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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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High & Low

"High & Low" (1963)
One of legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's very best movies is also one of his most frequently overlooked (probably because there isn't a single samurai in this one, let alone seven), a raw, tough-as-nails adaptation of one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, this one involving a botched kidnapping and the fallout that follows. Like "The Wolverine," it concerns a very wealthy man (frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune) living in very modern Japan, whose child becomes the target of a kidnap and ransom plot. The only problem is that instead of grabbing the titan's offspring, they accidentally snatch the son of his chauffeur. Thus begins a prolonged and highly suspenseful movie where all parties try to retrieve the missing child, even though the wealthy executive has no real incentive to do so, other than those Japanese hallmarks of honor, loyalty, and selflessness. (Paying the ransom could throw his position in his company into disarray.) "The Wolverine" also concerns an aging titan of industry and a kidnapping plot, while mirroring, ever-so-slightly, the relationship between the Mariko (Okamoto), the daughter of the wealthy elder, and Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a girl from the streets who becomes Mariko's adopted sister. But for all of the superhero film's dazzling, $125 million excesses, there isn't a moment as striking or beautiful or haunting as the simple image of pink smoke emanating from a chimney in the otherwise black-and-white "High & Low." It beats a chase on top of a bullet train any day.

outlaw josey wales
"The Outlaw Josey Wales"

"The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976)
One of ten movies "The Wolverine" director James Mangold tweeted as the key influences for the film, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is a classic Clint Eastwood western (co-written by "Rising Sun" director Philip Kaufman) about a similarly lawless, wanted man who is awash in existential dread and prone to violent confrontation. It's easy to see Mangold injecting some of Eastwood's Wales, a Civil War-era Missouri farmer whose wife is killed by soldiers associated with the Union, in Jackman's Logan. Both characters are men trapped between two warring factions (in Wolverine's case, it's the ninjas and the yakuza) and seemingly wanted by everyone with a gun and a grudge. They are less men of action than of words who use extreme violence as punctuation, the death of a love one haunts both of them (in Wolverine's case, quite literally) and, oh yeah, they both have spectacularly grizzled facial hair. And yeah, neither have any qualms about walking into a town alone with a score to settle.

The Samurai Trilogy

"The Samurai Trilogy" (1954, 1955, 1956)
Another series of films cited in Mangold's list, these three films by Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Inagaki, follows a single samurai (Toshiro Mifune, again!) through the years. It's based, in part, on the life of a real life swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi, who has reached folkloric heights in Japan. You can see the connection between "The Wolverine" and elements of each film, particularly in the first, when the samurai has yet to secure his true name and engages in a forbidden love affair that he has to leave at the very end of the movie (it's got a surprising emotional punch for a samurai movie). The latter two films are less bittersweet and more focused on action, which isn't a complaint, given how well Inagaki stages these sequences. You get the impression that Mangold borrowed much from the way that Inagaki frames the action, particularly in "The Wolverine" during the opening World War II sequence and when Logan visits the ancient village where the man he saved during the war once lived. It's during this sequence, complete with ninjas on rooftops and an absurd amount of arrows, that you can feel the "Samurai Trilogy" the most, with Mangold optimizing the visuals for his widescreen presentation, lining up the squat buildings like dollhouses in a comic book panel. If you've never seen these movies, they're well worth a watch, particularly since Criterion recently collected the films in a handsome two-disc Blu-ray package.

Of course, Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Volume 1" is an obvious point of comparison, both for its loving recreation of Japanese movie tropes (all sorts — even horror curio "Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" gets a shout-out), including the samurai genre, and for its westerner-in-Japan motif ('Volume 2' is much more of a western, which "The Wolverine" shares certain parts of, but to a far lesser degree); "Ninja III: Dominion" is worth watching for its campy fun and its incredibly western appropriation of Japanese mythos (it's also probably one of the weirdest movies you're likely to see), and like "The Wolverine," it blends elements of the supernatural and the bloodily physical; and John McTiernan's masterpiece "Die Hard" shares a similar fascination with the way that ancient Japanese traditions can be modernized (its setting is almost identical to that of "Rising Sun," even if its plot is far less political). Then there were the other movies listed by Mangold in his marathon tweeting session -- Wong Kar-Wai's "Happy Together" and "Chungking Express," Yasujuro Ozu's classic "Floating Weeds" (which isn't as out there as you might think), "Black Narcissus" by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Takashi Miike's recent triumph "13 Assassins," William Friedkin's "The French Connection," and, of course, "Shane."

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


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