Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Pacific Rim (2013) and The Wolverine (2013) Part 1 – The Wolverine

Pacific Rim (dir. del Torro, 2013) and The Wolverine (dir. Mangold, 2013)

On this blog I've "started" a number of pieces of work with promises for continuation that have never been kept. Many of these are projects that are on the way to going elsewhere, possibly with views to future publication, so further posts on those projects here may well probably never  see the light of day. Especially with the loads of teaching and administration that I seem to labour under these days. However, with the article started below I really do promise (honest!) to get a "part two"out during the Summer. It's even mostly written. And I've no intention of publishing this material elsewhere.

This piece of writing starts with a co-incidence – or rather something that perhaps just seems like a co-incidence: a conjunction at the heart of which lies a complex tangle of motivation that is both my own but also that of the contemporary American movie industry. On a long-haul flight from the UK to America for a conference, I decided to dip into the in-flight movies. Over the hours on the plane, not wanting to plump for the more exhausting fare of the art-house offerings available, I found myself watching a couple of action movies, and the films that I landed on (out of an admittedly huge choice) were Guillermo del Torro’s distinctly auteurial spin on the popular generic effects movie, Pacific Rim, and James Mangold’s rather less directorially distinguished The Wolverine. What struck me was that in each of these films alike I had been thrown into a Hollywood vision of the global which revolved around the imaginary Far East as a locus of desire and a space of fantasy. Each (in their different ways) reclaimed and reworked iconographic and technical elements of Asian popular movies in their attempts to reinvigorate the phantasmatic space of American action cinema. Each, I think, is also involved in a negotiation of cinematic language itself, as this has been reconfigured by Hollywood's brush with Asian film production. (The conjunction perhaps has a renewed interest at the present moment when a new remake of Godzilla has just been released...)

First, them, The Wolverine.

The Wolverine takes us to Japan, rehashing an almost-unreconstructed set of orientalist stereotypes and, over the course of the film, reasserting white/Western symbolic ownership of the “action” genre, integrating motifs, from Asian genres, of the Yakuza, ninjas, samurai, and so on, into an all-American superhero spectacle, at the heart of which is the strong, masculine, “superior” white hero, who gets to out-action the action specialists of the East, quite literally picking up their weapons (the katana, etc.) and using them to defeat the “natives”. The ideological message is clear: the American Way is naturally superior to its alternatives.

Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), gripping the Japanese katana in The Wolverine (2013)

Over the course of the film, the eponymous hero wins the heart of not one but two Japanese women, each standing for one of the paired stereotypes through which Asian femininity is represented. One the one hand there is Mariko (Tao Okatomo): a delicate, vulnerable “butterfly”, marked out in the film’s narrative through an association with “traditional” ways of life and modes of femininity. She is the damsel in distress who seems for the body of the film its preferred erotic object. On the other hand there is the sword-toting, subculturally dressed bodyguard Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a “kick-ass babe” in whose company Wolverine in fact metaphorically sets off into the sunset at the end of the movie (flying West on a plane, rather than on horseback). But this, it seems, in the film, is an altogether more Platonic friendship than the association set up with Mariko. The movie gets it both ways: the hero gets the (exotic) girl(s), but returns to his monadic, asexual state (as is common in the superhero genre). In terms of its gender politics, the film gets to assert the triumph of the “empowered”, modern, phallic (Asian) woman over her castrated double, but only on the proviso that she becomes de-sexualised, turned into a “buddy”, perhaps a partner in some cross-gender, doubly sublimated “bromance” rather than “romance” per se… The threat to white-Western masculinity constituted by this fantasmatic object of desire is thus neutralised on a number of levels.

Rila Fukushima as Yukio, in The Wolverine (2013)

In the process of working out (winning and then rejecting) these romantic attachments, Wolverine is contrasted with a series of dysfunctional Asian masculinities – he defeats them through physical superiority and moral integrity. These misfiring Asian men include Mariko’s fiancée Singen. (This being a Hollywood representation of the East, this is an arranged marriage of course). Singen is a corrupt politician who, even when caught in a moment of heterosexual excess with two call girls, is nonetheless feminised, wearing a pair of red “panties”. (One of the aforementioned call girls is, of course, a blonde, raising the spectre of the yellow-peril “other” who threatens the Western/white male’s possession of a racialised “womenfolk”.) There is the tyrannical father who is jealous of the daughter’s inheritance and plots to kidnap and kill her in order to take this over. Then there is the young ninja and childhood sweetheart who is supposed to protect Mariko but in fact sells her out to her enemies, ultimately more connected to an ethic of “family” and “duty” than to one of personal romantic attachment and individuation, setting up a classic East-West binary. And finally there is the sick and dying grandfather, Yashida, the originary point of the film’s fantasy of the East as a decaying, monstrous patriarchy, which cannot fully present a core of masculinity from which to order its gender-space. It is from this network of representatives of corrupt masculinity that Wolverine rescues the heroine (and ultimately thus an invidious “tradition” involving duty, arranged marriages, and so on which they manifest). This, of course, is the frequent orientalist trope: we must invade country X to protect the women there from their misrule by primitive, corrupt, decadent, and thus improperly manly men.

