22 June, 2014

Nippon by Numbers

"I'm the Most Acceptable at What I Do"
Thoughts on The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine is pretty good. It's competent in all the right ways and even has the odd moment of brilliance sprinkled through out the narrative. There isn't anything that is terribly objectionable. Overall, it's as challenging as a cup of cocoa. And not even, like, Mexican hot chocolate, I mean plain ass, straight up hot cocoa. Maybe some whipped cream on top.

It's the definition of a movie you watch on cable because there's nothing else on.

My main problem with the movie is also kind of the charm of it. Japan is as much of a character in The Wolverine as anyone else and, like everyone else, that character is a cartoon. The world that James Mangold has carved into celluloid (or, from the looks of it, binary code), is less an NHK documentary as it is a series of knobs and cranks doling out exactly what kind of Japanese we're going to see and how much.

Over the course of the movie Wolverine battles his way from a POW camp to fighting the Yakuza in modern day Tokyo to fighting ninja and then, finally, a giant robot. It's literally every home grown bad guy Japan has to offer.

There was a time when all I knew about Japan and Japanese pop culture I gleaned from the pages of PSM. It's fun to revisit these things. It's fun to not have to think about politics or thousands of years of wood carving or tea ceremonies or whatever. It's a cartoon. It's simple, it's fun, and it doesn't need to be anything more than that.

Basically, Japan is The Wolverine.

But a few other things come to mind, such as how it treats Imperial Japanese soldiers and the dropping of the second A-bomb. Even in a movie that is as pop corn munchingly throw away as this one, it gives you something to think about. Or it at least tries, and that has always been the hallmark of the X-Men film franchise, which started with the Holocaust, for God's sake.

The Japanese Army's track treatment of their fellow man is well established. Anybody who knows anything about world history or World War II knows about how they treated civilians and natives and enemy combatants. If you don't, I'll be brief and tell you that they did not treat them especially well.

The Wolverine doesn't deal with those things. I doesn't need to. It doesn't even pay lip service to these things. At the risk of white washing history, I think it's a smart move on the part of the film makers. There's a couple of reasons for this.

The first one is practical. We have to spend two hours with this country (and almost exclusively this country, all but two of the leads, are Asian), so bringing up Unit 731 or bringing up "comfort women" or mass executions isn't going to make this narrative very palatable. Plus, it's a PG-13 movie. We don't need to see murder contests in a movie about a super hero vigilante trying to get his groove back.

When X-Men began with the Holocaust, it was a smart move. Maybe not in the best taste, but it was smart. It set up the plight of the mutant species (by showing both the specific plight of Magneto and by stating that the Final Solution is, in some way, analogous to the persecution of mutants). It also makes us sympathise with the villain of the piece, which, again, is one of the ongoing themes of the X-Men franchise.

Secondly, it goes against the spirit of the movie. In the opening minutes of The Wolverine, we see Wolverine in a hot box reminiscent of Bridge Over the River Kwai, but before that we see a Japanese officer freeing Allied (presumable ANZACs or Canadians) and waving off a guard from shooting them.

By doing this, it elevate the Japanese as more than brutal fanatics and it makes one particular Japanese man (who later turns out to be the villain) into a good guy. When the A-Bomb does detonate, it becomes  less an instrument of punishment as it is a force of nature.

In these ways it also injects a kind of basic human decency that is in keeping with the best of the series (or at least just Days of Future Past). It's a smarter, kinder move than a movie like this needs and if only for that it makes The Wolverine a better movie than it has to be.

It isn't changing history, it's choosing to deal with it in a different way. I like that.

And I can always watch Nanking if I want to be reminded of the actual facts. But sometimes I don't want to. Sometimes I just want to see a movie where a guy does what he does best and what he does ain't pretty.