few distinct instances that I can remember where Hugh Jackman’s character (Wolverine) is confused by the Japanese customs, and is then forced to rely on Tao Okamoto’s character (Mariko) to save him from his naiveness.

The first occurrence was when the two had been on the run from the Yakuza[1] for a while and were forced to stop and rest. The place Wolverine happened to choose was a Love Hotel.[2] It’s a pretty funny scene as it’s an easy mistake to make. Not a lot of foreigners can tell the difference between a regular hotel and a Love Hotel and would probably proceed to try to check-in regardless.

What makes the scene a bit more over the top is when Wolverine tries to explain what he wants to the receptionist, but she has no idea what he is saying. Only then does Mariko step in and iron out the misunderstandings.

Similarly, later on in the film the two find themselves in Nagasaki and are about to sit down and share a meal. As soon as they sit down, Wolverine stabs his chopsticks into the rice. In Japanese tradition, the act of having your chopsticks standing up in your rice is a funeral tradition and is seen as taboo outside of that. Mariko quickly corrects his mistake, however he quickly forgets his lesson and repeats the mistake once more.

Again, this is another mistake anyone outside of Japan would easily make. I’m guilty of making that mistake a few times and have been called out on it, and I know dozens of other people who have done it and have been called out on it.

Later on in the film, a tree had fallen down in the middle of the road and a neighbor asks Mariko to help the other women support the men in removing the road block. Wolverine joins the men in chopping the tree down into smaller pieces as the women prepare onigiri (Rice Balls)and keep the men hydrated.

This scene shows a lot about the whole “group mentality” in Japanese society. Everyone works together to help each other. Yes, their goal is to remove the tree, however it’s about the process and everyone cooperating together. It’s a very Japanese idea, and a nice touch to the film.

These are the type of scenes that I really enjoyed about the movie and I wish they put a few more in. They definitely show a contrast in culture and are fun to play around with. Not to mention, they do add to the characters’ personalities. For example, Wolverine repeating the same mistake despite being told not to.

Likewise, if the film had followed its source material a bit closer, I would had really enjoyed seeing the love triangle develop between Yukio and Wolverine as well. In the comics, Yukio and Mariko are complete contrasts of one another. Yukio represents a wild animalistic side that Wolverine finds alluring while Mariko is a tame softer version. I would have really liked to see that relationship develop and see what kind of culture misunderstandings they could have thrown into that mix.

The Cliche’

This is where I believe the film faulters in its cultural understanding. On one side, the movie delivers a much more aware point of view of cultural differences and tries to paint a more accurate picture of actual Japan.

On the other hand, the movie also falls into a handful of cultural stereotypes that are just old and cliche’. For one, the use of ninjas, samurais, and swords are archaic ideas that are over romanticized. The country does have modern weapons and special police forces for infiltrating and protection that any other modern country would have.

Yes, martial arts, archery, calligraphy, etc. are still practiced today in modern Japan. However, these are upheld as art forms; they’re not something employed by large organizations or underground rebellions… or are they?!

Also the film is so blatant in the ideas of “Honor”, “Discipline”, and “Duty” that it tries to create these serious scenes that seem forced.  Yes, aspects of it are still practiced and carried out in modern day Japan. However, these are feudalistic ideas that are used in western cinema to overly romanticize a country.

Similarly, they make it seem like people here, particularly in the countryside where the way of life is a bit old fashioned, where Kimonos and Yukatas every waking moment. I got news for you, they don’t.

While I like the scene where Mariko shows Wolverine how to properly tie an Obi, honestly though, people only wear traditional style clothing on special occasions. Not when you’re chilling in your house. Although, I must say, Yukatas are freaking comfortable.

Conclusion

The movie does some things to break down cultural misunderstandings in a very subtle way that is amusing and fun to watch. I really enjoyed those scenes very much and wish they did more of them.

At the same time, the film employs cultural stereotypes from a culture that existed more than 150 to 200 years ago. The film makers think they’re showing respect to a country by showing  the “beauty” of its tradition. But honestly, I feel all it does is play on old fashion imagery that’s been done dozens of times over in past films of Japan.

When I first came to Japan, many of my students’ were curious about my image of Japan before I moved here. When I would tell them it’s pretty much how I envisioned it, they were always surprised because they think a non-Japanese person’s perception of the country are kimonos, thatched roofs, shrine style buildings, ninjas, and samurais. I wonder where they got that impression?

Footnotes
1. The Yakuza represents Japan’s organized crime. In other words, they are the Japanese mafia.
2. In cities, space is very limited and walls are very thin, so couples generally use Love Hotels for some alone time.

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