Published in the Nikkei Asian Review 17/5/2017
It was fifty years ago, in the summer of 1967, that You Only Live Twice hit the world’s cinema screens. Set mostly in Japan, the fifth of the 007 films has a tongue-in-cheek plot that deviates drastically from Ian Fleming’s original story.
The one aspect the script retains is Fleming’s fascination with Japan. Indeed, such is the screen-time lavished on visually gorgeous non-plot scenes, such as a traditional wedding and a sumo contest, that you could say that Japan co-stars with Sean Connery.
As the UK exits the EU and Japan prepares to adopt a more active role in regional security, it is worth reflecting on the film’s unusual take on Anglo Japanese relations.
According to Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The End of the Asian Century, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, now have “the opportunity to create the most significant Anglo-Japanese partnership since the alliance of the early twentieth century.”
Auslin goes on to suggest that Japan could join the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing community, so far restricted to the English-speaking countries.
That would be music to the ears of one intelligence operative who started working with Japan’s security services long ago. His name is Bond, James Bond.
BOND’S JAPANESE MIRROR
Hollywood has a long and ignoble history of ethnic stereotyping and East Asians, Japanese included, were often subjected to racist caricature. Mickey Rooney’s appalling turn as ”Mr. Yunioshi” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) derives directly from the tropes of American wartime propaganda.
You Only Live Twice takes a completely different tack. The image of a hostile Japan is nowhere to be found.. Instead, the friendship between Bond and Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese security service, foreshadows the co-operative Anglo-Japanese relationship that has developed over subsequent years.
Fleming based Tiger Tanaka on Torao “Tiger” Saito, the Asahi journalist who showed him around Japan. Indeed, the novel is dedicated to him as well as his other guide, Australian journalist Richard Hughes, who appears in the film as “Dikko” Henderson.
The Tanaka of the novel is a tough, somewhat dark character of about sixty. His backstory includes a first class degree from Oxford, a wartime stint with the Kempeitai military police and training as a kamikaze pilot.
Roald Dahl – later to win fame as a children’s writer – was the film’s main script-writer. Like Fleming, he had worked for British intelligence in wartime Washington. Unlike Fleming, he had a strong sense of humour.
Dahl’s Tanaka is a suave, much more modern figure. As played by Japanese star Tetsuro Tanba, he is handsome, witty and a connoisseur of beautiful women and high quality food and drink. In other words, an East Asian mirror image of Bond himself.
The following dialogue, which takes place in Tiger’s sleek, high-tech office, illustrates the commonality –
Tiger: You like Japanese saké, Mr. Bond? Or would you prefer a vodka martini?
Bond: No, no, I like saké. Especially when it’s served at the right temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, as this is.
Tiger: For a European you are exceptionally cultivated.
Bond is a loner. In the other films only C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter has a relation of equals with him. Tiger Tanaka has far more screen time than Leiter ever did. He guides Bond in the mysteries of Japanese culture, introduces him to a bevy of beauties, even arranges a marital partner for him when 007 disguises himself as a Japanese. In the climactic scene, it is Tiger who saves Bond’s life with a deftly thrown ninja star.Tetsuro Tanba as Tiger Tanaka
“I LOVE YOU, BONDO-SAN”
In Western popular culture, Caucasian heroes often come up against fiendish East Asian villains. The first of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels appeared in 1913, the era of the “yellow peril”, but the film series continued into the 1970s. As late as 1992, Michael Crichton’s potboiler Rising Sun, published at the height of US-Japan trade frictions, depicted a nefarious Japanese plot to take over the American technology sector.
In contrast, the dastardly villain that Bond encounters in deepest Kyushu is not Japanese, but European – the bald, cat-stroking Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The sadistic SPECTRE agent that Bond seduces (“the things I do for England…”) is Helga Brandt, also European.
Most Bond films go by in a blur of exotic locations, but in You Only Live Twice, ninety percent of the action takes place in Japan. Director Lewis Gilbert and team were at pains to capture the blend of the traditional and ultra-modern. Himeji Castle doubled as Tiger Tanaka’s school for ninja, featuring two top exponents of Kyokushin full-contact karate. The sumo scene has a brief speaking part for Grand Champion Sadanoyama, playing himself.
Many of the modern landmarks are recognizable today. We see the New Otani Hotel in the guise of the headquarters of Osato Chemicals; the swooping curves of Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Stadium, built for the 1964 Olympics; Nakano-Shinbashi station, where Tiger enters the underground train that serves as his mobile office.
In a foretaste of the future, Japanese gadgetry features prominently. Tiger’s bullet-firing cigarettes are worthy of Q, the quartermaster of MI6’s lethal devices. The Bond vehicle is a fine successor to the famed Aston Martin DB5 – a Toyota 2000 GT convertible, with a top speed of 137 m.p.h. The interior technology provided by Sony – voice-activated tape-recorder, colour CCTV with a VCR in the glove compartment – was state-of-the-art for the time.
By 1967, Japan had chalked up a decade of double digit economic growth and Britain was well into the Swinging Sixties. Both countries were searching for a new role in a world dominated by superpower rivalry. Why should they not be partners, politically, culturally, and – since this is a Bond film – romantically?
Appropriately, the code word for interactions between Bond and Japanese intelligence agents is “I love you.”
BOND’S NEW SKIN
Fascination with Japan came late in life to both Bond and his creator. Casino Royale, the first of the novels, has Bond winning his “double O” licence by assassinating a Japanese cryptographer in wartime New York. Ian Fleming made his first visit to Japan, on a brief travel-writing assignment, in 1959. At the time his overriding impression was that Japan had been “a bad enemy” during the war, though “friends whose opinions I value love the country and its people.”
Fleming was fascinated by the social interactions he witnessed, such as an elderly judo champion teaching a difficult throw to a small boy. On the Ginza, he noted how “purposeful” and healthy the young Japanese seemed. He loved sushi and saké and had kind words for Japanese whiskey (“very good, though I, a Scot, say it”). Five years before bullet-trains appeared, he was amazed by the quality of Odakyu Railway’s trains
Three years later Fleming was back for two weeks of research. Again guided by Saito and Hughes, he met a yakuza boss who was murdered six months later, drank turtle blood with security officials and travelled through Kyushu.
The novel that resulted contains large chunks of travelogue and ruminations on Japanese culture. Tiger Tanaka even attempts to interest 007 in haiku, quoting examples by master-poet Basho. They make little impression on Bond, though he does write one of his own at Tiger’s request.
You only live twice
Once when you are born
And once when you stare death in the face
It doesn’t work as a haiku, but it makes a fine epigraph for the last book Ian Fleming published in his lifetime.
The story opens with a depressed, semi-alcoholic Bond in need of psychological and career renewal. “He would put up no resistance to his old skin being sloughed off,” Fleming writes. “He didn’t even mind if the colour of the new skin was to be yellow.”
It ends with Bond, suffering from amnesia, living for a year in an idyllic fishing village under a Japanese name. He even fathers a child with a female pearl-diver who has “the rosy-tinted skin on a golden background – the colours of a golden peach – that is quite common in Japan.”
James Bond’s half-Japanese son or daughter would be in the prime of life today. As the political storm clouds gather, there could be increasing need for such a person’s talents.