Sean Connery — calling him “Sir Sean” was reportedly a sure way to get him to leave the room — died last weekend at the age of 90. Connery was a film legend, who worked in over 60 movies — many in the leading role — whose unique combination of smoldering intensity and silky smoothness came to define suave. (His private life was another story, but such is the gap between image and reality that makes the film industry what it is.)
That persona was evident in his earliest screen appearances but it emerged and crystallized when he became James Bond, British secret agent 007. Connery played Bond in seven Bond films, starting with “Dr. No” in 1962. The role grated, however, and fearing that it would define him, Connery said in 1967 while filming “You Only Live Twice” that he was moving on. He was lured back, first to make “Diamonds are Forever” in 1971 and then 12 years later for “Never Say Never Again,” whose title mocked his intent to move beyond Bond.
For many in my generation, Connery’s best-known work followed the Bond years. He won an Academy Award in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” playing the Irish cop who guided Kevin Costner’s naive Federal Agent Eliot Ness through prohibition-era Chicago and helped him jail Al Capone (a rotund Robert De Niro). Those who prefer more action and less style probably recall him as Indiana Jones’ father in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” or as an ex-con in “The Rock” (with Nicholas Cage), or as the Soviet submarine commander who wants to defect in “The Hunt for Red October.”
I credit Connery for introducing Japan to my generation, and the vehicle for that introduction was the fifth James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.” While the film took great liberties with the novel — only the title and the outline of the plot survived Roald Dahl’s screenplay — the Japanese setting, which emphasized its exoticism, remained key to the telling.
In the story, Bond was sent to Japan to discover why U.S. and Soviet satellites are disappearing. (The answer? Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the international criminal organization SPECTRE, had been hired by China to start a war between the superpowers.) Bond goes undercover as a Japanese fisherman who is married to “Kissy Suzuki,” a pearl diver and former Japanese secret agent. Bond, with help from “Tiger Tanaka,” the head of Japan’s secret service, uncovers the plot, kills Blofeld and thwarts the plan.
The story has all the requisites of a teenage page-turner: exotic locales, one-dimensional characters (male and female), lots of action and a fair dollop of sex. Connery was a little more charitable when he described the Bond formula as “marvelous locations, interesting ambiance, good stories, interesting characters.” Whatever the explanation, I couldn’t get enough of the Ian Fleming novels when I hit adolescence.
For all the caricature — and Fleming is othering Japan — “You Only Live Twice” is more sympathetic to Japan than is given credit. Blame Fleming’s cynicism. He was a proud member of the British Empire and his Bond books convey his pain as they depict Britain’s loss of status after World War II and its eclipse by the United States. One character voices his dismay when he describes the British as “a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers‐after‐pleasure gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so‐called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world.”
A grim outlook is also evident in the character of Bond. While he is pictured as a smooth and cultured spy, Bond was a sociopath who killed without conscience. Critics credit Connery — and Daniel Craig — for providing glimpses of that interior, which is what makes their portrayals so compelling — and so menacing.
China’s ability to manipulate the two superpowers is part of the collapse of Fleming’s world, and is anticipated by the role that Beijing played in “Goldfinger,” the third Bond film; then it tried to trigger a global economic catastrophe. (That doesn’t make Fleming prescient: In those tales, and unlike today, China had no stake in Western economies and sought their collapse.)
“You Only Live Twice” highlights the cultural differences between Japan and the West without belittling them. (I am ignoring the makeup Bond wears when he pretends to be a fisherman.) It’s telling that Bond’s friend who advises him on how to deal with his Japanese counterparts “taught Bond total respect for Oriental conventions, however old‐fashioned or seemingly trivial.” (That friend is also an unabashed elitist, if not a racist.) At one point, he is lectured to about foreigners who move to Asia “to escape a culture … that has become more and more unattractive… .” Fleming’s disdain for the superficiality of Western life drips from the page and it is “the Oriental way of life” that offers a more meaningful alternative.
The story begins with a night out in Ginza that showcases the subtlety of Asian culture. Bond is derided for not knowing the difference between Japanese and Chinese ceramics — he refers to a “Ming cabinet” — and he is offered a geisha of “low caste” befitting his status as a Westerner, whose “boorish brutalized tastes” wouldn’t appreciate a hostess’ finer skills.
While the film features a Japanese wedding ceremony and the book devotes considerable space to Japanese customs, the most memorable parts — and I remember them decades later — are the meals. Bond feasts. Those pages served up my first encounters with eel, sushi and fugu. Bond is also schooled in the art of making wagyu beef. In another scene, Bond declines a martini in favor of “sake, especially when it’s served at exactly 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit.” (It’s too much to ask Bond to favor reishu, or chilled sake, in the 1960s.)
Tanaka, Bond’s ally and the person who exposed him to those culinary delights, is head of the Koan-Chosa Kyoku (Japan’s secret service), which is a serviceable rendition of the Koanchosa-cho, the country’s real national intelligence agency. He commands a troop of ninjas (Suzuki was once one), which is a bit much. But he is a shadowy figure who is unknown to the public, chafes against the U.S. occupation, works from a well-hidden headquarters and uses traditional devices to warn against intruders: The “nightingale floor” that was designed to squeak when walked upon, another symbol of subtle intelligence, made another lasting impression.
Fleming got some things wrong. The biggest blunder was putting Blofeld’s headquarters in a castle by the sea; when the producers scouted sites for the film, they discovered that Japanese castles aren’t by the water and so they moved the operation to an extinct volcano.
There is another indicator of the impact “You Only Live Twice” had on Western perceptions of Japan: Mie Hama, the actress who played Kissy Suzuki, appeared that year in the Playboy pictorial “007’s Oriental Eyefuls,” making her the first Asian woman to appear in the magazine.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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