Having recently read the original novel “You Only Live Twice” by Ian Fleming, I decided to re-watch the film again. At one level, I probably didn’t need to as I’ve seen it so many times, having grown up watching it many times each year as it was one of the few films that we had recorded on video. However, alongside my research on Roland Barthes’ “Empire of Signs”, I wanted to look at another output (again) which was in some way inspired by trips to Japan by people in the 1960s. To some degree the desire to re-watch it and analyse it also comes from having been doing such things by listening to podcasts relating to a variety films – whether they be James Bond ones or others (most notably “Jaws” – see, for example, my post “Jaws for a Day“).
The first thing to say & to reiterate from the review of the book, is that, other than the title and general setting of Japan, the two outputs are not that related. There are overlaps, but it’s best to treat them as two different stories. In them Bond does – apparently – die twice, but in the book it happens at the end, while in the film, it happens in the opening sequence and in Hong Kong, not Japan.
To start off, the story of the film – revolving around a terrorist organisation wanting to start a world war by having its own space craft capture those of the USA and USSR – is so much better than the book. It may not seem so relevant now, but during the cold war, and especially at the height of the space race, it was a brilliant and much needed alteration.
But there are many issues with the film – some of which I will address here, though not necessarily in the order that they appear in the film.
First, we learn that Bond got a first in oriental languages at Cambridge University (in the book he was said to be fluent in French and German). This is fun to hear for someone like me, who has also studied (and teaches) Japanese at university. But, it is then very puzzling that throughout the film that we see so little evidence of this. There are chances for him to speak some Japanese, but he generally prefers to use English. Is this for the audience’s preference – after all in the 1960s, it was standard to use dubbing rather than subtitles? However, when some words are spoken, one doesn’t get the impression that he’s maintained his Japanese knowledge since graduation. Also, did he only study the languages and not the culture? His bowing (and sometimes, the lack thereof), for example, should have been much better. He also seemingly never learnt what ninja are.
Second, there are various odd inconsistencies. He turns up on a rocky beach in Japan and is soon (by inference) in central Tokyo. How was this achieved and did he really have his suit and other clothes on inside his swimming gear? A similar slip happens later in the film when, after scaling a volcano in a time (again implied) which even a marathon runner would probably be proud, he then manages to start infiltrating the terrorist base despite there being no sign of this equipment on him up to this point.
Let’s return to the early scenes in Tokyo. There are neon lights everywhere. How much were films such as this responsible for creating this pervasive image of Japan (one that is still heavily used today despite the fact that the lights are arguably no more special to most modern cities and perhaps not even as exciting as some other cities)? But to contrast with this (because, of course, when showing Japan, contrasts are very important – as I discuss in Japan: The Basics), we see both someone being transported by a rickshaw and the secret agents tailing him dressed in kimono. By the time Bond was in Japan, there really weren’t many rickshaws in use… and, as is clear from most the other general shots, wearing kimono in public is quite unusual so wearing one when you’re apparently trying to keep a low profile is probably not the best plan (neither is stepping out from the shadows into the middle of the street to make a call via a hidden speaking device in a handbag).
Bond then goes to watch sumo. Great. I love sumo. But why does Bond go and why does he need to get his ticket direct from a rikishi (Sadonoyama) – who hands over the ticket by speaking in English rather than any communication being done in Japanese? Bond meets Japanese secret agent Aki at the sumo and then goes on to meet an ex-pat, Henderson. Why have this detour other than to include a scene with sumo? In relation to Henderson (putting aside the apparent getting wrong of Bond’s drink… which Bond doesn’t correct, but perhaps this is a nod to Japanese-style manners), he makes the point of only just starting to get to know his way about despite being there for 28 years. This is a view that ties in with many (early) visitors to the impenetrable nature of Japan and is a theme that will likely feature further not only in the update to Japan: The Basics but also my work on Visual Packaging Culture.