Hal Yamanouchi as Yashida in The Wolverine (2013)

The sexism of the film (and the racism involved in its negotiation of gender) is doubled by a disturbing historical revisionism. The film’s narrative spur – the cause for Wolverine’s visit to Japan – lies in a story from the very close of the Second World War. Wolverine is held in a prisoner-of-war camp and the guards are releasing the prisoners, recognising that defeat is now certain. A guard lets Wolverine out of the bunker in which he is imprisoned, and in return Wolverine prevents the guard from committing hara kiri. (Again, then, we have an American saving the other from the barbarity of his/her own culture…) At this instant we see, across the landscape, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Wolverine uses his mutant’s body – which has the power to regenerate in response to any harm done to it – to shield his new protégée, and when they emerge from the bunker, the entire landscape around is in ruin.

The main events of the film take place years later, and the one-time prison guard, Yashida, has become an industrial magnate, and it is his invitation to visit to say goodbye before he dies that brings Wolverine to Japan. At the heart of the film, then, is a complex of guilt and denial, with the all-American hero on hand to save the Japanese other, and to be marked as himself present at the scene as a victim (even a saviour) rather than an aggressor. It is obviously (though this is not stated) the radiation dose that the industrialist has received that is the cause of the cancer from which he is dying. Yet it turns out that in fact he is the film’s real (hidden) villain, who has set up the whole visit (including faking his own death) in order to trap Wolverine, and rob him of his immortality, which Yashida seeks to appropriate for himself. Turning the victim/perpetrator relationship around, Wolverine appears as the wronged party in the film, with Yashida taking on the role of a corrupt betrayer of American largesse – suggesting perhaps that the film constitutes an expression of anxiety about the growth of the East as an economic and political power in recent decades, marking a reversal and decay of American (neo-)colonial mastery. The quest for immortality takes on, in Yashida, the flavour of a sinister quest for power, in contrast to Wolverine’s “manifest destiny” as an immortal. For Wolverine, in contrast to Yashida, his special superpower is a “white man’s burden” that, unasked for, he must bear stoically – the mark of a natural right and duty to rule and take responsibility for others.

The film can be read as telling of a renewal of this (American) destiny. At the start of the film Wolverine has taken to the woods, living amongst animals, withdrawn from society and its purposes. Perhaps we might recognise the trope as an echo of the “Rambo-esque” retreat to the woods in a range of post-Vietnam Hollywood offerings. Wolverine is drawn back into the world of men first through his sense of justice: when a bear is killed inhumanely by hunters he goes into town to take revenge for it. (Is this, then also a vision of a corrupt order that needs renewal? A structuring trope of the film seems to be this renewal or regeneration of moral and social orders – akin perhaps to Wolverine’s own ability to heal his body. Wolverine taking his place of leadership back in the world is a matter of rejuvenating both his own society and that of the Asian “other”, with America unnaturally atrophied and the rise of the “other” appearing as a kind of excessive, disorderly, destructive cancerous growth, like Yashida’s illness.) But Wolverine’s sparking of conscience is reinforced with the arrival of Yukio, who adds to the “quest” the reappearance of an erotic dimension – the seduction of the orient. (Yukio, of course, serves only as a step that leads him to the film’s key object of erotic fascination, the wan Mariko.) This renewal of Wolverine’s warrior charter and his erotic attachment in the gendered and raced other could easily, of course, be read as a parallel to the return of an American interventionist policy in the late twentieth century, a reversal of the isolationism that has at other points marked its history.

The film, then – read at least in the rather crude ideology-critique/semiotic analysis terms above – seems to make a kind of a claim to the importance of the American hero’s warrior identity and destiny, as the natural leader and saviour of all the other inhabitants of the world. But what interests me is the way that this in its turn folds back into the very form of the film, and its relation to international genres. Can the film be better understood as a kind of an allegory of its own production, a fantasy of its own place in the landscape of global culture? Is it American action cinema whose destiny is reasserted in this film, which just like Wolverine within the work, seeks to pick up the tools of its other – the motifs and techniques of Japanese and Hong Kong cinema – and refashion them into an all-American genre? Is this a reinvigoration of a moribund superhero genre, which perhaps has had its period metaphorically isolated in the woods before its reinvention in the movies of the noughties? (Especially after Spiderman [2002], a film itself made in the wake of the highly significant moment of 9-11, and which reminded us, at a moment when America was stepping up as a global policeman, that “with great power comes great responsibility”.) Like Wolverine, part of what brings this popular-cultural genre back out into the light of day is the emergence of a set of oriental objects of desire. These objects are the films of the Japanese and Hong Kong New Waves of the eighties and nineties (and, before that, the trans-national phenomena of “kung fu” and “chanbara”), and the absorption of their action techniques and aesthetics into a mainstream Western visual/cinematic language. The “orient” becomes a space of fantasy, desire and identifcation through which such movies can re-articulate themselves. The only thing that is, perhaps, notable in Wolverine is the extent to which this becomes so visibly thematised within the film as well as forming its very form. Perhaps, however, it is not even unique here – think of the fetishisation of martial arts in Batman Begins (2005) or even Electra (1996).

The point behind this, too, of course, is the shift in power away from the West and the rise of Eastern economic, political and cultural power – a shift that has gathered momentum since the 60s and 70s when the superhero comics of Marvel first had their day. Film form, content and economic reality seem startlingly aligned in the anxieties that seem to be articulated within this film.

In the next instalment, I'll be looking at the somewhat more complex and nuanced way in which Guillermo del Torro's Pacific Rim – released the same year as The Wolverine.

Part 2 is now online - available here: