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Big in Japan: 10 Movies To Watch Before ‘The Wolverine’

Big in Japan: 10 Movies To Watch Before 'The Wolverine'

The Wolverine” isn’t just another stand alone movie. Following the disastrous “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” it’s a complete tonal overhaul, with the property being rebuilt almost from the ground up. While there might be traces of the character’s ‘X’-past, particularly in the somewhat-garbled third act, there is still a very clear attempt to remake the character inside a more atmospheric, emotionally rich context. That, coupled with the movie’s welcome change in scenery (it’s set mostly in Japan), makes it a very, very different X-perience than you’re used to. Sure, it has plenty of it’s own issues, regardless  (you can read our review of the Hugh Jackman movie here), but keeping all this in mind, we thought this would be a good opportunity to run through a list of ten movies that will get you ready for “The Wolverine” – whether literally, spiritually, or thematically, these movies share some mutant DNA with everyone’s favorite metallic-clawed hero.

It’s important to note that some of these movies don’t necessarily explicitly relate to “The Wolverine,” but could share certain similarities that are worth noting. The fish-out-of-water concept certainly isn’t limited to movies about westerners in Japan (or vice versa) and there are a number of movies that share nothing more than a similarity of mood or texture. The fact that we’re able to speak about these different kinds of movies in relationship to a superhero flick is pretty cool, even with the many shortcomings of “The Wolverine.”

Black Rain” (1989)
Ridley Scott‘s appropriately moody 1989 thriller follows a pair of New York City cops (played by Michael Douglas and a very young Andy Garcia), as they bust a member of the yakuza and transport him back to Japan. Once there, he escapes, and the pair spend the rest of the movie trying to track him down, while uncovering a larger conspiracy and generally pissing off both the Japanese gangsters and the local police force. While it’s mostly considered a “minor” work for Scott, it’s undoubtedly one of his most stylistically bold; he shoots Japan as if the cluttered, rainy, neon-lit future of “Blade Runner” had suddenly sprung to life. (Scott hated working in Japan, which he found costly and difficult, and vowed never to return. So far, he hasn’t, despite having been sent my spec script for “A Good Year 2: Journey To Hokkaido.”) “Black Rain” shares with “The Wolverine” a classic fish-out-of-water set-up, its interest in how ancient Japanese culture interacts with modern Japan, and a fetishistic love of Japanese swords (in the movie’s most memorable sequence, Garcia is beheaded by a motorcycle-riding yakuza member). It should also be noted that Douglas’ feathered hair style (seriously, it’s insane), arguably the single most dated thing about the movie, somewhat mirrors Logan’s iconic “horns” (which are sadly subdued in this movie). If you can get over the somewhat problematic xenophobia inherent to this kind of movie (it was especially prevalent in the eighties, when America was feeling pretty iffy about Japan), “Black Rain” is a nicely paced, beautifully shot (by Jan de Bont, who lensed “Die Hard” the year before, a movie that oddly enough also concerns Japan) curio from the honorable House of Scott.

The Last Samurai” (2003)
In “The Last Samurai,” Tom Cruise plays a soldier still shaken up from his involvement in the war against the Native Americans, but who accepts an eerily similar job battling samurais in Japan. Do you think he’ll gain a better cultural understanding and atone, in some way, for the crimes he committed in America? You better believe he will! Director Edward Zwick (“Legends of the Fall,” “Glory“) has a flair for filming large-scale battle sequences, and there are a bunch here, although the film’s most powerful moment is relatively small scale, when a group of ninjas attack the samurai, scuttling spider-like over pitched rooftops. Like “The Wolverine,” “The Last Samurai” concerns a stranger in a strange land — a man psychologically damaged by the horrors of combat, who is seemingly done with conflict but of course is inexplicably drawn back into it. And both feature a really cool sequence where ninjas are perched on top of rooftops. Also, while we’re on the subject of hairstyles, Cruise’s flowing locks in “The Last Samurai” are a sight to behold. Who cares if its historically inaccurate, we just want to know the ancient Japanese secret for that conditioner.

Frantic” (1988)
The similarities between Roman Polanski‘s sorely overlooked thriller “Frantic” and “The Wolverine” might not be apparent at first blush, since Polanski’s film is a mystery set in Paris and “The Wolverine” is a big time superhero movie set in Japan, but they’re there. We promise. Most of the parallels lie in the relationship between the clueless foreigner abroad (Wolverine, Harrison Ford) and his relationship with a comely young woman who aids them in their quest for the truth. Both films have elements of mystery and intrigue, and both lead characters go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of a foreign country. In “Frantic” that role of mysterious and gorgeous ingenue fulfilled by the drop dead gorgeous Emmanuelle Seigner (who Polanski would go on to marry) who wears a lot of leather; in “The Wolverine” it’s Tao Okamoto, who wears a lot of kimonos (Rila Fukushima’s character is in the mix too, since she’s essentially Wolverine’s sidekick). All are exotically beautiful and lead our heroes into both a mysterious criminal underworld, as well as even thornier areas of forbidden eroticism.

