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That Eastern Appeal: The Wolverine and the appeal of Orientalism

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Just why, in the wake of The Wolverine, is Orientalism so appealing?

wolverine fan banner orientalism

The Orient has been a popular film theme ever since the beginning of cinema history. Films like The Sheik (1921), Shanghai Express (1932) or Casablanca (1942) still remain some of the most prominent, ideologically resonant American movies. The trend continues to thrive to this day with the latest example of The Wolverine (2013).

As the critics express their mixed opinions on The Wolverine, some applauding Jackman’s performance, others complaining about “corny dialogue”; one thing about the film is undeniably awesome: Japan. The setting serves its own purpose in the film which makes it an independent, almost disparate element. Whether the use of the Far East is a profound allegory for the film’s themes, or the director’s lazy cover-up for the lack originality in the script, it certainly draws attention and delivers some good, fist-pumping moments. So what’s the appeal of Orientalism in film?

1. Quirkiness

Part of Asia's appeal is its quirkiness...

Quirkiness is a bit too gentle a word to phrase this, actually. I mean Plain. Japanese. Weirdness. From crazy avant-garde street fashion to utterly bizarre fetishes (eyeball-licking, anyone?), to insane toilet customs (special toilet slippers, fluffy toilet seat covers, incorporated anus-cleaning mechanisms), Japan is like to other country in this world. It established its weirdness status in the film world as well.  Japanese horror films are some of the most prominent ones of the genre, inspiring many American remakes such as The Ring (2002) or The Grudge (2004) with its terrifying suspense and dark, dark mood. Anyone who ever watched a Japanese sexploitation film will also agree that it is stranger and more random than any erotic film you will ever watch.

This notion of Japan as a bizarre, otherworldly country makes it extremely intriguing and, therefore, very watchable and marketable. These country-specific quirks are often included in film and function well as comedic, horror or dramatic devices. Take, for example, the “love hotel” scene from The Wolverine, where Logan and Mariko have a choice of rooms: dungeon, nurse's office, or Mission to Mars.  Superficial? Yes. Funny? Oh hell yes!

2. Martial Arts

Bruce Lee, considered by many to be the Western icon of Martial Arts...

Martial arts have that wonderful ability to deliver action and violence which the audience loves so much with grace and sophistication that regular American blockbusters don’t always possess, to say the least. It offers more than your usual beating the crap out of someone by repeatedly punching their face until it looks like a beefsteak. Martial arts are equipped with a good dose of spirituality, a complex code of honour and philosophical concepts, often aiming at harming your opponent as little as possible. Not that American directors particularly care about emphasizing the latter, cos what kind of a lame chick-flick would that be, right?
Martial arts are one of those salient elements of the Orient that America just acquired and adapted for its audience by mass popularization through Jackie Chan, Jet Li or Bruce Lee films. The martial arts in those films have less to do with the actual Orient than they do with America, as they reflect the audience’s taste for violence and fantasies about super-human strength and physical ability connected with the romanticized East. Hence, it’s just the template that is different - the content stays the same.  Naturally, it does not make martial arts films look any less cool which is why we still want to watch them and filmmakers continue to exploit it.

3. The “exotic” element

The 'exotic' nature of the Orient has always appealed to filmmakers and cinema goers alike...

Fascination with Orientalism exploded all the way back in the late 1800’s due to various socio-cultural factors, such as the growth of consumer culture, cultural spectacles like world fairs; and interest in the exotic manifested through theatre. Asian imports became a part of the widespread pop-culture and have remained one until this day.

Contemporary Western culture is soaked with Japan and its traditions such as painting, print, theatre, clothes, cuisine, architecture (the list goes on), which are all deeply rooted in history. Once a nation’s creative spring runs dry, it inevitably embarks upon the search of the Other. The film industry is no different and has absorbed and assimilated much of the Japanese aesthetic which became a common sign of popular culture.  The success of films like The Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Kill Bill (2003) or The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) proves that Orient-related themes are quite popular and arouse much interest. The only problem is that American films tend to simply hide behind an interesting concept, only scratching the surface of a foreign culture which usually is not exactly sufficient. Getting more into Japanese culture is something The Wolverine could have benefited from as well.

4. Japanese chicks

Bear with me, there is more to this. We can all agree that Japanese ladies in action films are quite exhilarating.  They are tough, independent and strong. Looking back at the past, the traditional role of a woman in a Japanese society was that of a mother and wife. She was the meticulous hostess, the knowing carer, the obedient housewife. Back in the colonial times, the East was a “virginal foreign landscape”, heavily idealized and eroticized because of the submissiveness and innocence of its women and polygamy. The superior West symbolized virile masculinity, while the subordinate East stood for passive femininity. Now...remember this scene:

The ladies have gone wild. They are kicking some ass and throwing samurai swords around like pros. This stereotypical aesthetic of a fragile, innocent, geisha-graceful lady combined with lethal weaponry, blood-thirst and a killer instinct are a deadly concoction. We cannot resist but to watch them in all their dangerous attractiveness, defying the ancient tradition. A massive part of this appeal is the empowering, feminist, “you go girl” spirit which The Wolverine’s Yukio is no stranger to. Small and dainty, she brings an enormous dynamic into the film, stealing every scene she is in.

5. The clash of old and new

The clash of old and new...

This one kind of summarizes all the previous ones, as they all touch upon this concept in one way or another. The combination of tradition and innovation, the past and the future is a popular technique in film. However, since American history does not range back so far, “borrowing” it from other countries and playing with it in terms of time and genre is common. Perhaps it signifies a certain lack of identity of the US as a country which is always “looking for itself”.  As Neil Gaiman tastefully and effortlessly wrote in American Gods: “This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is (...) No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or look for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are”.

Apart from sticking in a quote from a beloved book, I guess I am trying to say that this might be the reason for the often use of Orientalism by filmmakers. They take foreign traditions and/or history, put a futuristic twist on old frames of reference and make it sell. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, think about The Wolverine’s climatic battle with the giant mechanic samurai...wouldn’t that blow Kurosawa’s mind?


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