“The Wolverine” and Different Cultures in Comics

The Wolverine Japan theme poster

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

It’s strange to be reading December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the Worldby Craig Shirley and read all of the vitriol directed against Japanese people in the days after Pearl Harbor in the summations of newspaper accounts.  I know that not using derogative terms to talk about groups of people is a relatively new concept, but looking at the headlines and words used in newspapers still gave me pause.  (The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the chapter I just read mentioned Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Redskins.)

I recently saw The Wolverine and it begins at the other side of the story of WWII, nearly four years after Pearl Harbor when the sovereign land of the Japanese was hit with atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the planes of the United States.  Logan is a prisoner of war in a special constructed cell that buries him in a hole well beneath the surface of the earth.  A bomber passes overhead. A Japanese officer rushes to release POWs from their jails.  He finally cuts the lock from Logan’s cage as well after a bit of deliberation and joins his fellow officers as they face the horizon in the position to commit seppuku before the bomb hits Nagasaki.

December 1941 Shirley

(As an aside, in a recent book or article, I had read that the firebombing before the atomic bombs caused more casualties.  To confirm that notion, I went to Wikipedia and read the lists of casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before radiation exposure deaths, at about 246,000 killed.  The U.S. firebombing of 67 cities in Japan listed estimates of 500,000 killed.)

I also recently read Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, which began before WWII and continued well after it, but in the middle painted a portrait of how awful conditions were in the Japanese prisoner camps during WWII through the eyes of Louie Zamperini.  She writes of people who would break down in fits of screaming and crying at the sight of rice when back in the U.S. in the late 1940s because of their experience during the war.


In the preceding paragraphs, I can’t say it’s strange for strong feelings in times of war, hatred and fear due to harshness of life for POWs and anger for the killing of civilians, but rather it’s strange to see it against the Japanese who have been staunch U.S. allies all the time that I’ve been alive.  Even with the deaths involved in both sides of the war over the nearly four years of battle in the Pacific and less than 70 years later, all I know is good relations and the incorporation of Japanese culture into stories of the American West, and vice versa.  I know stories of Japanese samurai from movies and comic books. I have seen the study of ninjutsu, karate and judo (specific to Japan) as part of the eastern martial arts training for superheroes in comics.  One of the most accomplished filmmakers in my lifetime is Akira Kurosawa.  Hayao Miyazaki founded one of my favorite animation studios.  The impact of Japan in the popular culture of today is significant.

(As another aside, China was an ally in World War II because of the common enemy of Japan.  The term “kung fu” is a Chinese term and has been a part of many movies and television shows of the past and has also had a significant impact.  Yet, if you take a quick glance at the news, this is the country that is a threat to the U.S. now.  I’m not saying they’re guiltless, thinking of Tibet and Tiananmen Square, but the people there, just like here, want freedom for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, like any people in any place around the world.  We just have to figure out together the best ways to do that for everyone, no matter what sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, favorite comic book company, favorite comedian, favorite TV genre, favorite sports or whatever makes us different kinds of nerds.  As Wheaton’s Law says, “Don’t be a dick” and I think that’s relevant on the macro level as well as the micro level.)

Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa

There are other cultures and influences in the realm of entertainments.  I would bet it’s easier to create a list of countries that haven’t fought another country and don’t have a significant pop culture impact than those that have and do.  But those that have and do are much more interesting.

I think of Doctor Who as a great import from England and there are also the guys behind Monty Python, the bard William Shakespeare and the great work done by Sir Laurence Olivier to bring Shakespeare to the screen and this is the country that the original states fought against to create the U.S.A.  The Norwegians have given us Thor, Odin and Loki and the conquering Vikings. Most of the Knights Templar lived (and died) in France as did Napoleon (though he died in exile).  The Egyptians have given us Isis, Anubis, scarab beetles and the ankh and its pharaohs conquered most of the Nile River basin. Ingmar Berman was from Sweden where they fought many a war until they fought to stay neutral starting in the early 19th century.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky was Russian and when it comes to war in Russia the word “cold” continually comes to the fore. Federico Fellini was Italian as was Il Duce.

Hayao Miyazaki
Hayao Miyazaki

So every country contributes to every other country in some fashion even though their past is fraught with violence.  I’d like to say there is a fascination with the East and those methods of battle and bits of their culture, but for every Iron Fist there’s a Moon Knight.  For Batman, there’s Doctor Fate.  For Doctor Light, there’s Rocket Red.  For Wolverine, there’s Nightcrawler.  For Doctor Strange there’s Doctor Doom.  For Elektra, there’s Shaman.  It would be easy to try to say that the debt comics owe to the culture of Japan is large, but I could say that of many places and cultures.  Just like the United States and increasingly the Earth, the world of pop culture and comics is a big melting pot of ideas from all over the world.  The more we travel into the future with that kind of information available to us all, the more of a beautiful stew it will be.

Maybe the future will just contain battles in the funny pages.  Maybe like Wolverine dreams, we can avoid fighting and live in peace.  We can always hope that our dreams come true at the expense of Logan’s.

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