You Only Live Twice” (1967)
When we got out of our screening of “The Wolverine,” we ran into a brilliant, prominent New York critic who said, “It was very ‘You Only Live Twice.'” And you know, it kinda is. “You Only Live Twice” is the gonzo, Sean Connery-led James Bond entry (the fifth in the series) written by children’s book author Roald Dahl, that established the kind of oversized James Bond world that would be endlessly parodied by the “Austin Powers” films. This was the movie that introduced the diabolical Blofeld, played by Donald Pleasance with delicious malevolence, who would go on to become the most iconic James Bond villain ever (and played by a variety of talented actors). In “You Only Live Twice,” like “The Wolverine,” our handsome hero is sent to Japan and stops an evil scheme. Also, in both our hero gets scrubbed down in a traditional ceremonial bath (although with Bond it’s a bunch of attractive young women and with Logan it’s a pair of old matrons). Both movies place a premium on giant-sized action sequences and on milking a few yuks from the lead’s interaction with the native culture, so it would be interesting to see how they would play as a double bill.

The Yakuza” (1974)
If you’re looking for stories about honor, integrity, sacrifice, guilt, its significance in Japanese culture and the intractable codes that esteemed men follow no matter the consequences, unfortunately you’re going to find little of that thematic texture in “The Wolverine” despite it being an integral part of the original Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book. But a great alternative that features themes of regret, atonement and codes of honor and respect at its core, including the the similar premise of an American abroad in Japan, is Sydney Pollack‘s meditative “The Yakuza.” In fact, if you’re as deeply disappointed with “The Wolverine” as our reviewer was and hope to see a proper adaptation on the Claremont/Miller comic one day, you’d almost do no better than to look closely at Pollack’s picture which carries a similar dark tone, sober weight and expiative, slow burn energy. Starring Robert Mitchum and Japanese tough guy Ken Takakura (who not-so-coincidentally appeared years later in the similarly pitched “Black Rain”) and American character actors Brian Keith, Richard Jordan and Herb Edelman, its vaguely similar to the aforementioned superhero film, with old debts that needs to be (re)paid, shady double crosses and a love story. They couldn’t be any more different beyond that, but there’s an autumnal patience to it that James Mangold should have taken to heart. The debut script of a young, then-27-year old Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”), Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) did enough rewrites on it to earn a co-writing credit which makes for one screenwriting super duo. While it failed to light up the box-office or gain much attention with most audiences, this story of an American who reluctantly enlists the help of his old nemesis to help him fight the Japanese crime underworld, did put Schrader on the radar of young ‘70s “movie brats” like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and the rest as they say, is history.

Chinatown” (1974)
In “Chinatown” — cited by Mangold as an influence on his film — as in “The Wolverine,” a very attractive young woman comes into the life of our main character (in “Chinatown” it’s a private detective played by Jack Nicholson, every bit as psychically scarred as Jackman’s Logan), and that protagonist, plagued with guilt and self doubt, feels the desperate urge to protect her. Of course, as it happens in these kinds of movies, there’s more to both the woman (and the larger mystery) than meets the eye, and everyone soon gets sucked into a conspiratorial vortex of double-dealing, hidden agendas, power grabs and nose-shattering violence. Of course, since “The Wolverine” is a comic book movie, Logan’s ghosts can literally haunt him (via gauzy dream sequences), while in “Chinatown,” all that hurt is internalized but clearly visible in Nicholson’s eyes, the way he assesses every situation. Both movies feature a lone lead who thinks he can make great change in an otherwise lawless society, and both end on a note of separation, as well, with the beautiful woman and the rugged man very much apart from one another. No ending is as brutally bleak as “Chinatown” though, but again, “The Wolverine” is a comic book movie where a lizard woman spits acidic poison at people, whereas “Chinatown” is one of the all-time greatest works of American crime fiction.

Rising Sun” (1993)
One of the odder movies to come out of the varied career of Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff,” “Quills“), “Rising Sun” is an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel released the same summer as “Jurassic Park.” More of a conventional crime movie than Crichton’s usual mixture of genres and aesthetics, the adaptation stars Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery as a pair of detectives investigating the murder of a prostitute inside Nakamoto Tower, the glassy headquarters of a major Japanese conglomerate. The novel was heavily criticized for being aggressively anti-Japan and the filmmakers tried to address that by softening the book’s hard-edged politics and making it more of a streamlined whodunit (they also changed the ethnicity of the killer). Where “The Wolverine” and the deeply bizarre and convoluted “Rising Sun” intersect is in their investigation of a Japanese culture where the near future mixes uncomfortably with the distant past (“Black Rain” played around with this idea as well, to a lesser degree). It’s a movie about honor and virtue and microchips. And a similar dynamic can be found between Wolverine’s feelings of otherness and Snipes’, who is investigating a murder not on his home turf, but in the slightly askew Japanese version of that turf. As for Connery, he plays a character well-versed in Japanese culture and old enough to be a shogun.