The next thing that I wondered about is why the baddie (who I’ve recently discovered is the grandfather of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in the next scene is using a left-hand drive car when cars in Japan (other than some foreign imports) are right-hand drive. Anyway, we have a few scenes until Bond is finally tricked (for no apparent reason) into meeting “Tiger” Tanaka (played by Tetsuro Tamba – whose photograph appears in “The Empire of Signs”). I don’t fully understand why all this has to be so elaborate – but it’s quite entertaining and fits with a scene that comes late on in the original book when Bond infiltrates Blofeld’s castle.
Let us return to some more of the stereotypes and clichés. For example, Bond (albeit using a pseudonym at the time) is reprimanded for arriving 3.5 minutes early for a meeting – presumably flagging up how the Japanese are apparently very punctual (the trains may be, but I wouldn’t say that the people are any more or less so than many other nationalities, and there appear to be regional variations too. Being late is frowned upon probably (isn’t it in many places?) but being early is not, as far as I have experienced, such an issue). We also have a great emphasis on Japanese efficiency (another thing I take issue with – there is a difference between effectiveness and efficiency) and how great the Japanese technology is – whether it be on Tiger’s train or in Osato’s HQ… although apparently the technology didn’t extend to a quieter and more subtle camera to monitor Bond’s movements. During the meeting at Osato’s HQ, we also have another opportunity for a cliché, as, after Bond says that a colleague had died by falling into a pulveriser (a very odd lie), we are told about how the death was “honourable” and how much face was saved. Was that last bit meant to be a joke – though I cannot imagine much of anything being left after going through a pulveriser.
One of the major criticisms of Bond films from the 1960s (and other decades) these days is the way that they treat women. There is no doubt that in some films it is awful. In “Goldfinger” Bond basically rapes the lesbian Pussy Galore (though seemingly converts her to enjoying being with a man in the process) and he further assaults a woman in “Thunderball”. “You Only Live Twice” really isn’t as bad as this. Aki’s line about enjoying serving under Bond should probably be seen as much as an amusing Bond-like quip as anything else (though there is no doubt whose role would have been seen as superior in such a situation). Comments about having a healthy chest as Bond is scanned, but a woman stands with a rather tight top on is also amusing and far from the assaults of the previous two films. Does the film objectify women? Probably. But given that we get to see a lot of Bond and Tiger naked, it’s hardly one way traffic. Also, let’s be clear Number 11 clearly uses Bond for her own enjoyment/benefit, safe in the knowledge that she’s going to kill him (albeit she fails), while luring Bond into thinking he’s doing something for England.
I think this takes us neatly onto the issue of race. I think one aspect of the film that – these days at least – tends to raise the most question marks is the way in which Bond is Japanified. The book has him dyed in yellow as well as changes being made to his hair and eyes. The film doesn’t seem to go this far – though it’s hinted that it’s about to (albeit what Bond says in English and the retort from Aki – which is done as though she’s translating into Japanese – have absolutely no relationship at all (she says “This will be our [talking to the other women] our secret”)). Basically, by the time we see him out and about “as a Japanese”, it all looks more like a suntan than anything else.
Let’s be clear. Bond still stands out when he goes to the village and is meant to be Japanese (in the book he’s meant to have a sign saying he’s deaf and dumb to get around any language issues… remember in the film this is not an issue as he can speak Japanese… can… just choses not to). But he would have stood out even more without any changes at all. Wouldn’t it have been even more ridiculous if no attempt to blend in had been made? At least he’s not made any changes in order to make jokes or otherwise insult Japanese people. In fact, in the years I have travelled Japan, I cannot say that I have not seen a Japanese person looking like Bond does in this film. So I think we should give the film a pass on this one.
