December 24, 2012

Japan's Bond legacy


Kaori Shoji recently reminisced in The Japan Times about James Bond's one and only adventure in Japan way back in 1967 (perhaps not coincidentally on the heels of the 1966 Cary Grant comedy, Walk, Don't Run, which takes place during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics):

The gentleman spy came to Tokyo and Fukuoka, saw some sumo, consorted with ninja and got intimate with two homegrown Bond girls. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, You Only Live Twice goes down in Japan's collective memory as the one and only time 007 made it to these shores.

You Only Live Twice was also the movie, along with Go for Broke (1951), that got me interested in all things Japanese. As I have Thackeray recount in Tokyo South,

"I think the first time I thought about going to Japan was after I saw that James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. What kind of a reason is that?"

As a vehicle for communicating Japanese culture to a worldwide audience, You Only Live Twice canonized the silliest of modern stereotypes about Japan. The Japanese, though, were delighted with the whole thing. Just as Americans are the world's biggest "Occidentalists" (we're all "cowboys"), Japanese are the world's biggest Orientalists.

Manga and anime would soon embrace the silliness and fashion from it an unique pop culture movement. The latest incarnation of the anime series 009-1, in particular, is a great homage to the Bond oeuvre, with a female android in the title role.

You Only Live Twice certainly isn't any dumber than dreck like Ridley Scott's Black Rain (1989) and Rising Sun (1993). A notable exception from that era is the grossly under-appreciated Mr. Baseball (1992), a sort-of film version of Robert Whiting's witty analysis of Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa (1990).

The Last Samurai (2003) may be the best-looking Hollywood movie made about Japan, but it tries so hard not to recycle the recent stereotypes that it ends up recycling all the old ones, getting the historical context completely backwards and upside down. The campier Shogun (1980) is a far more accurate romanticization of history.

In that light, what I find more intriguing is that a decade before Bond's arrival in 1967, no doubt due to the interest engendered by the American Occupation and the Korean War, the 1950s produced some of the best Hollywood movies filmed on location in Japan, and with big-name stars. Such as:

House of Bamboo (1955, with Robert Ryan and Robert Stack)
Teahouse of the August Moon (1956, with Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Eddie Albert, and Harry Morgan)
Sayonara (1957, with Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Red Buttons and Ricardo Montalban!)
Escapade in Japan (1957, with Jon Provost of Lassie fame)

If nothing else, these films are time machines back to before Japan became a first-world nation and an economic powerhouse. And here is where contemporary directors like Sofia Coppola and Edward Zwick fail miserably. Their time machines keep on going. As Kiku Day bitterly observes about Lost in Translation (2003):

[Ancient Japan] is depicted approvingly, though ancient traditions have very little to do with the contemporary Japanese. The "good Japan," according to [Coppola (and Zwick )], is [samurai,] Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement; meanwhile she portrays the contemporary Japanese as ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture.

Perhaps because the stereotypes hadn't yet become part of the zeitgeist, Hollywood directors in the 1950s simply filmed what they saw looking through the lens. There is certainly far more truth and wonder to be found in the wide eyes of seven-year-old Jon Provost in Escapade in Japan than in the jaded, postmodern gaze of Bill Murray.

Related posts

Dances with Samurai
Lost on location
The Pacific War on screen

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