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Old movie could show a new approach to Anglo-Japanese relations

Classic Bond flick still relevant after all these years

It was 50 years ago, in the summer of 1967, that the fifth James Bond 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.

But the script retains Fleming's fascination with Japan. Indeed, such is the screen time lavished on visually gorgeous, non-plot scenes that Japan could be said to be co-starring with Sean Connery. As the U.K. exits the European Union and Japan adopts a more active role in regional security, it is worth reflecting on this unusual yet still relevant take on Anglo-Japanese relations.

According to Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute and author of "The End of the Asian Century," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his U.K. counterpart Theresa May now have an opportunity to create "the most significant Anglo-Japanese partnership" since the two countries were treaty allies in 1902-23.

Auslin goes on to suggest that Japan could join the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing community, a post-war security framework that has remained restricted to the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That would have been music to the ears of the Bond in "You Only Live Twice."

Hollywood has a long and ignoble history of ethnic stereotyping. East Asians were often subjected to racist caricature. But the film takes a different tack. The friendship between Bond and Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese security service, foreshadows the cooperative Anglo-Japanese relationship that has developed over subsequent years.

Fleming based Tanaka on Torao "Tiger" Saito, an Asahi journalist who showed him around Japan. His Tanaka is a tough, somewhat dark character of about 60 who served in the military police during World War II and trained as a kamikaze pilot.

In the film Tanaka is a more modern figure. Played by Tetsuro Tamba, he is handsome, witty and a connoisseur of beautiful women and good food and drink -- an East Asian mirror image of Bond. In the climactic scene, Tanaka saves Bond's life with a deftly thrown ninja star.

The dastardly villain that Bond encounters in the southern island of 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 (as he mutters, "Oh, the things I do for England...") is Helga Brandt, also a European.

SWINGING SIXTIES Most Bond films go by in a blur of exotic locations, but 90% of the action in "You Only Live Twice" takes place in Japan. Many of the modern landmarks remain recognizable. We see the New Otani Hotel as 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.

Tanaka's bullet-firing cigarettes are worthy of Q, the quartermaster of MI6, the British secret intelligence service, and developer of various 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.

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?

Fleming made his first visit to Japan in 1959. He was fascinated by the social interactions he witnessed, such as an elderly judo champion teaching a difficult throw to a small boy. He loved sushi and sake, and had kind words for Japanese whiskey: "Very good, though I, a Scot, say it."

Three years later Fleming was back for two weeks of research. He met a yakuza (Japanese gangster) 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.

The story 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 in Europe, there could be growing need for such a person's talents. Perhaps when next they 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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