Under the Influence: Finding Ozu, Josey Wales and James Mangold’s Other Inspirations in ‘The Wolverine’
Matt Patches July 29, 2013
James Mangold knows his sh*t. And he wants you to look at it. He wants you look at his sh*t. He’s got references in every color!
Earlier this year, the “Walk the Line” and “Knight and Day” director took to Twitter to help educate his followers, many of whom were watching his feed in anticipation of comic book revelations. Could Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma”), a man of many genres who lacked “geek cred,” do justice to the X-Men’s most famous character? His way of giving people hope was the opposite of what anyone would have expected. There was no pandering to the source material. Instead, Mangold brought his film knowledge to the table, spelling out ten films — some widely classics, some deeper cuts — that informed or inspired “The Wolverine.”
It’s a ballsy move, one that promised a different kind of superhero movie. Many directors cite influences that disappear after going through the filtration process of big, studio filmmaking. Surprisingly, this isn’t the case for “The Wolverine,” that actually manages to wear its influences on its sleeve. Below, we go through Mangold’s list to see how the masters of the past seeped into the cinematic language of one of the summer’s best movies.
“THE SAMURAI TRILOGY”
Hiroshi Inagaki’s triptych of honor, violence and self-discovery by way of the sword runs through the veins of Mangold’s “X-Men” movie. Over three films, Inagaki chronicled the exploits of the fabled Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune, whose feral performance certainly inspired Hugh Jackman), who went from a deadly warrior with tunnel-vision to Japan’s archetypical definition of “hero.” 1954’s “Musashi Miyamoto,” 1955’s “Duel at Ichijoji Temple,” and 1956’s “Duel at Ganryu Island” have the breathing room to paint with bold colors, both in intangible story beats and the literal palette of the film — every shot looks spread across the frame like ink wash painting.
Mangold lives by the samurai “code” for “The Wolverine.” Logan embodies Musashi Miyamoto’s personal journey over a two-hour arc; we pick up with him as a steadfast loner, drifting through the Canadian wilderness and picking fights. He comes to own his inevitable heroism, embracing the laws of the ronin. Along the way, he struggles with a love triangle (similar to “Samurai’s” Otsu/Akemi/Miyamoto relationship) that’s just as crippling as his many battles.
“THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES”
If Wolverine is Miyamoto at heart, he’s the vengeful Josey Wells — or better yet, a modern reflection of the Clint Eastwood persona — on the outside. Mangold previously tackled the Western with his remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” With “The Wolverine,” he’s found an entry point to the “Man with No Name”/Segio Leone pictures, rather than the plot-driven American Westerns of the ’50s. Eastwood picked up the reigns of his cowboy legacy for 1976’s “Josey Wells,” reconfiguring his identity to click with the stark realism of the era. Mangold’s “Wolverine” follows suit; the film is spiritually Leone, stylistically Eastwood.
It helps that Jackman’s physique matches the younger Eastwood. During an early scene where Logan is incarcerated at a Japanese military base, Mangold finds a close up frame that provides Jackman ample squinting room, that blinding-light grimace that solidified Eastwood as cinema’s resident badass. Logan later becomes a gunslinger-without-a-gun at the funeral scene, striding towards yakuza as if wielding two six-shooters. Inagaki’s previously referenced “Samurai Trilogy” isn’t far from what one might consider a “Western.” With “Wolverine,” Mangold attempts to find a bridge between the Western and Eastern interpretations.
Like “The Outlaw Josey Wells,” this 1953 Western showcases the brute force of one man. Alan Ladd’s titular character is often criticized for his renegade lifestyle, resorting to violence when a crisis emerges, but more often than not, that internal power winds up saving the day. Shane was simply born to fight and protect. In “The Wolverine,” Logan has to suck it up and own the same purpose.
Mangold makes a few pointed references to “Shane.” After rescuing Mariko and hiding out in her country home, Logan helps the townsfolk by chipping away at a fallen tree that blocks a road. It’s the small feats of strength that give Wolverine credibility during action. “Shane” pulls the same move in a scene where our hero helps the Starlett family uproot a stump. Mangold also goes to the George Stevens-directed picture when crafting his movie’s keystone set piece. Like the infamous bar brawl in “Shane,” the bullet train sequence in “Wolverine” relies on sound effects, the type of high impact sonic spectrum that hits hard and leaves a mark.
Dropping Yasujiro Ozu into the conversation certainly earned Mangold some cinephile points, but the fact that his appreciation for the Japanese auteur’s work is manifested on screen is something of a miracle. Ozu’s films are snapshots of everyday life and culture in Japan, picturesque but fomenting with reservoirs of deep generational drama. Where most action blockbusters can’t afford the time to slow down and bask in location, Mangold allows us to understand the Japan of “The Wolverine.” When Logan and Mariko travel to the country home, they arrive in a coastal town straight out of “Floating Weeds.” They wander the halls of the home, cook and share a meal and spend time together in a domestic setting that’s framed similarly to one of Ozu’s signature pillow shots.
Wolverine isn’t the superhero best known for his detective skills or his noir influences, so when he flies around the globe to meet a dying Harada (Wil Yun Lee) for the second time in his life, he’s instantly in over his head. He can’t choose to solve a mystery, he must solve the mystery. And he’ll take a beating doing it.
