The Wolverine: Memories of Miss Saigon

wolverine-saigonMy boyfriend and I rarely go to the movies these days: tickets are overpriced, concessions are empty calories, 3D makes our heads hurt, and no one seems to follow basic theatre etiquette anymore. But, we make the rare exception for blockbuster movies: any film for which the special effects necessitate a big screen. Earlier this summer, we braved the Friday night mall crowds to check out Iron Man 3. Without fail, we found ourselves seated next to a trio of fanboys who, moments after the room darkened, launched themselves into a loud and obnoxious litany of Mystery Science Theatre commentary on the 15 minutes of trailer, each statement of amateurish snark blasted at full volume so that the entire movie-going audience could “share” in this bit of uninvited “fun.”

When the trailer for The Wolverine came on, MST Fanboy #1 — the fanboy who of the bunch was both loudest and closest to us — let out a shrill squeal. “I so can’t wait for when this comes out! It’s gonna be epic,” he declared loudly to no one in particular between fistfuls from his bucket-sized popcorn, and the rest of us found our lives enriched by the knowledge of his growing excitement about this movie, or at least by a momentary respite from the scathing and unrelenting witticism that he had unleashed upon the other trailers.

(By the time the movie started, it was clear that these fanboys had no plans of letting up. 20 minutes in as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark led us through his post-Avengers PTSD, we pointedly turned to MST Fanboy #1 and hissed loudly to get his attention. As soon as he turned to us we snapped: “Hey, dude, we can ALL hear you, and you’re not funny enough to justify this. You need to shut up. Now. ” The rest of the movie was enjoyed in much-appreciated silence punctuated by periodic glares of sullen reproach from my left.)

I’ll be the first to admit, I wasn’t one of those fanboys, and not just because I know how to enjoy a movie in respectful silence.

I also wasn’t one of those fanboys who was particularly excited about the upcoming The Wolverine. I just couldn’t find the wherewithal to be excited about a movie that seemed like little more than a modern-day X-gene adaptation of Miss Saigon, albeit with a little less singing and a little more mad ninja skills.

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t yet seen The Wolverine and don’t want the film spoiled for you, do not read on.

It’s your typical Orientalist love story.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: boy has lost his way and he is the barest shadow of a man. Boy goes to exotic Asia. Boy meets girl. Boy conquers girl, romantically and sexually. Girl’s life is endangered by the backwards misogyny of Asia (in this case personified by a literal giant samurai robot), and boy saves girl armed in part by his enlightened Western philosophy and anti-collectivist gumption (and, in this case, by his adamantium claws). Boy declares ever-lasting love for girl, which we know is bullshit because two seconds later he leaves girl in Asia to return to America to resume his pre-Asiatic life. What happens to the girl? Who knows? Who cares? Boy has been restored by his brief sojourn through the East and is ready to live happily ever after.

To be fair, it’s hard to place sole blame on The Wolverine for its Orientalism. The film is loosely based on some of the most Orientalist source material in comics: a collaborative story arc between Chris Claremont and Frank Miller that first launched the Wolverine title in the 1980’s.

And we all know how racially sensitive Frank Miller comics are. Two words: swastika shuriken.
And we all know how racially sensitive Frank Miller comics are. Two words: swastika shuriken.

The Claremont/Miller Wolverine is a case study in Orientalism in comics. It features a rousing cast of overbearing Asian men and meek Asian women, and Wolvie serves as our last Samurai – Japan’s last best hope to save itself — framed amid the exotic clang of samurai swords and pseudo-Confucian mumbo jumbo against the glare of a setting Eastern sun. Somewhere, someone cues the mandolins and the helicopter to whisk our gaijin hero back States-side.

No surprise, therefore, that The Wolverine hits the same one-dimensional fetishistic notes, that we might have otherwise hoped would’ve been left in the 80’s.

