“You Only Live Twice,” the only “James Bond” film — to date — to be set in Japan, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. While undoubtedly great fun, it must be admitted that it’s a long way from being a masterpiece of cinema.
Its own screenwriter, Roald Dahl — yes, he of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” fame — described his own hastily written script as “a load of bull—-,” and its silly plot, tin-pot gadgets and unimpressive special effects (even for 1967) prompted one critic to liken it to “an episode of ‘Thunderbirds.'”
It marked the point at which the Bond films started to get silly — when exotic locations, underground lairs, space rockets and girls in bikinis became essential elements, the subtleties of the original books were dispensed with, and the effort involved in trying to follow the increasingly preposterous, convoluted plots outweighed the benefit in actually doing so.
But as a historical document, a record of the Western world’s view of Japan at a key point on the road to post-World War II rehabilitation, it remains fascinating. And in this anniversary year — the film sits neatly three years after Tokyo’s first Olympic adventure and three years before its second, and on the basis of the axiom that you can learn more about a period from its bad art than its good, it is a timely moment to take a second look at this curious piece of cinema.
Before “YOLT,” Hollywood’s treatment of Japan had, with one or two honorable exceptions, been characterized by one-dimensional historical epics or propagandistic wartime thrillers, packed with cultural cliches and marred by “yellow-face” casting. Infamous examples include “The Barbarian and the Geisha” (1958), “My Geisha” (1962) and “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956), for which the authors of “The Golden Turkey Awards” awarded Marlon Brando the prize for the “most ludicrous racial impersonation.”
On the surface, “YOLT” hardly represents any significant advance. It has its fair share of lazy Oriental anachronisms and jarring incongruities, from rickshaws on the streets of Tokyo to ninjas dressed for karate and used as a modern-day defense force, while Sean Connery’s attempts at Japanese pronunciation — Tokyo via Fountainbridge, Edinburgh — is atrocious: Anyone for “sakky”?
But look past the tourist tat and some more interesting themes do emerge. “YOLT” is a bit like Bond counterpart Dikko Henderson’s Tokyo apartment in the film, an “odd mixture of styles.” Old enmities remain, with plenty evidence still of bitterness and suspicion, but Japan’s modern face has at least been noticed, and some of the features do peek through. There is the sense that times are changing — of a very real, if wary, respect for a new modern Japan.
This reappraisal had two accelerants. First, the successful 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first to be beamed directly into people’s living rooms through satellite television feeds, had pulled back the curtain on the mysterious former nemesis, to reveal a stable, fully functioning potential ally. Second, there was the economic miracle that had seen Japan rise from literally ashes to become the world’s second-biggest economy in only two decades.
The Olympic legacy is evident in the lingering shots of the New Otani Hotel and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built specially for the games. And the newfound economic muscle is shown by the prominence given in the plot to Osato Chemicals and Engineering, the formidable fictional industrial powerhouse involved in geopolitical mischief-making. Manufacturing prowess is displayed in fine style in Bond girl Aki’s seriously sexy gadget-packed Toyota 2000GT.
For once, the Japanese characters are generally the good guys — Teru Shimada’s sinister CEO excepted — and, another novelty, are played by genuine Japanese actors. And we see at least a little of the genuine Japan too: Alongside the predictable tourist brochure images of Himeji Castle and Mount Shinmoedake are plainer background shots of a nondescript suburban Tokyo looking much like any other modern city.
So far so good, but we are not quite there yet; the uncomfortable recent past — which Dahl, as a wartime fighter pilot, knew about all too well — makes one intrusion, when Henderson refers to the leg he lost “in Singapore in ’42.” And there’s a hint of something darker in Tiger Tanaka’s (head of the Japanese secret service) compliment to Bond on his appreciation of warm “sakky”: “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”
There is, too, a sly dig at Japanese mores in perhaps the best dramatic illustration imaginable of the problematic concept of honne and tatemae (true versus stated intent, respectively), when in the Osato Chemicals scene the impeccably mannered Mr. Osato wishes Bond well as he departs his office, waits a few seconds, turns to his assistant and utters the succinct icy command: “Kill him.”
There are mixed messages too about the roles of the sexes in the shiny new Japan. Aki’s thoroughly modern woman with her foot on the accelerator of her sports car seems to be steering Japan at speed toward an exciting new future. She has Bond’s number from the get-go — and I don’t mean 007. She saves his life twice, and only succumbs to his charms — or does he succumb to hers? — at a moment of her choosing.
But despite her feistiness, she still needs to report to her boss, Tiger Tanaka, who looks every inch the superior entitled alpha male for whom women serve a mainly decorative function. He feels no embarrassment at all as he’s soaped down by a bevy of mute young women in the bathhouse scene. Nor does he miss a beat when he gives Bond his uncompromising assessment of the state of play in the gender stakes: “In Japan, men always come first. Women come second.”
But that was 50 years ago. Times have changed, surely? I wonder what Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike would have to say about that.
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