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Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating You Only Live Twice

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Original illustration by Emilie Majarian for The Mary Sue.

Welcome to Bond Girl, a new series where we’ll be re-watching and re-evaluating every James Bond film until Spectre’s release. Check out previous entries here

You Only Live Twice is one of those Bond movies that I wound up liking more that I felt like I should. The return to Sean Connery is marked by familiar annoying tropes and I was plenty steamed as I livetweeted my experience watching the film on Thursday, but I still came away from it with some seriously positive feelings.

You Only Live Twice is the fifth film in Eon Production’s James Bond franchise. With a screenplay written by Roald Dahl, this film is the first in the franchise to change or ignore most of the plot of Fleming’s original work – mostly because the films are in a different order than the book. You Only Live Twice winds up getting a serious plot shift; the setting is mostly the same, and some of the characters are too, but the story comes out of left field. After an American spacecraft disappears while in orbit, politics comes into play with every country blaming one another and the threat of a warming Cold War seems imminent. Bond heads to Japan in order to get to the bottom of the case and winds up in the middle of a SPECTRE showdown.

Honestly, I liked this film way more than I probably should have. It has rough edges and a crap ton of racism, but the plot is my favorite kind of plot. You have real-world ties to contemporary political issues, SPECTRE just being full of the most underhanded political scheming, and Bond in an excellent balance of skill and strength with his foes.

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You Only Live Twice also wins for me in terms of the earliest parts of the pre-credits scene. Special effects weren’t exactly the best in the 1960s, and the opening scene where a SPECTRE spaceship opens up and swallows the NASA ship was both hilarious and horrifying: hilarious because it was very reminiscent of old-school horror films, right down to the special effects of the SPECTRE ship essentially eating the small NASA craft; horrifying due to the way that it’s played out when one astronaut out for a spacewalk has his lifeline cut and you see him just float off into space with no hope for anything to happen to that guy other than a really fast (but wholly uncomfortable) death.

Of course, there’s a brief moment (one of several I felt in this film whenever an Asian woman was onscreen, and part of something I’m going to talk about later) where I was horribly uncomfortable; tight after that, though is when we get to this unbelievably well-done scene where we’re set up to assume that James Bond is dead, right before the opening credits cut in.

Nevertheless, this is a James Bond film, so of course the main character is fine and dandy. After a fantastic fake funeral at sea, we’re treated to the sight of a hale and hearty Bond on a submarine manned by allies, including my forever-favorite, Miss Moneypenny.  Then M gives him Bond mission to find the missing rocket, or the person responsible for taking it, in order to avert a world war. It’s a weird mission to give a British secret agent; but then, James Bond doesn’t really seem like an average agent.

One of my favorite things about the series is how Bond is constantly called in to do the big jobs all across the world. He doesn’t actually read as a spy to me in the films, and never has; he’s more like an international watchdog that is called in to fix the unfixable. Bond is more of a jack-of-all-trades at first and maybe a Special Ops worker in later films, but he’s not really spying on people and ferreting out secrets.

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The film is largely set in Japan and I love that this is actually a super-authentic film in that regard. This isn’t one of those films where everything was filmed on a lot in California or New York, and you can tell. One of my recurring complaints about the Bond series is about how much whitewashing and yellow/brown face exists. Instead of casting actors of color as characters of color, we instead get white actors and actresses from Europe slapping on makeup in order to appear “exotic.”

You Only Live Twice doesn’t do that. As far as I can tell through the cast list, all of the named Chinese and Japanese characters are actually played by Chinese and Japanese actors. On top of that, there’s more effort made to talk about the film’s locale and culture than has been made throughout most of the franchise so far. It’s sad how happy this information made me; but then again, I was at a point where I was actually not looking forward to films set in places where people of color lived because the racism factor was too much.

Now, that’s not to say that You Only Live Twice was perfect in terms of race because it really wasn’t, but there’s only so many times you can see “white European painted/tanned to be a person of color” in one of these films before getting utterly fed up with it, and I reached my limit ages ago. The break was wonderful (up until a good fifteen minutes near the end of the scene that showed Bond “transformed” into a Japanese farmer; but I’ll be honest, I was expecting that to happen).

Another thing that I liked about You Only Live Twice was the fashion. You have a mix of traditional Japanese clothing with yukata and kimonos, and then the very fashionable (at the time) mod dresses worn by Japanese agent Aki.

Now, let’s talk about the plot parts that I really liked.

tiger helga blofeldI adored the interagency cooperation. It didn’t wholly feel like James Bond was doing this whole thing on his own without help from the Japanese. I actually felt as if he and Tetsurō Tamba’s Tiger Tanaka were equals, and that that they worked well together.

Next is SPECTER Operative Helga Brandt (played by German actress Karin Dor). At first, she puts me in mind of Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona Kelly. She’s a red-haired operative and seductive in her mannerisms. Though she died a sad death in Blofeld’s piranha pool, her willingness to do the most to get what she wanted from Bond kind of bumps her up to the top of my list of female villains that I want to head up my reimagined SPECTRE, along with Kelly and Pussy Galore.