Let’s consider, for example, Wolvie’s love interest, the insipid Mariko. We are introduced to Mariko as the literal soft-spoken and demure, kimono-clad girl shuffling in socked feet from patriarch to patriarch with scarcely more than a murmured word behind closed doors. Moments after an electrified glance with Hugh Jackman’s Logan (which we presume is an indication that they are destined for every-lasting love because they share in common… two eyes and an otherwise relatively symmetrical face?), Mariko gets into an “argument” with her father.

"Whaddya mean 'chill out - it was just an argument'? My dad and I disagreed! I'm honour-bound to hurl myself to an untimely death, because that's just the way we roll in crazy sexist Asia!"
“Whaddya mean ‘chill out – it was just an argument’? My dad is pissed with me! I’m honour-bound to hurl myself into this ocean, because that’s just the way we roll in crazy sexist Asia!”

Mariko’s response? To launch herself off a cliff and to a watery death. Because the opinions of Asian men so dominate the lives of Asian women that disagreements should be met with suicide. Right.

Thankfully, Logan swoops in and saves her. And I say thankfully only because otherwise The Wolverine would’ve been the most expensive fifteen minute movie ever made.

This is, in a nutshell, Mariko’s Ophelia-esque character. Throughout the movie, she is meekly dragged from life-threatening situation to life-threatening situation with scarcely a single emotion expressed other than her Deus Ex Machina attraction to the Wolverine. As plot device, she works exceedingly well: there’s so little going on upstairs with Mariko that we can readily forget that she’s supposed to be a human being with her own agency; we can happily accept that she is just a prize for Wolverine to rescue and win, and then safely discard so that he can go back about his life.

Then there’s Yukio, who is her own mixed bag of half-hearted stereotypes. Costumed as a ninja with a Harujuku obsession (because those two things go together), Yukio inexplicably excels at the martial arts (given the origin story given in the movie, there is no good reason why Yukio should be even kinda good at swinging a sword). She is the dragon lady to Mariko’s lotus blossom, dressed in fetishistic schoolgirl garb and shock of red hair against Mariko’s traditional kimono and obi, yet desexualized to allow for Logan’s sexual conquest of Mariko center-stage.

Sure, Yukio kicks major ass in The Wolverine, but it’s still disheartening when one stops to consider how her character spends the entire movie voluntarily and irrationally subservient to Wolverine: 1) at the start of the film, she is introduced as having devoted an entire year of her life to stalking him through the American wilderness (‘cuz, y’know, grown women have nothing better to do with their time), 2) throughout the movie, she repeatedly risks her own life to save his for no discernible reason other than being possibly infatuated with him (an implied emotion based on the aforementioned year of stalking), and 3) at the end of the movie, she declares her decision to follow him around the world serving as his “bodyguard,” like a modern-day Kato.

So, basically, the only Asian woman with any backbone in “The Wolverine” still needs to walk three paces behind and to the right of the White guy in her life. Thanks, Marvel.
So, basically, the only Asian woman with any backbone in “The Wolverine” still needs to walk three paces behind and to the right of the White guy in her life. Thanks, Marvel.

Yet, all this pales in comparison to how Asian men are represented throughout The Wolverine. Or, more appropriately, the single woman-hating Asian male character in The Wolverine, played by Multiple Man. From Mariko’s dying grandfather, to her jealous father, to her hapless fiancee, to her childhood-love-cum-shadowy-ninja-guy friend, every single Asian guy in The Wolverine is at once a demonstrably evil misogynist who is singularly motivated by the imagining of how much better their lives would be if they could only bump off the (one) woman in their lives (in this case, Mariko, who, to her credit, doesn’t seem to have much will to live anyways).

The entire plot of The Wolverine involves these men competing against one another to most effectively use Mariko for their own machinations. Some of these guys (Mariko’s father and fiancee) are content to just kill her; Mariko’s grandfather, however, won’t settle for such mundane sexism: his plan is to fake his own death and install Mariko as his easily-manipulated heir to the family fortune. Meanwhile, he plans to steal Wolverine’s healing factor to render him youthfully immortal. The unspoken ickiness of his plan is that, should this succeed, he would either kill Mariko or (more likely) marry her in his new youthful identity in order to reclaim power. So, “The Wolverine” also has that implied incestuous rape thing going on. Wonderful.

