In 1967, James Bond made his official Japan debut in “You Only Live Twice”: The gentleman spy came to Tokyo and Fukuoka, saw some sumo, consorted with ninja and got intimate with two homegrown Bond girls. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, “You Only Live Twice” goes down in Japan’s collective memory as the one and only time 007 made it to these shores.
There are hopes he’ll choose to visit a second time. “The Man With the Red Tattoo,” a 2002 Bond novel penned by Raymond Benson, is set in various locations throughout Japan including Naoshima Island, and the local Kagawa Prefectural Government was thrilled enough to erect the 007 Museum there in 2004. The museum is a nonprofit institution — actually a charming, atticlike structure crammed floor to ceiling with Bond memorabilia. If this won’t lure 007 back to the archipelago, maybe the prefecture’s lobbying of the filmmakers will.
The Japanese have had always had a soft spot for Bond and for Sean Connery, who played him in “You Only Live Twice.” Connery was cited in fashion magazines as the dude in the suit, who never, ever wore undershirts and whose hairy chest held a ferocious appeal. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the majority of Japanese men were plagued by the notion that they looked awful in business suits and unfathomably bad in tuxedos, and taking a sex goddess such as Akiko Wakabayashi (one of the two actresses who became Japan’s only Bond girls) to bed was beyond the scope of their wildest dreams.
It was said that actor Jiro Tamiya could pull off the Connery/007 ambience, and he certainly mimicked Connery’s style of looking deep into the eyes of the woman he was about to kiss before closing in. Perhaps the average salaryman felt that Tamiya closed the style gap between themselves and the suave British agent. Nowadays, Japanese men are more confident about the suit issue, though many still hesitate when it comes to foregoing undershirts.
As for the Bond girls, they gave much to the Japanese woman saddled with a massive inferiority complex about being short, sadly endowed and badly postured. Aki (Wakabayashi) and Kissy (Mie Hama) were straight-backed, bikini-clad wonders who were OK with concepts such as passion, cleavage, sex until dawn and other exotic phenomena, and they provided the ideal escape hatch from the chore-centric grind of the Japanese woman’s life.
After 007 left the country, the Bond girls’ careers wound down. Wakabayashi was cast in an episode of the U.S. sitcom “Shirley’s World” in 1971 and became one of the first postwar Japanese actresses to tackle extensive English dialogue, but her career petered out soon after that. Hama was less adventurous in this respect, and it’s said that she was cast as an ama (woman diver) in “You Only Live Twice” because her English wasn’t quite up to par for a larger role.
Hama culled fame with her long legs, described unanimously by the Japanese press as nihonjin banare, meaning “unlike the Japanese.” In those days, well-nourished, carefree Japanese women with great bods were hard to find, but instead of banking on that, Hama retired early and reinvented herself as a dedicated environmentalist.
Almost half a century later, carefree, sexy Japanese women have become the norm more than the exception.
The situation for Japanese actresses, however, hasn’t changed much since the days of the Bond girls. It’s still a rarity for actresses to work with foreign directors, and those who do find life in the Japanese media industry a little difficult. Rinko Kikuchi is renowned for her role in the Academy Award-winning “Babel” and other Western films, but her domestic career record has been less than auspicious; Chiaki Kuriyama, meanwhile, says she gave up on Hollywood success after “Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ because her English wasn’t up to snuff.
It is perhaps symbolic that the closest Japan has now to officially sanctioned Bond girls are the female assistants on the TV variety show “Shabekuri 007,” who smilingly cater to the group of seven comedians all dressed in black tuxedos while the movie’s theme tune plays in the background. The girls themselves are encased in prim red blazers and white skirts, so remote from the first-generation Bond girls it seems sacrilegious to call them by the same name. We definitely need Bond back in Japan, if only to show us how to do things right.
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