The summer of 1967 was not only the summer of love, but the summer of James Bond in Japan. “You Only Live Twice,” the fifth James Bond movie, debuted in cinemas throughout the world 35 summers ago.
It was the most ambitious Bond production to date, with much of the shooting taking place in Japan. Among the locations were Tokyo, Kobe and the tiny fishing village of Akime, in Kagoshima. The scenes included helicopter dogfighting over Kyushu.
And anyone who has spent time in Japan will to be sure to find the movie’s portrayal of this country and its people to be not just humorous but bordering on the bizarre.
“You Only Live Twice” has all the usual Japan cliches — women in kimono, sumo wrestling and shoji screens, which exist for no other reason than to throw bad guys through.
At the start of the movie, the first thing that James must do is get to Japan. But arriving on a 707 at Haneda Airport isn’t good enough for this secret agent. Instead, for some reason, he puts on scuba gear and is shot out of a torpedo tube of a Royal Navy submarine off Japan’s mist-shrouded coast.
James swims ashore at night, with all the stealth of a North Korean agent bent on abducting a few Japanese nationals.
A brief few seconds later, he is in neon-lit Tokyo, tailed by a Japanese woman who wears, naturally, an elaborate kimono. She turns out to be Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), who works for “Henderson,” a fellow Englishman and an old Japan hand who is James’ first contact in the country.
After a drive to meet the “nearby” Henderson, lasting no more than a minute out of downtown Tokyo, the couple are deep in the Japanese countryside, complete with the chirping of cicadas.
Later, while being pursued by henchmen from the Osato Company, James and Aki zoom down the hill past the Olympic hall in Harajuku toward Shibuya, but immediately find themselves, rather disconcertingly, in a mountainous, seaside area.
When the pair pull up to a luxurious ryokan where Henderson lives, the place is traditionally Japanese, complete with old farm implements on the walls. Henderson himself is dressed in a kimono, as old Japan hands are wont to do, of course. Yet one of his rooms is furnished with — gasp — Western antiques!
“You must excuse this rather odd mixture of styles,” he tells Bond, “but I refuse to go entirely Japanese.”
Henderson is also an expert procurer of sorts. When James is impressed that his host serves him “real Russian vodka,” Henderson brags, “I get it from the doorman of the Russian Embassy.”
And to think that I have to get my Russian vodka from a boring convenience store.
Later, James makes contact with the head of the Japanese secret service, “Tiger” Tanaka, played by Tetsuro Tamba.
In short order, it’s time for the predictable Japanese bath scene. As the pair plunge themselves in the hot water, they are surrounded by a bevy of fawning young women dressed in bikinis.
“In Japan, men always come first. Women come second,” Tiger tells James.
When I watched this movie about 10 years ago with my then Japanese girlfriend, she exploded in indignation on hearing this line and remained in a foul mood for the rest of the evening. And she wasn’t even a feminist.
Bond also claims proficiency in the Japanese language, reminding Miss Moneypenny that he “took a first in Oriental languages in Cambridge.”
But what those venerable Cambridge dons evidentially failed to teach James are some basic pronunciation rules. When offered sake by Tiger, Bond calls it “saki.”
Well, he may not be able to pronounce it but he happens to be a connoisseur of the rice liquor. He takes one sip and pronounces it to be the perfect temperature — 98.4 degrees.
This summer, one of the biggest box office hits is expected to be the Bondian spoof “GoldMember.” However, “You Only Live Twice,” with its flimsy plot and bizarre interpretations of things Japanese, may prove just as entertaining.