May 28, 2008

More Movie Blogging: Bond in Japan

Following up the Lost in Translation post, I decided to do the same thing with a somewhat less, shall we say, intellectually demanding movie. You Only Live Twice is the fifth Sean Connery James Bond movie, and the central gimmick of the movie (and it is full of gimmicks) is that it is set in Japan. I'd seen it before, in college, but I didn't remember it very well because my friends and I were drinking whilst watching it and commenting a la MST3K the whole time. I remembered that there were ninjas, and that's about it.

I have a difficult time categorizing the James Bond movies, in a lot of ways. On one hand, they're totally awesome- unrealistic swirls of gadgets and girls, orchestras of explosions, bullets and double-entendres. On the other hand, they're kind of a guilty pleasure for aesthetic and political reasons. And, as much as I'd want to be as suave as Bond, when it really comes down to it he's kind of a stuck-up priss. Think about it- would Bond be at all fun to have over to your place for game night? He'd just want to play baccarat the whole time, and would be fussy about the preparation/temperature of the various beverages.

I went into You Only Live Twice hoping for something of a massacre. I was perversely hoping for a wildly off the mark description of Japan and Japanese culture, a politically incorrect feast of inaccuracies. Almost. What I'd totally forgotten, though, is that the movie is absurd on other levels as well. My notes:

-In the opening bit Bond says Chinese girls taste different than other girls. I was instantly reminded of Shanghai's tastable smog.

-Ah, the Bond title sequences- a highlight of the series. The Nancy Sinatra title song is a bit better than the previous ones, I think, and the shots of the Asian women and volcanoes give a fairly obvious "Wow, this is all Oriental and shit!" feel.

-Holy crap! The screenplay is by Roald Dahl! Roald frikken' Dahl! Wow! He's my favorite dirty old children's author! Apparently he wrote not only kids books, dirty stories, ghostly tales and ribald nursery rhymes, but also a Bond movie. How awesome is that?

-The fake funeral and subsequent submarine setup at the start of the film are so ridiculous that the Austin Powers series seems superfluous. At this point, the Bond series seems to be its own parody, but I don't think it was ever intended to be all that serious anyhow.

-Bond says he doesn't need a Japanese phrasebook because he took a class on "Oriental languages" at Cambridge. Never minding the fact that Japanese is pretty singular as far as languages go. I guess I never need a German phrasebook, what with me being a teacher of Occidental languages and all.

-The first shot we see of Tokyo is a neon billboard for Asahi beer. Not too unrealistic, I guess. Advertisements for the stuff are pretty ubiquitous. It's kind of like the Budweiser of Japan, really, except that Asahi is palatable.

-Tokyo in the sixties. An older student of mine told me about Japan in the sixties, and he mentioned that it was fairly exciting, as the country was climbing out of the desolation of WWII, and finally, finally becoming a major world power again. It must have been amazing, all that development and rebirth- makes me think of China's position today.

-Bond goes to a Sumo match. Still haven't done that yet, but it's on the To Do list.

-I suppose the music is supposed to sound all "Asian" and such. It doesn't sound all that Japanese, really, but I sort of dig it for what it is.

-A continuity error: Bond says that he's never been to Japan before, but in From Russia With Love he mentions going to Tokyo.

-A big Japanese dude is attacking Bond with a katana. His form sucks. Bond totally KOed him with a Buddhist statue. It's like clocking someone with a crucifix! Huzzah!

-Now there appear to be a bunch of Japanese security guards with guns. I'm not sure about the sixties, but that wouldn't happen now. Guns are banned here. They'd have stun rods, at best.

-I've lost track of the plot already. Probably because there isn't much of one. Bond just fell down a trapdoor into a secret lair- this movie is utterly absurd.

-The head of the Japanese intelligence agency ("Tiger" is his nickname) apparently has a private train. This movie is utterly, utterly absurd.

-Bond says that sake is best served at 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Whatever.

-Tiger tells Bond that Moneypenny wants him because of his chest hair. Sean Connery does manage to look good whilst hairy. As a somewhat furry male, I can appreciate this. Then he quotes some made-up sounding Japanese proverb: "Bird not make nest in bare tree." Why the hell did he say it like that? It's not like he has a problem dropping articles.

-Tiger also calls one of his girls "sexiful." Often when my students invent words, they're so colorful I wish they were real ones. I wish "sexiful" was a real word.

-There's Tokyo Tower! Woo!

-Connery's pronunciation of Japanese words and names leaves much to be desired.

-There's a crane shot of Bond running from some sailor thugs on a rooftop at the Tokyo docks. I like crane shots a lot. This one is only okay, but still kind of nifty.

-Bond just magically seduced the evil chick. It was not convincing. Nevertheless, I wish I could do that.

-Bond just karate chopped a board in half! What can't this chest-hair possessing man not do!

-For the first half, this is easily the most absurd Bond movie. Then Q shows up, and makes it even more absurd. But, Q rocks, so it's okay. He gives Bond a miniature gun-laden helicopter, which is perhaps the most ridiculous Bond gadget yet. It's only slightly less goofy than the jet pack at the beginning of Thunderball.