But the Japanification of Connery/Bond is not the only possible race issue. One of the women who bathes Bond (and starts providing a massage for him) is not Japanese. She appears to be wearing a wig and possibly other make up to make her look more Japanese. Is this a problem? Absolutely not. Why not? Because at no point does it actually suggest that she is Japanese. She is a woman who – as far as we know – wants to appear like that (I would actually suggest she still looks so non-Japanese that it’s a mistake to suggest that she is meant to be Japanese at all). If we are to criticise this film for using this non-Japanese woman in a role which some assume is meant to be a Japanese person, then where do we draw the line? One of those in the volcano – and is suggested to be Japanese by default – is played by Burt Kwuok (best known as “Cato” (which is seemingly meant to be “Kato” (a Japanese name), but either way is always mispronounced) in the Pink Panther films) who is most certainly not Japanese. And on this line, Connery is the only Bond who is – like it turns out Bond is also – Scottish. Some of the actors weren’t even from the UK. Where do we draw the line? Can’t we just accept that actors are actors? If people of a certain race/ethnicity/nationality can only play people of that race/ethnicity/nationality, people with disabilities are only played by someone with that disability, are we to also say that only murderers can play murderers on film? Let actors act, let audiences go back to suspending reality.
By the way, on the subject of disabilities – as I have got older, I have become much more aware of how the baddy (or one of his team) tend to have a disability in Bond films. This was particularly obvious in “No Time To Die” – but is true in many/most of the films. Bond, of course, has no such disabilities – at least not on the surface, one could argue that (as is clear in the book version of “You Only Live Twice” and arguably many of the Daniel Craig Bond films) that he has mental health issues.
Returning to the race/ethnicity/nationality issues, let us remember that Tiger, Aki, and others in the film are individuals and we should not (though I fear that many do) representative of all Japanese. They are, after all, quite extraordinary given that nature of their work. That the way they behave, what they say, etc., may have a broader impact on audiences and their understanding of Japanese people shows just why it is so relevant to study films and novels (at least with books there tends to be more insight about an individual and character development).
Let’s return to some things that puzzle me about the film. I’d like to know who – in the actual story, not in technical terms – is meant to be providing the images of the helicopter dropping the car in Tokyo Bay and the space ship capturing the other capsules in space. What other helicopter or space ship is out there and why are they providing images? Also, we learn that the island that ship that Bond needs to track has visited an island that’s directly between Kobe and Shanghai – I wonder what sort of route this would take given that Shikoku, for one, is a bit of a barrier. While, on the subject of Kobe, Bond and Aki can “just” make it from somewhere near to Tokyo in the sports car to Kobe (around 550km away)… it would have been much easier if they’d jumped on the shinkansen (which had opened in 1964) and then picked up another car or taxi from Shin-Osaka (or perhaps the helicopter could have airlifted them there). As I commented on in my book, Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, given how often trains do appear in Bond films, the lack of inclusion of a trip on the shinkansen seems particularly odd. Perhaps JNR wouldn’t give permission – as surprising as this seems.
So far I have picked many holes in the film, so let me say some things that I do like about the film (other than the main storyline as I noted above and the fact that so much is set in Japan).
First, the volcano storyline and set is just amazing as the hideout. Probably the best of the whole Bond franchise. In fact it was so good, it probably had too much influence on many films that followed (esp. “The Spy Who Loved Me” – which I only realised a few years ago is basically the same film as “You Only Live Twice” (though not as close as “Thunderball”/”Never Say Never Again”)). I have to admit that I loved the concept of the metal fake crater lake so much that I borrowed it in my novel Hijacking Japan (which also has another link to “You Only Live Twice” in the form of the hotel/Osato HQ).
Second, although “Little Nellie” is new to us, I think it’s great that 007 has knowledge of “Little Nellie” from previous use. Although this hasn’t been shown on film, it is also referred to by Q and helps to suggest that Bond does have a life beyond what we see in the films and that not all gadgets are new to him.
Having been to some of the sites where the film was made – I think I like the film more as I have a connection with them. Watching it again, I was interested to see how the pier looked in Akime. There is now a long, concrete pier, but I was recently told how this was covered up for the film (much to the annoyance of the locals apparently) as the film makers wanted a more traditional wooden pier. From what I could see, at the time of filming, none of the concrete works had been completed – but there are signs of something on the shoreline next to the wooden pier, which could well have been the start of the concrete pier and which was, as much as possible, hidden.
