The Long Game: Damsels in Distress and White Saviors or Meta Thoughts About Mariko Yashida in The Wolverine

First thing I have to say about The Wolverine is that while I thought the movie was mostly okay, I don’t understand why it needed to be made. Yes, it’s based on a canon X-Men story that’s well known (Logan’s time in Japan with one of his great canon loves, Mariko Yashida), but the story feels like something that would be fine for an episode or two of a TV show, but you wouldn’t necessarily make it the subject of a whole movie. It largely feels like hey look at this random adventure of Logan’s–in Japan! Yay? 2 hours of extreme Logan manpain and frowny faces: the sequel. At least when you think of it as a WOLVERINE movie. But more on that later. Lack of need aside, it's worth noting that this is likely the ONLY Marvel movie we will ever get with a cast that is majority PoC. Unless Black Panther is actually set in Wakanda (I'm not holding my breath). 

I really like the characters Mariko Yashida and Yukio. I found myself really wanting to see their movie. This whole thing should have been their story. Like, tell me, how does it feel to be Yukio in the house of Yashida. I mean, she grew up in this house as one step above a servant but never considered an actual member of the family–except to Mariko. And what about having one of the suckiest mutant powers ever? The ability to see how people are going to die?? NOPE. I’d be afraid to look at or get to know anyone. And what of Mariko? The princess who is betrayed by everyone when she inherits the kingdom she doesn’t want. These two girls who had nothing but each other. The only people who didn’t see them as tools or means to an end. The only people who loved them. Give me THAT story. Please. But, the cool thing is, this movie is largely, whether intentionally or not, Mariko's story, not Logan's. 

(Um. I feel some kinda way about this poster on the left....and why isn't Mariko on the cover of this one (on the right)? It's HER story.) 

Being fairly familiar with the original story, I prepared myself for some icky Orientalism in this movie. I mean, it probably couldn’t get around it considering the canon. I just hoped it wasn’t completely full of Orientalist tropes, you know? So...the tropes are definitely there: ninjas, Yakuza, submissive Asian women, domineering Asian men, the white savior etc. But, as you watch, something interesting happens: you realize that a lot of these tropes are (seemingly) subverted. The question is: is this intentional on the part of the film makers or pure coincidence. And until someone asks the question and the film makers tell us, the answer seems to depend on how cynical you are. But putting that aside, here are the things I noticed/found interesting/subversive:

1. Mariko as a damsel in distress:

Mariko continuously tells Logan that she doesn’t need his help in the film. He continuously ignores this. The audience ignores this. Mariko looks like a damsel in distress: delicate, pretty, quiet, in danger. One of the times Logan insists on protecting her, she asks him why and he tells her doesn’t think she’ll last to the end of the day if he doesn’t. Mariko gives him a Look that pretty obviously says “Yeah. Okay.” Considering all the attempted kidnappings and shootings that have gone on thus far, you assume that he’s right. Her insistence that she doesn’t need Logan and her dismissive and rude behavior to him (HE’S JUST TRYING TO KEEP YOU ALIVE, MARIKO! WHY ARE YOU FIGHTING HIM ON IT?) comes across as her being naive, stupid and/or suicidal. But it becomes increasingly clear that this is largely an act on her part. For example, she can fight. Yes, in the film she’s often being dragged somewhere by thugs like a typical damsel, but only until she’s had enough. Then we see her using very effective hand-to-hand fighting techniques. She’s calm and efficient. Clearly trained. It’s obviously advantageous for her to play the part of the helpless victim in order to gain information and let others foolishly under-estimate her. THIS is what Logan is messing up with his alpha male assumptions. When she tells him that she’s going into hiding, he condescendingly assumes she means her HOUSE–where everyone knows she lives. She gives him yet another Look that practically screams “do you think I’m an idiot?” and then takes him to her grandfather’s house in Nagasaki that everyone has seemingly forgotten about. Early on in the flim, one of the first things Logan sees of Mariko is her being hit by her father after they argue. Logan is clearly disturbed by her being hit and passively just taking it-which is understandable. However, later in the film her father goes to hit her again and Mariko easily blocks him with her hand. She *let* him hit her earlier. Again, she had to appear to be the obedient, submissive daughter. It's all part of the plan. 