High & Low” (1963)
One of legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa‘s very best movies is also one of his most frequently overlooked (probably because there isn’t a single samurai in this one, let alone seven), a raw, tough-as-nails adaptation of one of Ed McBain‘s 87th Precinct novels, this one involving a botched kidnapping and the fallout that follows. Like “The Wolverine,” it concerns a very wealthy man (frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune) living in very modern Japan, whose child becomes the target of a kidnap and ransom plot. The only problem is that instead of grabbing the titan’s offspring, they accidentally snatch the son of his chauffeur. Thus begins a prolonged and highly suspenseful movie where all parties try to retrieve the missing child, even though the wealthy executive has no real incentive to do so, other than those Japanese hallmarks of honor, loyalty, and selflessness. (Paying the ransom could throw his position in his company into disarray.) “The Wolverine” also concerns an aging titan of industry and a kidnapping plot, while mirroring, ever-so-slightly, the relationship between the Mariko (Okamoto), the daughter of the wealthy elder, and Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a girl from the streets who becomes Mariko’s adopted sister. But for all of the superhero film’s dazzling, $125 million excesses, there isn’t a moment as striking or beautiful or haunting as the simple image of pink smoke emanating from a chimney in the otherwise black-and-white “High & Low.” It beats a chase on top of a bullet train any day.

The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976)
One of ten movies “The Wolverine” director James Mangold tweeted as the key influences for the film, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is a classic Clint Eastwood western (co-written by “Rising Sun” director Philip Kaufman) about a similarly lawless, wanted man who is awash in existential dread and prone to violent confrontation. It’s easy to see Mangold injecting some of Eastwood’s Wales, a Civil War-era Missouri farmer whose wife is killed by soldiers associated with the Union, in Jackman’s Logan. Both characters are men trapped between two warring factions (in Wolverine’s case, it’s the ninjas and the yakuza) and seemingly wanted by everyone with a gun and a grudge. They are less men of action than of words who use extreme violence as punctuation, the death of a love one haunts both of them (in Wolverine’s case, quite literally) and, oh yeah, they both have spectacularly grizzled facial hair. And yeah, neither have any qualms about walking into a town alone with a score to settle.

The Samurai Trilogy” (1954, 1955, 1956)
Another series of films cited in Mangold’s list, these three films by Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Inagaki, follows a single samurai (Toshiro Mifune, again!) through the years. It’s based, in part, on the life of a real life swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi, who has reached folkloric heights in Japan. You can see the connection between “The Wolverine” and elements of each film, particularly in the first, when the samurai has yet to secure his true name and engages in a forbidden love affair that he has to leave at the very end of the movie (it’s got a surprising emotional punch for a samurai movie). The latter two films are less bittersweet and more focused on action, which isn’t a complaint, given how well Inagaki stages these sequences. You get the impression that Mangold borrowed much from the way that Inagaki frames the action, particularly in “The Wolverine” during the opening World War II sequence and when Logan visits the ancient village where the man he saved during the war once lived. It’s during this sequence, complete with ninjas on rooftops and an absurd amount of arrows, that you can feel the “Samurai Trilogy” the most, with Mangold optimizing the visuals for his widescreen presentation, lining up the squat buildings like dollhouses in a comic book panel. If you’ve never seen these movies, they’re well worth a watch, particularly since Criterion recently collected the films in a handsome two-disc Blu-ray package.

Of course, Quentin Tarantino‘s “Kill Bill, Volume 1” is an obvious point of comparison, both for its loving recreation of Japanese movie tropes (all sorts — even horror curio “Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell” gets a shout-out), including the samurai genre, and for its westerner-in-Japan motif (‘Volume 2‘ is much more of a western, which “The Wolverine” shares certain parts of, but to a far lesser degree); “Ninja III: Dominion” is worth watching for its campy fun and its incredibly western appropriation of Japanese mythos (it’s also probably one of the weirdest movies you’re likely to see), and like “The Wolverine,” it blends elements of the supernatural and the bloodily physical; and John McTiernan‘s masterpiece “Die Hard” shares a similar fascination with the way that ancient Japanese traditions can be modernized (its setting is almost identical to that of “Rising Sun,” even if its plot is far less political). Then there were the other movies listed by Mangold in his marathon tweeting session — Wong Kar-Wai‘s “Happy Together” and “Chungking Express,” Yasujuro Ozu‘s classic “Floating Weeds” (which isn’t as out there as you might think), “Black Narcissus” by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Takashi Miike‘s recent triumph “13 Assassins,” William Friedkin‘s “The French Connection,” and, of course, “Shane.”

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