I also like the bonding between the captured astronauts and cosmonauts. Given the context of the Cold War set up and what Blofeld was hoping to achieve, it is perhaps a subtle point, but one that’s worth flagging up.
I also enjoy the scenes with the piranhas – which are brought over from the original book, albeit there, the reference to how quickly they eat is done in reference to a cow not a person, and the nature in which they are used is somewhat different. Their last victim is Hans – who, in my view, is just not used enough in the film.
I do enjoy the Blofeld character in this film. There is something chilling about the way he screams “Kill Bond now” – it reminds me of Davros of the Daleks in Dr Who. But, when he jumps onto his monorail (another great way to show off some technology) in the volcano – just how long is he on this thing to be going round while all the fighting is going on before pulling on the lever to blow up the base… which somehow causes a volcanic eruption.
Speaking of the attack on the base – why is Tiger there? Surely someone as senior as him would not be on the front line like this. Also, why is there so little blood after sword (and other) attacks? I assume this is because it’s a film and they had to worry about ensuring it didn’t get a classification which would stop children from seeing it, but it does further undermine the realism.
I’m sure there are many other mistakes that I have missed, as well as bits of trivia (one that I remember from watching the making of feature on the DVD from years ago is the link between the film and the BOAC 911 crash on Mount Fuji and the (exaggerated) claim that the Bond franchise nearly came to an end had some of the Bond crew boarded that flight as planned) – but many of these can be found on the IMDb entry for the film.
I think it’s a shame that there’s no mention of the origin of the phrase “You Only Live Twice” in the film as is done in the book, and the way it is done, although chilling in one way, does feel a little forced (especially if you have forgotten about Bond’s previous “death”) or if you interpret Blofeld’s comment as a general statement (as it sounds) rather than directed specifically at Bond. It is also a shame that the credits (as tended to be the way in many films in the 1960s and 1970s) didn’t include all those extras and others who worked on the film.
At the end of the film, Bond and Kissy (which doesn’t work as a Japanese name (and she also doesn’t have the face of a “pig”)) and the “ninja” are provided by safety rafts dropped from planes. Why do they have to swim so far to get these? Would it have been so hard to get the plane to drop them closer? And why is it that Bond & Kissy’s raft ends up in the middle of the ocean, far away from the others? In the end, whatever answer someone could come up with, I don’t care. Just as I don’t care why the intruder who poisons Aki by mistake doesn’t hang around and still try to kill Bond or just resort to using a gun. Because this is still an entertaining film and it is my favourite Bond film (just – there are times when I find “The Man With The Golden Gun” more entertaining) – and I still have it as a 9 out of 10 on IMDb.
Yes, there is much that is wrong with the film – as this post has probably made clear – but there are aspects which probably are unfairly criticised. And, bottom line, it’s meant to be entertaining, not a documentary and not even that believable. But it does introduce us to some aspects of Japan (which I enjoy) – in fact, despite all the clichés, it does have bits which are/were accurate – and it even has time to give us some indication of what a traditional wedding and a funeral procession in Japan are/were like. There are plenty worse films set in Japan than this one – whether made back in the 1960s/1970s or even more recently (see for example “People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan” ).
Another reason why I like this film is simply nostalgia or comfort. As I said, I’ve grown up with this film. I’ve seen it probably more than 30 times. I don’t particularly think about my childhood when I watch it, but I like its familiarity. You can’t really put a score on that. But, at the same time, it probably does impact the score I gave it on IMDb. This aspect of familiarity, comfort, and nostalgia is sometimes too easy to overlook but plays a huge role in things such as feelings about films and music and is something I discuss in my book Frankie Fans Say about the music and fandom of Frankie Goes To Hollywood fans.
Referring to the title of this post – Bond actually goes to Japan twice more in the franchise (even if the filming didn’t happen there), as he goes to “Battleship Island” in “Skyfall” and ends up in Japan in “No Time To Die” (which takes some of the details of the hideout from the novel of “You Only Live Twice”). I may not write any more about the second of these, but “Battleship Island” will feature in another post in due course.