2. Mariko is playing the long game:

I’m convinced that Mariko has this elaborate investigation that she’s set up that Logan keeps on jeopardizing. It’s supposed to be a big reveal that Mariko’s father is the one who put the hit out on her. Logan eventually beats the information out of her skeazy fiance, the minister of protection (or something). Thing is, it’s clear that Mariko *knew* this. Probably from the beginning of the movie. After her father hit her, she dramatically takes off across the court yard and appears to try and throw herself over the wall in an attempt to kill herself. Logan conveniently stops her (thanks, white savior!). Near the end of the film, her father brings this up and says something like he can finish what she started/tried to do. Mariko calmly looks at him and says that she never intended to kill herself. Her father looks shocked. He realizes that he’s been played. Of course she wouldn’t try to kill  herself in such a public and easily foiled way! She wanted to see if he would stop her or saying something, show some concern. He didn’t. Because he wanted her dead. She needed proof.

At the house in Nagasaki, Logan asks Mariko about her fiance. Mariko says she doesn’t want to marry him, but her father arranged it. Logan is clearly full of opinions about her being obedient to her father and marrying someone she doesn’t love. She tells him that it would bring dishonor to her father and that she doesn’t expect him to understand, being non-Japanese. That shuts down the questioning–which is what she intended. Keep in mind that she likely knows that her fiance and father in are cahoots to off her. She’s still playing the long game, which means being the obedient daughter. Her fiance tells Logan that Mariko would never go through with the wedding if she knew she was the sole inheritor of the company/fortune. But that’s not her motivation at all. He makes it sound like she wouldn’t marry him if she were financially independent, but she cites honor and duty. The fiance is part of her con.

Everyone is trying to kill her before her grandfather’s will is read. Mariko asks Logan why her grandfather would leave her a company, a fortune and a legacy she doesn’t want and he says that’s why. Because she doesn’t want it. Thing is, we’re supposed to believe that she has no idea she’s going to inherit this…but she never really seems shocked or surprised. Like someone would be. Again, not as ignorant as she seems.

3. Logan as white savior:

Logan clearly thinks that he is going to sweep in and save Mariko from all this Big Bad Stuff. Because he's assigned her the role of Princess and him of Hero/Prince. It’s very interesting how differently he treats Mariko and Yukio. Based on looks alone he assumes that Mariko is the delicate damsel who needs the strong man to heroically protect her. He never treats Yukio like this. In fact, he’s often brusque with her. Dismissive. Cold. Even when she’s expressing great concern for him. But then she’s not pretty like Mariko, (seemingly) delicate, willowy, aloof, soft-spoken, or submissive. Yukio doesn’t trigger his white man protective urges. Where the trope is subverted is that it’s the other way around more often than not. Mariko is in control. She has to save him several times.

First of all, he doesn’t know the country or the language or the customs. Mariko has to translate for him. She has to explain what things are (like the couples hotel). She has to navigate for him. She instructs him in etiquette and proper use of things like how to tie his robe and properly using chop sticks. He has no means of getting things like food and shelter without her. Unlike the usual trope, he’s not better at being Japanese than she is.

Second of all, after he collapses in the hotel, she gets medical treatment for him. His healing factor is gone. He would have likely bled to death if she hadn’t gotten help for him. Despite being a “princess,” as he calls her, she has the knowledge and means to quietly get the hotel owner’s son, a veterinarian student, to remove the bullets in his body and patch him up.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, she saves him in the big showdown at the end. Logan is effectively confined to the chair-thing and unable to defend himself when the giant samurai tries to cut off his blades with it’s meltingly hot sword. It’s Mariko who jumps into the fray, in front of a GIANT SAMURAI MADE OF ADAMANTIUM WITH A GIANT FIRE HOT SWORD, and gives Logan the opportunity to escape. Keeping in mind that she has escaped from her badass ninja childhood friend to do it. And she saves Logan at the end when he’s at the mercy of her grandfather and getting his healing ability sucked out of him. She's the big damn hero! At the end of the film, she's saved Logan, solved her own story/kept herself alive AND is running the company. 

…..honestly, why was this movie not called “Mariko Yashida: She’s Fine, Logan, Thanks”??

Do you agree with all this? Any of this? Or do you think I'm reaching and/or giving the movie more credit than it's due? Let me know!

*note: A first draft of this content originally appeared on my personal WordPress blog in June of 2014*

Niala Terrell-Mason's picture
on March 16, 2015

Hey, I'm Niala! I'm black, bisexual, super liberal, a Unitarian Universalist (I'll wait while you Google that), and a long time fangirl. I love fan conventions, Marvel, Star Trek, fan fiction, Tumblr, Harry Potter, most of the shows that Fox cancels and books. I work in a public library and I am a grad student pursuing a masters of divinity in interfaith chaplaincy (aka someone who does religion for a living). I hope you think I'm funny.