Marvel superheroes of Asia

Thursday, 24 June 2004 — 10:27am | Comics, Film, Full reviews

There are two separate items I want to discuss in this post, and the way they relate to each other will be quite immediately evident. The first is, of the two, the more direct example of cross-pollination between the mythologies of America and Asia. The second, and altogether lengthier subject about which I will write the usual thousand-worder about the “storytelling potential of the cinematic medium” and related jargon, concerns a cultural legend of Japan that sports a new look and is worth a trip to the silver screen.

This article on Comic Book Resources speaks for itself:

Eastern Swing: Sharad Devarajan Talks Indian Spider-Man

What’s the hottest comic book topic right now?

If you said Spider-Man, you’d only be half right.

As officially announced by various East Indian newspapers last week and confirmed online this week, the South Asian comics distribution company “Gotham Entertainment” has reached a historic deal with Marvel Comics to publish a new version of Spider-Man in an upcoming four issue mini-series. No, it isn’t just a new continuity: Spider-Man is now an East Indian by the name of Pavitr Prabhakar and the Green Goblin is tied to Hindu mythology. To tell CBR News and its readers a bit more about the project, Gotham’s President & CEO Sharad Devarajan spoke with CBR News.

“Though we will remain true to the underlining mythos of Spider-Man, which is epitomized in the phrase ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,’ the character will be reinvented so his powers, problems and costume are more integrated with Indian culture. Unlike the US origin, which is deeply rooted in science, the Indian version is more rooted in magic and mythology. This version of Spider-Man will gain his powers from ancient mystic in order to combat the evil threat of the Green Goblin, who will also be reinvented as a modern day Indian demon from myth.”

Yes, the article has pictures – and yes, an English-translated American edition will also come at some point, though of course, that will lose some of the authenticity. Now, forget for a moment the irony of a company called Gotham doing a Marvel title, and take a minute to let the genius of this idea sink in. I will not claim to be anything less than generally oblivious to Indian mythology, but this sounds like a brilliantly-conceived take on the universality of mythical heroes, which I mention in case I’m not the only one currently reading too much Joseph Campbell for his own good.

Oh, and “Pavitr Prabhakar”? Gold.

Now let’s move on to the more easterly nation of Japan, a country about which I am somewhat less qualified to speak than say, Adam Pauls. I venture a guess that the vast majority of my readership is not too familiar with the Japanese television and film character Zatoichi. If that is the case, go catch up on your readings, and I’ll see you next class. The capsule summary runs thus: Zatoichi is a blind man, a masseuse by day, with a distinctive sword sheathed in a cane, and the sharpened senses to use it. Sounds very much like a certain man without fear, if you ask me. The extent of intentional mutual influence between Daredevil and Zatoichi is unclear; the former first appeared in 1964, the latter in 1962.

The reason I bring him up now is because of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano’s update of the character in the film Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, wherein he both directs and stars. The new Zatoichi is now making the rounds in Canada, having played at the Uptown Stage and Screen in Calgary this week, and currently at South Common for you Edmontonians. It draws Marvel comparisons right off the bat, having initially hit the festival circuit last year on the heels of Ben Affleck bringing Matt Murdock into the mainstream consciousness, but also because Zatoichi’s cane sword in the film is a blood-red cylinder, which is apparently something new – understandable, given that the Zatoichi films of old were in monochrome. But beyond the shared basis of a blind superhero with a cane, and the aforementioned bit about the universality of heroes or whatever, the similarities are few.

Nowadays you see people take the word “postmodern” and spread it like margarine everywhere they go, but the new Zatoichi is where it actually applies. For the most part, it is a throwback to an older age in filmmaking, one of patient, stationary but conscientious shots, and minimal scoring in the musical department. Kitano’s stark blond hair aside, the majority of the film would not look out of place in the sixties. It’s a refreshing break from the over-edited muddle of Matrix imitators that are so excessive in cutting and camera movement that the action is impossible to follow, but casual audiences will find it to plod for stretches between the swift and gory swordfights. It feels like a movie with a sense of first-hand cultural authenticity, unlike the recent crop of American samurai movies, such as Quentin Tarantino’s unabashedly reverent Kill Bill and the faux importance of The Last Samurai.

Occasionally, though, Kitano’s approach is one of experimentation. Early on in the film there is a brief scene of farmers tilling a field, cut in such a way that the sounds develop into almost a techno beat – never mind the tap-dancing festival at the conclusion that stops just short of The Matrix Reloaded, to everyone’s relief. It is almost as if he is asking us to listen to the sounds associated with the images in the same manner a blind man would, without ever bringing us into pitch darkness or superhero sonar-vision. Watching Kitano perform the lead role himself is a delight; he alternates between staggering gambling addict and legendary blademaster with comfort and conviction.

The fights are remarkable given how short they are, forsaking extended clashes of katana-on-katana for a brief swell of anticipation-resolution as the participants strategize, then execute. After all, Zatoichi would hardly be a master swordsman if he took his time slicing and dicing the local goons. If you contrast this with the likes of Hong Kong cinema and its own folk heroes like the martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung (in more films than any character in history, and played by Jet Li in the now-classic Once Upon A Time In China), the difference in style is very representative of how Japanese and Chinese martial arts traditions diverged in their own developmental paths. Hong Kong cinema has the ten-minute fights with fancier flourishes of cloth and blade; Japanese cinema demonstrates the gutting of enemies with a stroke or two apiece.

Now, I do not claim to be too well-versed in Zatoichi lore myself, but where the film is a little lacking is focus; not in the visual sense, but in its focus on the main character. To put it briefly, a lot of time is spent elsewhere. Those of you who have trouble discerning names and faces right off the bat will have a doozy following the tangled web of concealed identities in the plot, which concerns two geisha assassins exacting revenge on the gang bosses who murdered their parents. It does make sense by the time the credits roll, but not so much until then. As I mentioned earlier, Zatoichi is also what one would apologetically call patient, and may not hold the attention of those weaned on the speed of the standard twenty-first century Hollywood action movie. Nor does it ever tread on the literary seriousness of the average arthouse foreign film. In a category-defying self-contradiction, it is both conventional and avant-garde, but thankfully succeeds at both.

On a final note, time to break professionalism and be a complete geek. I just about flipped out when I saw the end credits – specifically, the name associated with the music in the film: Keiichi Suzuki. This is the same Keiichi Suzuki who composed for one of the greatest RPGs in the short history of video games, namely, EarthBound for the Super Nintendo. His versatile soundtrack for that game featured everything from weepy melodies on tinny piano evoking the sentiment of homesickness, to the Blues Brothers stylings of the Runaway Five, to the harmonic distortions of enemies from outer space. While his work for Zatoichi is minimal, it is significant, and just as diverse, covering everything from traditional Japanese folk music to the pseudo-techno breakbeats I mentioned earlier.

But never mind the score for Zatoichi – there is just something inherently cool about seeing a name from a phenomenal element of the Nintendo experience appear onscreen. If only somebody could get Nobuo Uematsu on a movie, we’re set.


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