Sunday, January 6, 2013

Double Oh...5: You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice Preamble: Roger Ebert recently pointed me towards this article, on the evolution (or lack thereof) of "Asian Eyebrows" and yellowface in cinema.  The writer missed one very significantly glaring example with the James Bond series (particularly the non-Asian actresses frequently made up to portray Chinese or Japanese women early in the series, not to mention perhaps the most notoriously absurd Bond-ian moment (and there have been dozens if not hundreds of them) where Bond is passed off as a Japanese man in this film. 
You may also notice that, unlike most G&DSD posts/reviews, I have not included the directors of each entry.  That's largely because these films are, so far, uniformly not well shot.  That and I forgot.  I'll catch up with this in the next entry.

Villains:  Ernst Blofeld finally rears his bald head/ shows his scarred face, though not until very late in the picture and somewhat comically as he has to lean into frame from around the thighs of his Aryan henchman Hans.

As we've established Blofeld is the big man in S.P.E.C.T.R.E., a shadowy, nebulous, kitty-stroking figure that I think proved far more intimidating as an unknown than with a face, regardless of how scarred (it looks like he's wearing a monocle, to be honest).  As frustrating as it seemed as a child to never see Dr. Claw's face on Inspector Gadget, and no matter how many bumbling rubes he had defeated by a 10-year-old girl and her dog, he still maintained an aura of nefariousness because we just couldn't see him.  Blofeld loses this mystique by revealing himself.  At the same time, Donald Pleasance's deadpan, semi-robotic performance is awesome.  He's like a living Hal 9000... the lack of emotion or intonation in his voice is effective.

His hollowed-out volcano, however, is full-on awesome.  As we know by now, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has the best evil lairs, and a secret volcano base, capable of harboring stolen space capsules, certainly puts in mind the scale of the operation Blofeld is in charge of.  It also has a piranha grotto, complete with a trick bridge, for all your lackey-killing needs.

None of the minions or lackeys particularly stand out in this one.  What sticks out the most is how many there are.

Bond Girls: Oh, how it seemed to me that we were making progress on this front with Domino and Fiona in Thunderball, but this is decidedly a broad two step backwards, with one short shuffle barely trying to make up for it.
Ms. Brandt (Karin Dor) is, at the very least, two rungs down the command line (number 11, actually), as she servers as Osato's secretary and assassin, whilst Osato reports directly into Blofeld.  Osato's not the type of corporate head-honcho to get his hands dirty, but he will give a kill order with little contemplation.  Brandt is smart enough to see through Bond's come ons and has a thing for torture, but totally sleeps with Bond to make him think she's turned good, then abandons him to die, confined within a pilotless plane.  She fails, naturally (why they don't just shoot him in the head and dump his body I'll never understand outside the deus ex machina of it all) and feels the wrath of the piranha grotto.
Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) is Bond's first point of contact when he hits Japan.  She's an agent of Tiger, Bond's real contact in Japan.  Bond is naturally curious of her, but unsure whether she's a good guy, bad guy, double agent or what.  All he knows is she is indeed a she and he wants some.  Aki seems smart, but is reduced and degraded by the culture she lives in (or at least this film's representation of Japanese culture, and female subservience) as frivolously useful and all too willing to fall in love with Bond. She meets a horrid end when she's killed by a fake ninja in training (don't ask).  Normally this would be the point where Bond swears vengeance on her killers, but even he seems to see how de rigueur it would be and doesn't bother.  Also, it's because he gets another girl to fake marry him as part of his ploy to be the most unconvincing fake Japanese man in existence.  The credits have her as Kissi Suzuki (Mie Hama), but I don't think I heard anyone call her by name the entire movie, which is kind of insulting, to not even have a name.  Kissi holds tough on the dwindling allure of Bond, even though they're fake married, at least for a little while, but sensing that her part is de rigueur itself, concedes to a volcano-side make-out session.
What can I really say about Kissi?  She's not much of a character, but she is a good swimmer.

