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

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 25, 2013 at 3:41PM

"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.
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You Only Live Twice

"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

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

"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

"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.

This article is related to: The Wolverine, Features, Feature, Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski, Edward Zwick, Roger Towne, Paul Schrader, Clint Eastwood, Akira Kurosawa, Hugh Jackman, Sydney Pollack