Some have heralded The Wolverine for its predominantly Asian cast, and to that end, I’m always happy to see Will Yun Lee get work and be able to pay his cellphone bill. And hey, at least we weren’t cross-cast, right?

But I ultimately have to disagree with this faint praise. Poor representation is hardly better than no representation at all; and we’ve certainly seen better Asian/Asian American characters this summer than the entire cast of The Wolverine (to wit, Mako Mori of Pacific Rim). Like Miss Saigon, The Wolverine is nothing but a potpourri of flattened anti-Asian stereotypes writ large in a two-dimensional world where everybody and everything Asian exists only to facilitate the personal evolution of our heroically White, heroically male protagonist. We’ve seen these tired tropes before, and other than the adamantium claws, The Wolverine offers nothing new to this pastiche.

I like my stereotypes like I like my Frank Miller, relegated to the comic books of the 80s or earlier when one could at least excuse the racism with certain nostalgia as a reflection of a less-enlightened era, but also as little more than a pathetic novelty item that wouldn’t sell in today’s post-twentieth century comics. And indeed, has anything Frank Miller written in the last decade been worth a damn? Is it too much to suggest that we’re ready to move past the tale of the haunted American GI in war-torn Asia, whose easily disposable love of a native girl is the convenient plot device to restore his humanity?

I spent $11 for my movie ticket, am eating greasy popcorn and seated next to an obnoxious fanboy who thinks he’s cleverer than he is. Don’t I at least deserve a little more narrative depth than a recycled Broadway musical in my comic book movie?

Or, if not, there should at least be more singing.

14 thoughts on “The Wolverine: Memories of Miss Saigon

  1. I have been reading parts of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ book. Much of what was written can be applied to this discourse. But I’ve seen Miss Saigon. My fellow countryman, Lea Salonga, became the toast of Broadway for her performance in that show. This movie is not like Miss Saigon. Wolverine was asked to come to Japan; he did not plan on protecting Mariko. He was not a Western war veteran coming back to search for a woman he abandoned and his son. There was no broken G.I. promise to a poor Asian girl who dreamed of a better life in the West.

    I will agree that Logan became the dominant white knight against many evil Asian men. But none of those men were like the outdated characters depicted in the story by Frank Miller and Claremont. They weren’t even anything like the embarrassing caricatures from the Wolverine anime. In that series they had the gall to move the conflict away from Japan to Madripoor (as if having it in a fictional, corrupt Southeast Asian country was more suitable to a corrupt Japan). Politicians like Noburo, who delighted in white prostitutes, do exist. At least he wasn’t abusing Mariko in this story. She had the dignity not to be near him. Places like the love motel do exist in today’s Japan. Most of modern Japan was realistically depicted It this film. We don’t get the overt ninja stronghold atop a building in “Elektra”, or in G.I.Joe: the Rise of Cobra. The ninjas in this film weren’t named the “Hand” (which in Japanese is hardly an impressive name). They weren’t given any special powers to satisfy the mystical Oriental stereotype. Shingen wasn’t ridiculously skilled with a sword like some Sith Lord. He certainly had family issues, but he expected to inherit the company as any ‘good son’ would. If the grandfather had the guts to accept death perhaps his cowardice wouldn’t have caused so much misery.

    Oh yeah, this is the first superhero film that’s filmed mostly in an Asian setting. It also delivers most of its dialogue in native Japanese. I believe that contributed to its low earnings because of its foreign content. How ironic is that? An X-Men film set in a foreign country doesn’t draw enough viewers.

    1. This movie did little better job than 50’s or 60’s or 70’s anti-Asian racist Hollywood film but is still the anti-asian film. Exclusively the biggest anti-Asian film came out of 2013 in global cinema market. The movie is all about depicting Asian male as whole enemy to single white male hero and Subservient Asian female love interest to white guy. There is nothing new here. Same old format of displaying Hollywood racist caricature.

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