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Sunday October 11, 2009

Wolverine in Japan

The story of the popular X-Men character has been reimagined in manga and anime.

WOLVERINE is a coarse, short-tempered tough guy from the backwoods of Canada, named after a wild animal that shares his hairy appearance, fearsome claws and violent disposition. He’s also a noted Japanophile.

Wolverine is arguably the most popular character from Marvel Comics’ X-Men series, especially after actor Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of him in three successful X-Men movies. He hit Japanese big screens a fourth time in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Japan title: Wolverine: X-Men Zero) last month.

Fans who know the character only through his films may not be aware that he has long-established ties with Japan.

In the 1980s, Chris Claremont wrote a Marvel storyline illustrated by Frank Miller in which Wolverine goes to Japan to learn the fate of Mariko, a woman he loves, only to find that she has married another man at the behest of her powerful father. Claremont has said the story grew from the idea of Wolverine as a “failed samurai”.

In an interview by phone from New York, Claremont said he wanted to express the “struggle between the essential violence of the samurai bonded to the elegance of the katana (samurai sword) as an expression of that, and the control of the philosophical side of the belief system, and the essences of Zen. How do you find a balance between the peace of one side and the violent rage of the other? And that, to me, was an ideal expression of the struggle within Wolverine to find the same balance, the same peace.”

He added: “And it was also about as far removed from every cliche and expectation about Wolverine as a character as we could find. On the one hand you have this roughneck, Canadian, Wild West cowboy. On the other hand, through Mariko, you have this elegant, sophisticated, cultured, incredibly proper, civilised person. So the struggle, the yin and yang, to me as a dramatist, seems ideal.”

Ever unlucky in love, Wolverine had a romance with a woman named Atsuko in a more recent storyline by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Eduardo Risso. It was set in World War II, with Wolverine as an escaped prisoner of war who sees Atsuko murdered before his eyes just before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima obliterates the scene.

Wolverine survives that ordeal because one of his superhero powers is an ability to physically heal from any injury. (He doesn’t look it, but he’s well over 100 years old.) His other major distinction is a metal skeleton with long, sharp claws that burst out between his knuckles with a trademark “snikt” sound when he needs them in a fight.

Takashi Yamazaki, the manager of Rubber Duck (www.rubberduck-toys.com), a shop in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, specialising in figurines of American movie characters, called the claws “cool and simple weapons”. Rubber Duck carries a variety of figurines of Wolverine, who in Yamazaki’s “personal opinion ... is as popular as Iron Man, Spider-Man or Batman in Japan.”

Wolverine will soon star in an anime. Some fans do not approve of his new look.

Yamazaki said in an e-mail that part of Wolverine’s appeal is that he “doesn’t have a great look or style. He is a short, hairy man with a stubbly beard – unlike conventional heroes”.

“His wild and woolly character may also be appealing to Japanese people,” Yamazaki said. “I think Japanese like outlaws with a dark or twisted side more than a perfectly good-mannered hero.”

Since his 1974 debut, Wolverine has been drawn by numerous artists, and can look a bit different in each one’s work.

The character gets a manga makeover in a series titled Wolverine: Prodigal Son from Del Rey Manga in the United States. Part of a growing library of manga produced outside of Japan, Prodigal Son has a story by British writer Antony Johnston and pictures by Filipino artist Wilson Tortosa. This alternate version of the character’s story imagines him as a young student in a Japanese-style dojo (training hall) in present-day North America.

In a phone interview from Manila, Tortosa explained Wolverine’s slim new look in Prodigal Son. “He’s supposed to be 14 years old ... When you see Logan (as the character is also known) in comics, he’s this short, squat guy, very wide, very muscular. But if he was 14 years old, it would be really hard to make someone really muscled and wide.”

“He looks more buff than muscled,” Tortosa said, comparing the young Wolverine’s physique to that of Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop.

While Wolverine may look Spike-y, Tortosa compared his personality to that of Manji, a character from the manga Blade of the Immortal who, like Wolverine, can recover from any injury.

“He’s basically the Wolverine version in the manga world. And he also has this grim, sour disposition, but he’s got this weird code of honour that he will have to kill a number of bad guys to redeem himself,” Tortosa said. “It’s easy for me to see the character of Manji in Wolverine ... When I’m reading the books, I can actually hear Logan’s voice when I read (Manji’s) dialogue. He even makes the same expressions, the usual smirk and the way he narrows his eyes.”

Rather than being short and muscular like in the American comics, Wolverine in the manga Wolverine: Prodigal Son is more buff than muscular.

But Wolverine is not stopping at manga. The Japanese animation studio Madhouse is working on a Wolverine anime TV series.

In an interview at Madhouse’s offices in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, producer Fuminori Hara said that the 12-episode show is one of four Marvel anime adaptations the company is now working on. The first will feature Iron Man, Wolverine will follow, and the next two characters have yet to be announced.

In teaser trailers that can be found on YouTube, the anime Iron Man is instantly recognisable as he flies past Tokyo Tower at night and causes its lights to flicker. But the anime Wolverine, shown battling spectral ninjas, is more radically reimagined, with long flowing hair that nearly reaches his waist. Some fans have objected to the new look.

“There was a confused reaction initially at the Wolverine trailer,” said Hara, who attended a screening of it at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego, California, this year. He stressed that the trailer is just a small sample of a work-in-progress – there is no voice cast yet and the script is still being written – and he said that Madhouse intends to make their final vision of Wolverine something that will be acceptable to fans.

The series will be broadcast on the Animax channel in Japan and other countries as early as next summer (around July). In the United States, where Animax is not available, Sony Pictures will handle distribution, Hara said. They are aiming for a show that will be fun for teens and that collectors in their 20s and 30s will want to buy on DVD.

“Wolverine has a Japanese master that he served under, and he has been to Japan quite often,” Hara said. “Also, a Japanese audience prefers characters with dark backgrounds or a sad past. In that aspect, we believe it’s going to be well-received by a Japanese audience.” – The Daily Yomiuri / Asia News Network

What do you think of Wolverine in anime and manga forms? E-mail us your thoughts at otaku@thestar.com.my.

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