May 17, 2017 8:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

007 shows how Tokyo and London can revive security alliance

James Bond and Tiger Tanaka point the way as Abe and May confront regional change


It was 50 years ago, in the summer of 1967, that the fifth 007 film, "You Only Live Twice," hit the world's cinema screens. Set mostly in Japan, the film 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 wrestling contest, that you could say that Japan co-stars with Sean Connery.

As the U.K. exits the European Union and Japan starts 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 U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May now have "the opportunity to create the most significant Anglo-Japanese partnership since the alliance of the early 20th century." Auslin goes on to suggest that Japan could join the "Five Eyes" intelligence sharing community, a post-war security framework so far restricted to the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

That would be music to the ears of an intelligence operative who started working with Japan's security services long ago: Bond, James Bond.

007'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 the years.

Fleming based Tanaka on Torao "Tiger" Saito, the Asahi journalist who showed him around Japan. Indeed, the novel is dedicated to him as well as to 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 60. 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. His Tanaka is a suave, more modern figure. As played by Japanese star Tetsuro Tamba, 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 communality.

Tiger: "You like Japanese sake, Mr. Bond? Or would you prefer a vodka martini?"

Bond: "No, no, I like sake. 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 007 films only CIA agent Felix Leiter has a relationship of equals with him. 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 Tanaka who saves Bond's life with a deftly thrown ninja star.

"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 "yellow peril" fears in Western countries, but the film series continued into the 1970s. As late as 1992, Michael Crichton's potboiler "Rising Sun," published at the height of U.S.-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 agent of the sinister SPECTRE organization who is seduced by Bond ("the things I do for England...") is Helga Brandt, also a European.

Most Bond films go by in a blur of exotic locations, but in "You Only Live Twice" 90% of the action takes place in Japan. Director Lewis Gilbert and his team were at pains to capture the blend of the traditional and ultra-modern. Himeji Castle doubled as 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; and Nakano-Shimbashi station, where Tanaka enters the underground train that serves as his mobile office.

In a foretaste of the future, Japanese gadgetry features prominently. Tanaka's bullet-firing cigarettes are worthy of Q, the quartermaster of MI6, the British secret intelligence service, and developer of a variety of lethal devices. The Bond vehicle is a fine successor to the famed Aston Martin DB5 used in earlier films -- a Toyota 2000 GT convertible, with a top speed of 220kph. The interior technology provided by Sony -- voice-activated tape-recorder, closed circuit color television with a video cassette recorder 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 in "You Only Live Twice" 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 0" license by assassinating a Japanese cryptographer in wartime New York. 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 bustling streets he noted how "purposeful" and healthy the young Japanese seemed. He loved sushi and sake, 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 (Japanese mafia) boss who was murdered six months later, drank turtle blood with security officials, and traveled through Kyushu. The novel that resulted contains large chunks of travelogue and ruminations on Japanese culture. Tanaka even attempts to interest 007 in haiku, a traditional Japanese poetry form in three lines, quoting examples by the 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 does not work as a haiku, but it makes a fine epigraph for the last book that 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 color 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 colors of a golden peach -- that is quite common in Japan."

Bond's half-Japanese son or daughter would be in the prime of life today. As political storm clouds gather, there could be growing need for such a person's talents. Perhaps when they next meet, May and Abe might want to view the film together as a prelude to rebooting Anglo-Japanese relations.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research

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