Sacramento Faculty Member Morgan Giles Explores Connections in Visual Culture

By: Morgan Giles

May 29, 2017

Morgan Giles is a general education faculty member at The Art Institute of California—Sacramento, a campus of Argosy University. He teaches the course “Visual Language & Culture” and in this article, Giles explores a theory of visual culture called “Orientalism.”

“Orientalism,” a theory of visual culture, explores the way Westerners (especially those from Europe and North America) have historically viewed people living in the Eastern Hemisphere (Africa, India, Asia, Russia, and the Middle East). They’ve viewed them as exotic, barbaric, mystical, or uncivilized.  Its roots are in early New World exploration by the Europeans, when stories would return on mercantile ships about distant, exotic lands and their inhabitants, beliefs, and practices.  Popular European artists advanced these often-false representations throughout the 19th century, first with Odalisque paintings that depicted exotic Middle-Eastern female concubines seductively inviting the male gaze, then with early portrait photography of barely-clothed native African women that were popular in countries fascinated by the histories of slave trade. 

American railroad companies furthered this by depicting enslaved Chinese railroad laborers (in comic strip form, no less) as less-than-human. Currently, we can see Orientalism in contemporary anime and manga, Kung Fu movies and games, the exoticism of Eastern or Middle-Eastern dining customs, funny Internet photos and memes of Russian bathrooms during the Winter Olympics, hookah bars, Islamophobia, and the Star Wars universe. It’s in countless Western depictions of the East.  Film critics are currently writing and discussing the classic Western movie influences on James Mangold’s film Logan (2017), the John Wayne/John Ford/Clint Eastwood/Wolverine swan-song-mash-up, but there’s another worldly influence in coordination with the American ones: samurai films and the collaborative works between Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune.

The documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai, directed by Steven Okazaki, and currently streaming on Netflix, explores the creative history between two of Japan’s most revered movie icons. It balances eye-catching clips of their classic film works with recent interviews of family members and with Japanese film industry contemporaries (many actors reminisce, but look for the swordplay choreographer’s interview that sets the story in motion). 

The Wolverine viewers experience in Logan isn’t just born from the quiet, solitary man often portrayed by John Wayne or the Man with No Name/Outlaw Josey Wales embodied by Clint Eastwood.  Like the disconnected anti-heroes portrayed by Mifune, these American nonpareils were always social outcasts or misfits, with an innate sense of good and right.  They wanted to help the little guy, whether it was a town, a woman, or a child in need of salvation from villains of all kinds, especially those affected by greed and lust for power.  No doubt this is at the heart of Logan and many other Wolverine-centric stories in the comics’ rich history.  He always has a job to do, and he does it to the absolute best of his ability, never taking “no” for an answer.

Theories of postmodernism suggest that binary oppositions are fluid, interchangeable, and not fixed forever.  West does not necessarily dominate East.  Like the heroes of Star Wars and many other films produced in its wake, Wolverine’s sense of ethics aligns with the samurai or Ronin heroes popular in Japanese cinema, known to Westerners as samurai or Chanbara films.  Ronin were in the same figurative boat as the Lonesome High Plains Drifter: they were rejected from proper society for not being worthy in some regard, and women weren’t allowed to show interest because society wouldn’t approve of such pairings.

 But these solitary swordsmen were trained in the overtly masculine art of swordsmanship, which has been connected for centuries to Buddhist and Zen mysticism and the Eastern belief in an underground lifeforce running through the universe known as Chi (which also influenced a young George Lucas when he began drafting Star Wars).  A sword worked only for its rightful master, just as Luke Skywalker’s light saber did, and just as Wolverine’s adamantium claws do.  Like the lonesome gunfighter or the excommunicated mutant we see struggling to get by in Logan, samurai and Ronin were dreamers, fighters, outcasts, and romantic anti-heroes for disaffected youth of pre- and post-World War II Japan. Remind you of any other iconic American superheroes?

Like all the great comic book/Star Wars/Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings films of the past 40 years, Chanbara films were always elaborate costume dramas.  From its birth during the silent era, heroes and villains were easily distinguished through dress, hairstyle, armor, weaponry, body language, and other visual cues.  Mifune: The Last Samurai makes the point that the earliest swordfighter movies were often choreographed with a playful sense of whimsy and humor. 

As the film arts evolved, and production became more complicated and involved, films became more realistic and violent.  Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa collaborated on sixteen different films, including film studies classics Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Yojimbo (1961).  Each of these films contain eye-popping, jaw-dropping moments that prove to be masterworks of acting, directing, cinematography, choreography, stunt work, and swordplay.  Pre- and post-War American culture projected images of the Japanese as vermin-like and uncultured; these films showing anything but.  If an introduction is needed, check out this ridiculous-on-purpose musical appropriation of Throne of Blood’s overly dramatic conclusion (those were real arrows Mifune dodges, by the way).  Aside from the visual wonders on the surface, though, lie relatable characters, both good and bad.  Recognizable characters are one of the many techniques that make film such a universal language.

This is the turning point we’re witnessing right now, both with Logan and Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016), two recent Marvel comic book films that have upended the genre with much more graphic simulated or realistic violence, characters struggling with mortality, and heroes that defy the traditional norms and conventions placed upon them historically by society.  Deadpool’s violence is so over-the-top it’s clownish, and viewers are invited to mock its obvious fakeness along with the titular hero. On the other hand, Logan’s brutality feels so authentic, even though we know Wolverine is a fictional character.  If he existed in the real world, that is how he would kill people, and that is exactly what it would look and feel like, not the quick snick-snick-and-the-bad-guy-falls-over-dead-bloodless seen in earlier X-Men films and cartoons.  Like many of Mifune’s tragic samurai heroes, Wolverine is aware of his oncoming death throughout the film but keeps fighting until there is nothing left to give.  Perseverance has been one of the most relatable and instinctual human traits of them all, and film viewers around the world have long admired a hero willing to give it all for what he or she believes is right.

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By: Morgan Giles

May 29, 2017