-So, SPECTRE has a spacecraft that it uses to steal other, smaller spacecraft, which it subsequently hides within a secret Japanese volcano base. You'd think the nearby residents would notice all the spaceships constantly coming in to and going out of volcanoes. Now I'm just downright impressed with the audacity of this movie's absurdity.

-Blofeld just fed the evil chick to piranas. He must have a long line of applicants, what with all the SPECTRE members he's poisoned, set on fire, and fed to carnivorous fish over the course of the last few movies.

-An aerial shot of Himeji castle! I've totally been there! Himeji-jo has been in lots of movies, what with being big and impressive and all. I'm pretty sure that every time a director wants a Japanese castle in their movie, they get a few shots of Himeji.

-Ninjas! Tiger, the kimono-wearing head of the Japanese intelligence agency, has ninjas! So, I guess James Bond is going to team up with ninjas and attack the secret volcano base to solve the mystery of the missing spaceships. This sounds like something from fan fiction.

-Apparently Himeji in this movie is supposed to be a stand in for Tiger's ninja training school. They are very loud ninjas. A guy with a katana just hacked up some wooden posts and a straw dummy, then he flailed his sword around and screamed at the camera. His form sucked.

-Another katana guy. He subdued a bunch of dudes in a training battle. He's actually cool.

-Bond is going to "become a Japanese" and "become a ninja." Oh god...

-Bond is getting made up in order to pass as an Asian. I completely forgot about this, but the first time I saw this movie, I was drinking a lot. When all the makeup and stuff is done, Connery doesn't look the least bit Japanese. He looks like Sean Connery.

-An assassin just tried to poison Bond, but ended up killing the Japanese Bond girl instead. That sucks. She was way less annoying than the previous Bond girls.

-More ninjas. Being a ninja, according to You Only Live Twice, seems to be mainly yelling. Also, a guy just busted up a watermelon with his fist.

-Apparently as part of his cover, Bond has to go through the charade of passing as Japanese, and this includes having a Japanese wife. What the hell? Connery continues to look obviously non-Japanese.

-Bond and his "wife" seem to be getting along. 007 is breaking into the secret volcano base now. He just happened to have a special suction cup climbing suit on him so he can make like Spider Man on the walls. At first I was a little put out by this movie's absurdity, but now I just want more. I want it to be as ridiculous as possible.

-We finally get to see Blofeld's face in this movie. He's an ugly dude. Also, he'd sort of a unintimidating. Being short and having a high voice doesn't help his evil overlord image.

-Ninjas are storming the secret volcano base. Again, they are very loud ninjas.

-Blofeld just killed one of his underlings for no discernible reason.

-Okay the movie's over. Ninjas storm the base, shit blows up, Blofeld escapes, and the SPECTRE's volcano base explodes in a torrent of lava.

The movie was a bit of a disappointment for me- I wanted to watch it because I wanted to see lots of absurd depictions of Japan. There were a bit, but the Japanese absurdity was overshadowed by the general absurdity of the movie. This is a movie that includes space-based thievery, miniature helicopters, cigarette rockets, fake funerals, volcano lairs, secret, private trains, and pools of piranas. The politically incorrect cultural absurdity ultimately got buried under all of the gadgetry and genre ridiculousness.

I wonder how much of it came from Roald Dahl. The movie apparently has very little to do with the book upon which it's based, and I can imagine Mr. Dahl inventing all kinds of bizarre things (like carnivorous spaceships) with that wonderful, twisted mind of his. I wonder if he put it in just for laughs, throwing in the trapdoors and piranas just because he thought it was ridiculous. At least, I hope that's what happened.

A larger issue, though, is that I'm generally curious about how Japan is portrayed by and for Westerners. I've been away for a while, and I don't think I have a clear view, anymore, of this country's place in Western pop culture. It certainly does have a place- people think of Godzilla, manga, anime, and, of course, ninjas, all through a weirdly distorted lens. I've forgotten what the lens looks like, what the distortion looks like. Lover of pop culture that I am, I want to take another look at it with more accurate eyes.


Anonymous said...


You're awesome. I haven't seen a Bond movie in quite some time and I might just have to rent one now to partake in the ridiculousness. I'm very much enjoying your movie blogging... Like I said, you're awesome. Talk to you soon!

kristin said...

Hey Joe,

Sorry about the anonymity - that last comment was me. : )

Joseph said...

I remember watching that movie. I think that was what convinced me that I will never, ever be a James Bond fan...

Scot said...

"You Only Live Twice," the fifth movie in the Bond series, pushed the franchise over the line from improbable action-adventure into total wacko fantasy. How many years would it have taken to build the bad guy's headquarters in a hollowed-out volcano? Wouldn't the locals have noticed all that excavation and construction and delivery of stuff going on? And the idea of a six-foot, 190-pound Scotsman passing for Asian? Turning Japanese -- I really DON'T think so!

One minor error in your blog: "Tiger tells Bond that Moneypenny wants him because of his chest hair." It wasn't Moneypenny that Tiger Tanaka was referring to, but the female bath attendants who were all over Bond like flies on a cowpie. And as for Bond's pidgin English ("Bird not make nest in bare tree"), well, obviously he was imitating the hundreds of "Confucius say" jokes. Or are you too young to remember those?

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