You only Live Twice

This review is part of Project Bond, wherein over the course of 2014 we watch all of the James Bond movies in production order.

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Summary: in which Bond dies, resurrects, and foils SPECTRE’s attempts to start a war between the US and USSR by eating their spacecraft. Also, he becomes a Japanese man. And gets married.

Alex: I love this theme song.

Once again, this movie sees James Bond become a science fictional film. The opening sequence is of Gemini 16, an American spacecraft, with its astronauts preparing for EVA. And then oh no! it gets swallowed by another spacecraft which appeared from nowhere! The USSR is, of course, blamed; the UK politely dissents with this assessment, but the US ignore their Anglo cousins.

Cut to credits. (And the revelation that the screenplay was written by Roald Dahl!)

I’ve made the point before about so much of Bond being set outside of England, and it’s only today that I realised that of course Bond is part of MI6 – the international arm of the British secret service. So of course he’s in exotic locales. This time, it’s Japan, and when Moneypenny throws Bond a book of Instant Japanese, he primly reminds her that he took Oriental Languages at Cambridge… which is, I think, one of the first time we get any information about Bond’s background. It’s interesting to think that after five films we know so little about our hero: no knowledge of his family background, his interests (aside from drinking and womanising)… nada. Apparently the Mystery Man was genuinely thought to be intriguing enough that it wasn’t necessary.

For an ambiguously SFnal film, Japan of the 1960s is an intriguing setting. Tokyo as a city is shown to be a place of, on the one hand, neon lights, while on the other traditional sumo wrestling. This dichotomy of future/past is repeated throughout. There are more security cameras than in the previous four films together, I think, and the head of Japanese security – “Tiger” – has cool round screens for showing scenes. He also has a private train and is disappointed that M doesn’t. The head of Osato Chemicals – the ostensible villain – has electric shutters and an X-ray machine in his desk.

On the other hand, there’s sumo wrestling and ninjas. In fact, there’s a remarkable amount of (Anglo-mediated) Japanese culture in this film, including a fake marriage ceremony that was both irrelevant to the plot and slowed the pace to a dead stop. I wonder whether this was because the opportunity of showcasing Japanese rituals was deemed worth it – and, indeed, exotic enough that it would work for 60s viewers? Screening “the Other” often has cachet, I know. From a gender perspective traditional Japan is suggested to be deeply sexist: Tiger gravely tells Bond that in Japan, “men always come first. Women always come second”… while four women in their underwear are washing them (“never do for yourself what someone else can,” or words to that effect). So that’s a thing.

There’s nothing really new about the gender politics here. The two Japanese women with whom Bond works are highly competent, but/and both fall in love with him. On reflection this makes Bond remarkably cold, since he’s making movies on the second – Kissy –  just a week or so after Aki, for whom he seemed quite affectionate, has been killed. There’s also a female villain (number 11), whom he maybe sleeps with but certainly appears to have used his magical powers on, but then she does actually try to kill him. She’s a distinctly confused character, actually, and I was quite disappointed that they didn’t make her entirely straightforward (like Rosa in From Russia with Love). Also, Bond comments that Japanese girls “taste different” from their English counterparts. Er… wha??

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The race element is present here, also. The absolutely worst moment is that Bond “becomes Japanese” in order to… I’m not sure what. He proceeds to train as a ninja, so maybe the appearance is really important? Basically he gets a bad haircut, has it dyed black, and gets some prosthetics on his eyes. It’s unconvincing. It is also, happily, the only case of yellow-face, so that’s positive. In terms of deaths, of the main characters only Aki – non-white and female – dies. I really expected Tiger to die, too, but happily he survives. And in looking up the cast I discovered that Tetsuro Tamba started acting in 1953, and had his last role in 2006. In that time, he was had 265 roles! By comparison, Connery’s credits go from 1954 to 2012, and come to 93.

Finally, it’s important to note that it turns out to be SPECTRE behind the eating-spacecraft thing; they’ve done it to a Russian craft, too, and their express purpose is to instigate a war between the US and USSR. Quite why… I’m not sure. Hoping to be

images-1the phoenix rising from the ashes and taking over the world? Because mayhem is its own reward? But that’s almost beside the point when we actually get the great reveal: Number 1 is Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by Donald Pleasance), and he introduces himself to James Bond. So we see his face. And, as almost always with a Bond villain, he is disfigured: his right hand is damaged somehow (and is thus literally sinister), and he also has scarring around one eye. Nothing like making an obvious play on the whole physical/moral connection, is there? I can’t help but be a bit sad that the mystery has gone out from Number 1. Being faceless is far more intriguing than being scarred, in an Ultimate Villain. (I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out that a Supervillain Organisation that relies on its ultimate boss for such instructions as “lower the shutters” when the rocket is about to take off has some serious management issues.)

James: It was a little incongruous when the ninja had to use explosives to break through the obviously chicken wire and plastic roof over the volcano lair, but otherwise quite an enjoyable film.  Also, what’s not to love about Little Nellie, the helicopter with rockets, flame thrower, machine guns and aerial land mines which can fit in 4 stylish Louis Vuitton suitcases and be brought in at a moments notice by Q.  For the movie nerds, I’m not sure the blu-ray transfer was quite as magical as some of the earlier films, but perhaps the novelty has worn off.  3 Martinis.

6 responses

  1. This was the first Bond story that I had read before watching the film, somewhere in my early teens. From memory the book did a much better job than the film in demonstrating/showcasing Japanese culture. But then we are talking a late 80’s read here. I do remember having a “that wasn’t it the book” and “the book was better’ reaction though

    1. Heh, the book is always better. This is, like, written on stone tablets or something.
      I read a lot of Bond books, but I have absolutely no idea which ones. It was maybe 16 years ago, and I read them so quickly that they don’t seem to have made an impression!

      1. I think LOTR came close to being as good as.

        1. Yes… although there are some aspects of them that I am still sad they changed or missed out 😀

          1. Didn’t mind the leaving out of Bombadil, nor the inclusion of the Romance with Arwen.

            1. I love Bombadil but his inclusion would have been weird. Happy with the Arwen bit. Very cranky they made Faramir not the polar opposite of his brother. Also, Ghan buri Ghan could have appeared, if briefly… *sigh*

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