Plus, there’s no way for anyone to forget what SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld looks like. He’s scarred and manages to be menacing despite how goofy he should look while petting a fluffy white cat. He’s not my favorite villain in the series, but he’s one of the most effective.

But even with me keeping in mind how much I genuinely enjoyed You Only Live Twice there’s quite a bit of the film that I want to tear to shreds or remove from my memory. Yes, it’s time to talk about the objectification and exotification of Asian women in the film, and You Only Live Twice‘s race problem.

This movie pulls no punches. It’s almost as if, in casting Japanese and Chinese women as Japanese and Chinese characters, they felt as if it were open season on them. There are so many relatively dirty jokes and comments about Asian women (primarily Japanese women, as they’re seen the most in the film) that I wondered how none of this was censored.

ling

I mean, at the beginning of the film, we have Bond in bed with a Chinese MI6 operative, serving us the most racist dialogue I’ve heard in a Bond movie thus far:

Bond: Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?

Ling: You think we better, huh?

Bond: No, just different. Like Peking duck is different from Russian caviar. But I love them both.

Ling: Darling, I give you very best duck.

The noise of barely restrained rage that I made was so loud that my sister actually came out to see what I was doing. She came in just as I was watching that part on repeat, and she was just as disgusted as I was. James Bond is so greasy when it comes to situations like this; the lines that the writers give him are supposed to be charming and sexy, but he really just comes off as a huge sleazeball.

This film reduces Asian women to sexy stereotypes for the audience to enjoy, objectifying them, and holding them to western ideals of Asian women. They’re submissive and worshipful of James Bond. Barely any of their dialogue isn’t about a man in the film (and the women with speaking roles in the film barely have five minutes of dialogue between them, by the way). Plus, the women’s lines were largely in a dialect that othered them, and in some cases, infantilized them. Japanese men that show up in the film are allowed to speak clearly and be witty; the women of color in the film don’t really get that. They’re definitely framed as cute, but quiet, put into scenes in such a way that you don’t really see them beyond their availability to and desire for Bond.

aki kissy

I actually do like Akiko Wakabayashi’s Aki and Mie Hama’s Kissy Suzuki, because they’re honestly super iconic and likeable characters. What I don’t like how they’re treated in the narrative. Aki is fridged. She’s killed in part so that she’s out of the running for Bond’s affection, which would allow his fake marriage to Kissy Suzuki. Her death also spurs Bond onward to getting to the bottom of the case, and it’s something that could’ve been achieved with Bond himself being poisoned or injured.

Kissy Suzuki doesn’t even get her name from the books – she isn’t named in the film at all. Nor does she get her backstory (wherein she has Bond’s child). All she is in the film is a nameless Ama girl who marries James Bond so that his incredibly shaky cover as a poor Japanese fisherman can hold. That’s it. I mean… they absolutely could have and should have done more for her role.

plastic_surgery_scene

Lastly, okay – I can’t get over the fact that they had a major scene wherein James Bond undergoes a procedure to look Japanese. I also can’t get over the fact that we’re supposed to believe that actual Japanese people didn’t just die laughing at this big white man pretending to be one of them. It wasn’t bad enough that this scene is full of female objectification because of how the Japanese women doing the procedure are all in their underwear and giggling throughout. Nah. The framing of the scene is just more awfulness. It’s just super unbelievable and uncomfortable to watch, and I was so happy when it came time for the film’s big climax so that James Bond could get back to his usual look and quit playing at someone’s identity.

Thankfully, aside from the big, intersectional issues that You Only Live Twice has with regard to race and sexism, most of my other issues were relatively minor things. Shirley Bassey’s presence in the Bond production has spoiled me for other performers singing the series’ theme songs. For me, only Adele even came close to getting me in the gut with her performance for Skyfall. Now Nancy Sinatra, who sings the title song for You Only Live Twice, has a lovely voice and all, but when coupled with the actual “mysterious Oriental” feel of the opening credits, there’s too much distracting me, and a huge amount of that is because it’s trying to sound ambiguously Asian without any real effort or idea about what they wanted to settle on. The whole soundtrack is kind of like that, actually, and it’s weird how noticeable that slip-up is.

I also had issues with how the subtitles were formatted (and the utter lack of subtitles for anything not in English, as well as for the cast commentary). This is definitely a quibble with the DVD people and not technically the Eon Production folks, but I have to mention it here because it definitely affected my enjoyment of the film.

You Only Live Twice isn’t my least favorite of the Sean Connery films. It’s a very solid middle film for me, because, while I enjoyed the film once I sort of turned my brain off a bit for the first rewatch session, later viewings had me noticing too many things. I couldn’t turn my brain off after that, and I noticed many things that made me run to Google or Wikipedia for answers or that made me frustrated. It was almost there in terms of films that I enjoyed, and it makes me wonder if the original three-hour cut of the film would have had more scenes that I would have been into.

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What I’m looking forward to:

I know I said I wasn’t getting my hopes up about George Lazenby’s lone Bond outing, but here I am with my hopes as high as they can be. I’m actually super excited to listen to the cast commentary because I have so many questions about the film’s production and Lazenby’s desire not to star in future Bond films.

Zina Hutton writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.

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