Logan Does Japan: Marco Beltrami’s score for The Wolverine

By Michael Harris

Finally, after the woeful X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the world has finally been given another great appearance of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine on-screen, not counting his hysterical one line cameo in X-Men: First Class.  Confusing film chronologies aside, the X-Men films have been a mostly solid franchise that has lacked any sort of stability in terms of music.[1]  The six films have yielded six different composers: the late Michael Kamen (X-Men, 2000), John Ottman (X2: X-Men United, 2003), John Powell (X-Men: The Last Stand, 2006), Harry Gregson-Williams (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2009), Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class, 2011), and now Marco Beltrami on The Wolverine (2013).  Finally, with next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, we will have the return of a previous composer: John Ottman, to no one’s surprise since this will be a Bryan Singer directed film.

wolverine_soundtrack_cover_artI will leave any further comment about previous scores aside and focus this review on Beltrami’s Wolverine score.  But, I am planning on doing a series of film/score reviews on the X-Men franchise at a later date—most likely as Days of Future Past’s release grows closer next year.

So what about Beltrami’s turn in the X-Men universe?  Like the film, the score strives to explore Wolverine’s past traumas and the nature of his life while also showing off its Japanese setting.  The main way this plays out in the score is Beltrami combining Asian/Japanese instruments with a recurring harmonica motif that echoes Ennio Morricone’s “Harmoinca” theme from Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968).[2]  For me this was a very subtle turn and nod towards both Wolverine’s past as a lone solider who only ever have temporary allies, and whose eternal quest for vengeance, along with his strong moral sense of justice and right, parallels that of the enigmatic Harmonica of Leone’s film.

Furthermore, as has been said over and over, Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns was influenced by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, namely Yojimbo (1961), which was adapted, without Kurosawa’s permission, into Leone’s breakout film A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  One can also point to the influences of Yojimbo’s how lead actor Toshiro Mifune’s  look and characterization of “Yojimbo” influenced Wolverine’s appearance and mannerisms.[3]

So, in one subtle musical nod, Beltrami references a world’s worth of cinematic history that has gone into the creation of the film.  My only problem with it is that there are no overt “Western”—meaning the genre of the Western—elements in the actual film.  Likewise, even though Logan is referred to as a ronin, the masterless samurais who inhabit such Kurosawa films as Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo, and its sequel Sanjuro (1962), nothing about the film’s locations or cinematography pay homage to either Japanese samurai films or Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns that drew upon both Kurosawa and Hollywood’s John Ford.  Which, for me, makes the nod by Beltrami to these classic films somewhat out of place, though no less appreciated by a film and music nerd such as myself.

So what about the Japanese influences?  Well, Beltrami uses traditional flutes and Chris Bleth is credited with “ethnic woodwinds”—which sounds to be shakuhachi most likely—in the score album.  The liner notes also credit a pair of koto players, though I am hard pressed to hear them in the final mix.  Even though it is not directly stated, I believe I also hear some taiko drums, though these have become quite common in Hollywood scores over the past five years and cannot really be said to carry a significant “Japanese” semiotic weight because they have become fairly ubiquitous in action scores.  The shakuchai and harmonica, notably, are only sparingly used, while a good portion of the score is fairly typical action music.

However, when these elements are present, especially when mixed together as in the cue “The Hidden Fortress,” the score really does rise to the challenge presented by the one of the best X-Men films.[4]  It’s still not as memorable as Henry Jackman’s First Class score, with its stunning, ominous, and propulsive Magneto theme, which started out as a bassline that director Matthew Vaughn told Jackman was Magneto’s music rather than the melody that Jackman had actually written above it![5]

Bottom line: Marco Beltrami’s score for The Wolverine is good, but not great.  For fans of the X-Men films, it is a worthy addition of the library of X-Music, but for the average film score fan, there is nothing truly new or noteworthy.  The score works well within the film, and its nod to Morricone and Japanese music help to paint a picture of Logan’s journey and past.  However, Beltrami doesn’t really do anything new here, and his Oscar-nominated 3:10 to Yuma score, also directed by The Wolverine’s James Mangold, is a much better homage to the Italian master.


[1] I must state here, that while so many have complained about the inconsistency between the First Class chronology and all the X-Men film that came before it, it is no more confusing, and actually less so, than the all of the various time lines that exist in the X-Men comics!

[2] The theme and cue from the film entitled “The Duel/Harmonica’s Memory” was memorably adapted/lifted/borrowed/stolen by Hans Zimmer for the “Parlay” cue in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Gore Verbinski, 2007).

[3] I doubt that there was any specific nods to the Japanese tradition initially in the development of Wolverine, but after the Chris Claremont and Frank Miller story on which this current film is based was printed, and especially once the films were released, one can sense a bit of Mifune’s wild samurai in Hugh Jackman’s take on the feisty Canadian who is the best at what he does, even when it isn’t very nice.

[4] The astute reader will know that The Hidden Fortress is the title of yet another Kurosawa samurai film starring Mifune, one that also served as an inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977)

[5] Jackman demonstrates this wonderfully in the Blu-ray extras to First Class.

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