Theme/Credits: Nancy Sinatra's lingering, sweeping ballad is terrific, managing to hold it's wonder uniqueness in spite of Robbie Williams co-opting its orchestral hook for whatever crap it was he spewed out a decade and a half ago.
The title sequence is an odd one, splitting the difference on two facets of the movie.  First, there's the b-reel background footage of molten lava flowing (did they have these types of green screen images in karaoke back then... he asked rhetorically), alluding to Blofeld's hideout.  Secondly there's the exoticness of Japan, specifically their eyes and Geisha culture.  Perhaps it's my lack of understanding of Japanese titillation, but, to me this opening title sequence seems to insinuate that women taking a bath in hot lava is supposed to be alluring rather than decidedly unsexy.  But then, the opening sequences to this point haven't been all that sexual.  There's an implied sexuality to them, but on the level of a 12-year-old's understanding of what sexy is, basically naked lady parts or the insinuation thereof.

Bond: At this stage, Connery is starting to show his age but not owning it yet.  This is the guy who, in the 1989 was "Sexiest Man Alive".  He just didn't seem ready to embrace it yet.  So it's either that he was starting to feel uncomfortable in the role of Bond, or he was just bored, but he doesn't quite deliver it with much gusto this time around.
Bond, generally, seems to have lost his touch,with women (Bond thinks that just because he's fake married to Kissi he can sleep with her, with absolutely no seduction or any effort put into it), with being discreet (henchmen are constantly killing the people around him, and he's always found out when sneaking in somewhere), with being undercover (posing as a businessman before Osato, he leaves the office thinking he's succeeded at his deception, only to have Osato, once out of earshot, utter "kill him")... he's really not trying to be a covert operative at all.  The whole ruse of killing Bond at the beginning was pretty much for naught, when everyone in Japan can apparently see him coming as British secret intelligence from miles away.  And then, the far more absurd ruse wherein he attempts to pass for Japanese, a head taller, distinct western features, a profoundly and undisguised hairy chest (pointedly noted by Tiger earlier).  Tiger also makes an astute comment: "The one thing my honourable mother taught me long ago was never to get into a car with a strange girl. But you, I'm afraid, will get into anything. With any girl."
One of few character tidbits to delve into his past, it's revealed that Bond placed first in international languages at Cambridge  

Movie:  In the effort to go big, and incorporate the then trendy space race, this one opens in space but the effects can't handle it believably.  Later, an equally unimpressive helicopter dogfight is staged, and it's sketchy in concept already, but looks goofy and highly unbelievable in practicality.  
Bond, in Hong Kong, is killed before opening credits, acknowledging (with all too sparse self-awareness) that Bond is for too visible as a secret agent.  This is done just in time to send him to Japan to investigate a potential landing site for a kidnapped U.S. space shuttle.  What nobody knows is that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is attempting to escalate a war between Russia and America, for profit!
With respect to Bond's ridiculous posing as Japanese and his marriage, it tries so hard to play this angle earnestly, but to what end.  What purpose does this charade actually serve?  Only about as much and for about as long as his death did.  For all the effort, it seemed rather futile.
Key scenes: Bond is shot out of a torpedo tube.  He fights a large, obviously ex-SUMO henchman, poorly. When Bond and Aki are being chased by Osato's henchmen, Tiger airlifts the bad guys using a helicopter and giant magnet and drops them into the ocean.  Ninja training school (for what turn out to be the worst ninjas ever).  Constant screaming at the television "Why don't they just shoot Bond already?" Tiger's personal subway car is awesome.
Tiger actually would be a pretty rad character were it not for this brutal bit of dialogue: "Rule number one, never do anything yourself when someone else can if it for you... Rule number 2, in Japan, men come first, women come second."
Or this one, in discussion with Bond about his fake wife, one of Tiger's agents:
"Is she pretty?" Bond asks, "She has a face like a pig" he replies.
Or when Tiger presents Bond with a gaggle of women like a pimp.  Bond picks, "good choice," Tiger says, "she's very Sexiful."  Ugh, this movie is so unabashedly sexist, and despite all efforts to appear cultured tremendously racist.  Can you believe this script came from legendary children's author Roald Dahl?
On the other hand, Toho's technical advisor was on hand to help with the effects and miniatures used in the picture, and they're pretty awesome, for the most part.

Q gadgets: Little Nelly, a tiny personaI helicopter.  There's no reason to bring Q all the way to Japan for this sequence, especially when Tiger presents him with a rocket gun and "one shot" cigarettes later, essentially filling Q's role of gadget man, and effectively.

A nitpick, When Blofeld sees Osata's x-ray of Bond's Walter PPK, he states "only one person we know uses this gun."  Is it not established by Q in Dr. No that the Walter PPK is standard issue, both by the SIS and CIA?

Classification (out of 01.0):  00.4