Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review – You Only Live Twice

July 1, 2010

You Only Live Twice – U.K., 1967

You Only Live Twice begins with the incredibly ludicrous notion of a U.S. spacecraft being swallowed by a much larger spacecraft, and when I say swallowed, I mean it literally. We see the big ship creep up from behind, its nose opens in an odd-beaklike shape, and in goes the U.S. craft. It brought to mind cartoon images of big fish gobbling up smaller fish, which underwater makes perfect sense. But in outer space? Couldn’t the big ship have been equipped with a tractor beam instead? I imagine the image would stand up better if it had been, for these days the scene is more likely to illicit a chuckle than shock and dread.

The fifth James Bond film takes place at a time of both great tension and impressive technological progress. The Cold War is underway, and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are locked in a race to see who will be the first to conquer space, a feat that no doubt would give the victor a military advantage. Therefore, after the U.S. rocket disappears, the U.S. government wastes no time blaming the U.S.S.R. It further states that should its next rocket meet the same fate, there will be war between the two superpowers. At the same time, Japan has undergone enormous changes since the end of the Second World War. It is a rising economic power, especially in industry, and the U.K. suspects that the rocket that took the U.S. craft actually landed somewhere in Japan, a notion that both the U.S.S.R. and the United States scoff at.

Therefore, it’s up to James Bond (Sean Connery) to uncover the truth in time to prevent an all-out war from starting. This involves first staging his own death, for apparently the world’s greatest spy is so well known that people are constantly trying to kill him. In Japan, he assumes the identity of Mr. Fisher, a businessman interested in purchasing chemicals. The disguise doesn’t fool anyone, and in no time at all, Bond is trying to outrun gunmen who are armed with automatic weapons, which no villain has ever had success shooting at James Bond. Bond suspects that SPECTRE is somehow involved in the disappearance of the rocket, and his contact in Japan, “Tiger” Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), agrees with his assessment. Together, they begin investigating a chemical company run by a wealthy man named Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada). Assisting them is a beautiful young Japanese agent named Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). She has the uncanny knack of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and she and Bond become well acquainted very quickly. However, something is different about Bond’s relationship with Aki; he seems to have genuine feelings for her, a fact that makes his attraction to another woman later on seem rather awkward.

Two aspects of You Only Live Twice may cause present-day audiences to experience a bit of discomfort as they watch the film, and so it is important to remember when the film was made and what people were like at that time. The film was released in 1967, ten years after Sayonara and just seven years after The World of Suzie Wong, two films that have been criticized by contemporary audiences as being problematic in their portrayals of Asian characters. I imagine that some people will equally disapproving of the way the Asian characters in You Only Live Twice are depicted, and there are plenty of reasons for people to feel this way. The film contains a scene in which Bond wonders aloud, “Why do Chinese girls taste differently than other girls?” Later, Tanaka tells Bond two things about Japan: 1) Never do for yourself what others can do for you and 2) In Japan, men come first; women come second. A moment later, he says of the woman Bond has chosen to give him a massage, “She’s very sexable.” Still later, Aki tells Bond, “I think I will very much like serving under you.” She’s aware of the double entendre. I doubt some of these statements could be said in films nowadays, yet the film is set at a time when people may have been more likely to say such things. In addition, it’s equally important to note that Tanaka, Aki, and Kissy Suzuki (yes, that’s a character’s name) are all extremely brave characters who save Bond’s life more than once. The women are not simply eye candy, and Tanaka is not just a male chauvinist.

The second problematic part of You Only Live Twice has to do with Bond “becoming Japanese,” a story line that may make people recall earlier films in which Caucasian actors played Asian characters. I remember years ago seeing a presentation on all that was wrong with the way Asian characters were portrayed in films. The presentation included a brief clip from You Only Live Twice – the scene in which Bond is told that he has to become Japanese and has to take a Japanese bride, a remark that fills Aki with a great amount of excitement. As they showed the scene, some of the people in the audience giggled; others let out deep sighs of disappointment. Shown as a brief snippet, it’s not hard to see why the scene would elicit such responses. However, what the presenters failed to explain was why Bond has to do this. Bond has to get onto an island that is likely teeming with people working for SPECTRE, and the only way to do this is to go as the husband of one of the locals. He can’t do this as a Westerner, so he is made to look Japanese. It’s important to note that he does not act in a way that could be described as demeaning towards Japanese people. He simply gets on the island and begins searching for an area that could be used as a launching pad.

If there is one overriding problem with the film, it is that what we see in front of us often lacks logic. For one thing, why does Bond have to be tricked in order for him to be able to meet Tanaka? Why do Osato’s assassins try to kill Bond just outside their boss’s company? Surely, that would have been bad for business. In addition, there are a few too many moments in which characters have ample opportunity to kill Bond yet don’t. In one scene, Bond sits tied to a chair, and a woman named Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) interrogates him. She eventually gets the information she wants from Bond, and then she unties him, and the two of them presumably make love. Missed opportunity #1. Moments later, we see Bond immobilized on an airplane already in flight. Does Ms. Brandt kill his then? No, she ejects from the plane, allowing Bond the opportunity to break free and somehow land the plane safely. Missed opportunity #2. Later, the unlikeliest of characters will contribute to missed opportunity #3. I was also disappointed with the head of SPECTRE. After being hyped for four films as a criminal mastermind capable of inspiring both intense fear and unyielding devotion, he’s a bit of a letdown.

And yet, I liked You Only Live Twice a lot. It’s a well-paced, fun film replete with well choreographed action sequences, and the nightmare scenario depicted in the film in entirely realistic for the time in which the film occurs. Sure, the film’s predictable, but which Bond film isn’t? To me, the fun of a Bond film is not the conclusion but the chase. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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