Like Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in “Chinatown,” Logan pulls on a loose thread that unravels an intricate plot. While he’s quick to instigate a fight, Logan, like Jake, is an observer and a tracker. He can sniff out a clue — in Logan’s case, quite literally. This gets both gentlemen into trouble. Thanks to the removal of his powers, Logan is damaged goods as he travels Japan hoping to put the lid on Mariko’s troubles. His bullet holes aren’t quite as iconic as Jake’s sliced nose, but both injuries make the characters visibly vulnerable. We know that with each step, inching deeper and deeper into the mystery, the potential of their demise increases. They aren’t immortal, even if they think they are.
“THE FRENCH CONNECTION”
Every filmmaker wants to recapture the visceral nature of “The French Connection.” Few have had the freedom to go crazy in the middle of a bustling town since William Friedkin shot fast and loose under the raised subways of Brooklyn, New York. Mangold attempts to mimic Friedkin’s work in that monumental piece of action cinema in his foot chase through the streets of Tokyo. What the sequence lacks from the grime of a Pontiac LeMans interior and the grit of shooting on film, Mangold makes up for in juggling perspectives and jagged angles.
“French Connection” jumps from wide angle of the streets, cars skidding through red lights, to the inside of a speeding subway train to Popeye Doyle behind the wheel, following the action as best he can. “The Wolverine” takes a similar approach. Wolverine and Mariko are running through the streets, yakuza are chasing them, and from high above, Kenuichio the archer tries to interrupt the situation.
Mangold cited two films by Wong Kar-wai on his list of inspirations. The first, “Chungking Express,” feels like a visual cue. The dueling stories of romance at play in “Chungking” are set against the vibrant city of Hong Kong. Wong Kar-wai presents it as a city of great magnitude through swift movement and saturated colors, versus sweeping that tell us it’s grand. Again, it’s the difference between shooting in a location and respecting the life of that location. The deepest connection between “Chungking” and “The Wolverine” comes at the tail end of the city chase, when Logan and Mariko duck into a small pachinko parlor. The frame is alive with action, and its vibrancy feels authentic.
Mangold works the same magic when Logan and Mariko seek refuge after the chase. They wind up in a sex hotel with kinky rooms lit by a spectrum of colors. Like the Chungking Mansions in Wong Kar-wai’s film, the hotel feels lived in and it’s run by people with personalities. Nothing in Mangold’s film is a throwaway (at least not in the first two acts).
The relationships of “The Wolverine” are likely indebted to Wong Kar-wai’s filmography. Less poignant is Logan’s rebound with Mariko, similar to “Chungking Express” in its exploration of breaking up and finding solace in a new individual. What really works is love’s aggressive side, found in Wolverine’s tortured relationship with Jean Grey and at the heart of Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together.” The gay romance story, cast in some of the filmmaker’s most dramatic cinematography, follows the constant clash between two abrasive men who can’t say no to one another. They haunt each other like ghosts, one constantly appearing when the other leasts expects it. Like the characters in “Happy Together,” Jean keeps invading Logan’s mind. She’s always in his memories and does her worst when she slips into his bed — even if it’s a figment of his imagination.
On a totally different note, Mangold also takes a chance and includes songs on his “Wolverine” soundtrack (a rare move for any movie with a Marvel hero), including Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car.” It’s not hard to trace the move back to Wong Kar-wai, who has alway had an ear for integrating pop tunes, jazz standards, or any vocally enhanced piece of music into his movies.
In the 21st century, when it comes to flooding the screen with swords and sparring, Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” has become essential viewing. On numerous occasions in Mangold’s film, Wolverine finds himself pitted against ninja squads, crime syndicates, and mano-a-mano fights to the death. With “13 Assassins,” Miike set a gold standard for the modern presentation of these types of fights. Mangold isn’t cribbing from “13 Assassins” in his action scenes, but it’s clear he’s studied “Samurai Battling 101” from Miike. The final sequence of “13 Assassins” is staged in a claustrophobic village where soldiers are dueling on any available platform and are often scrambling to stay alive. It never feels overly choreographed because the fighting is imperfect. Yukio (Rila Fukushima) warding off Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) is the perfect demonstration of this approach.
“The Wolverine” is also the first time we see Logan draw blood with his claws. It’s not gory — and Miike has gone much further in the course of his career — but Mangold knows the impact of a splash of red liquid.
Hollywood has forgotten the power of a great matte painting. The backdrops in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” aren’t realistic, our eyes can clearly tell the difference between the effect shots and true landscapes (especially on Criterion’s gorgeous Blu-ray edition), but they’re captivating in their artistry. They add to the wonder. CG has just never has that same breathtaking effect.
For “The Wolverine,” Mangold recreates the mountain construct from “Black Narcissus,” transporting it from the Himalayas to the mountains of Japan. When Logan confronts Harada, now empowered by the Silver Samurai armor, he’s pushed out of a broken pillar wall and hangs above a rocky chasm. Like the final moments of “Black Narcissus,” Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh hanging on to the bell platform with all her might as the near-demonic Sister Ruth digs into her fingers, the Silver Samurai drills into the Logan’s claws. If only Harada had those Sister Ruth eyes….
Categories: FeaturesTags: Black Narcissus, Chinatown, Chungking express, Hugh jackman, James Mangold, Japan, Matt Patches, Shane, The french connection, The Wolverine, Yasujiro ozu