Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Turning Japanese: You Only Live Twice and Le Samouraii

After the over-the-top monstrosity of Thunderball, it was time to get back to basics. No more endless-film-of-fish idiocy: time for a reboot. While reboots have become a common sight in the post-modern, devoid-of-inspiration cultural deserts of the early twenty-first century, they weren't so common when there was less old stuff to reboot. Hence the makers of You Only Live Twice got a bit confused, and instead of going back to basics after the debacle of Thunderball, You Only Live Twice starts off with a giant metal crocodile that eats spaceships, which shows the Russkies and the Yanks to be overexcited lunatics in the face of British stiff-upper-lip sensibility:

Yum yum yum, delicious astronauts...

Then we're off to Hong Kong, which in the intervening 44 years has got more crowded and a bit dirtier. And due to constant reclamation, the harbour is narrower than it used to be, which means the Star Ferry doesn't have as far to go as it did in Bond's day. Living in Hong Kong, I was first filled with jealousy that Bond's latest squeeze has a bigger apartment than me, and then worried because I also have a fold-up bed. Then again, in the year I've been sleeping in it, I've never been disturbed by a bunch of Johnnies running in with machine guns. Something to be thankful for.

Previous Bond films have been quite egalitarian in their treatment of Asians: they're all evil: duplicitous secretaries, iron-handed rocket-topplers, terrible drivers and hat-flinging strongmen alike. It's only when Bond is reincarnated within the submarine (in the suspiciously clean waters of Hong Kong harbour) that we discover he has a First in Oriental Studies from Cambridge. This doesn't seem to be that wonderful a qualification, because all it seems to equip Bond to do is to understand the phrase "dozo" in Japanese, which is a bit like pretending to be fluent in French by learning how to say "s'il vous plait". But perhaps we'd hope that in You Only Live Twice, Asians might get to be more than just a parade of paranoid stereotypes. Yes, and the British Government isn't going to waste taxpayers' money by installing wood-panelling in a submarine for the one time that M wants to leave Whitehall.

As FilmsRruss has pointed out, Bond has a pretty good fight with a big Japanese lad in a boardroom, utilising lots of furniture. There's several things to draw from this: as in Moonraker, Bond is going to return to the scene of the crime the next day to find the whole place has been tidied up and put back together (evil organisations have really good cleaning staff, apparently), and more importantly, furniture is dangerous.

No, furniture is really dangerous.

In You Only Live Twice, Number 11 tries to kill Bond with a plank of wood, like she'd popped out for a gun and got lost and gone to MFI by mistake. Between that, the Wobbleboard of Death in the Thunderball Health Farm, Blofeld's electric chair personnel disposal system, the ejector seat in Goldfinger and Rosa Kleb being pinned to a wall with a chair, it's a wonder anyone ever dares to take a load off their feet for fear of immediate death.

You're about to be killed by a school desk. And not even a particularly good one.  Maybe you should start praying.

Come to think of it, perhaps that's why all those girls die when they get into vehicles with Bond. It's not the transportation that gets them, it's the sitting down that kills you.

But enough of this speculation. Let's have a look at how all the previous negative treatment of Orientals is reversed. Oh, hang on. No it's not - just like in Goldfinger, there's a black car full of incompetent assassins who don't drive very well, although in this case they get surprised by a giant magnet rather than a bit of smoke, and then demonstrate the Japanese are very efficient at drowning criminals.

They're not very efficient at killing British agents though - Bond gets chased through a dockyard by a gang of angry rejects from a Japanese YMCA tribute band, who demonstrate the inverse-Ninja law by being rubbish en masse, but deadly once there's only one or two of them, which gets Bond captured, tied to a chair (see - chairs are dangerous!), "seduces" a woman with red hair (hasn't he learned anything from last time out?) and then readied for Death By Plank Of Wood, as previously referred to.

Oh James, when will you learn not to get into planes with sexy women?

After that, what's left of the film? A pretty good gadget in the form of Little Nelly, which is one of the less embarassing items we've encountered so far, an attempt to disguise Sean Connery as a Japanese fisherman (fake eyebrows and a bit of Scotch tape on the eyelids are as good as plastic surgey, apparently), and a visit to Ninja Training School that is slightly less ridiculous than Tom Cruise learning to be a Samurai in The Last Samurai in two weeks and a montage. Ninja School is a bit like Spectre Island when you compare the ratio of fatalities to the student entry, but hey, they're Japanese, so they're allowed to chop each other up with great big swords. They're not very good at having survival instincts ("let's all just pile into Blofeld's incredibly well defended volcano base and get shot at") but they're plucky little fellows, what what?

You Only Live Twice has so much that's good about it. There's Blofeld's gender-neutral employment policy - he's just as happy to feed failed female assassins to piranhas as electrocute men who are defrauding him. There's Bond's ludicrous cover story when he goes to see Osato (200,000 dollars worth of MSG? Was he thinking of opening a chain of Chinese takeaways?) There are the insane underground bases of both Takata (good) and Blofeld (evil), each equipped with its own train, although it's only Blofeld's that has random barrels piled everywhere, a helpful legacy for every first-person-shooter since Doom that needed explosive scenery. There's huge Japanese typewriters. There's a room with paper walls that Bond can't escape, because the door is made of metal and locked. There's even a man who dies after mixing a martini the wrong way, in a clear example of karma. Oh, and Bert Kwouk is in the volcano as one of Spectre's operatives - before getting a job working for Inspector Clouseau, I suppose, as all the Bond and non-Bond films begin to intertwine.

And yet... and yet it's a bit dull, it's a bit going-through-the-motions. None of the Japanese characters have that strange, American-inflected accent that modern Japanese people seem to affect (the cut-glass English accents of some of Osata's aides are really odd). Perhaps it's because the film is too exotic, too far from English climes (although the landscape the plane of doom flies towards looks suspiciously like English countryside). Or perhaps putting that wise old Scandinavian, Roald Dahl, onto the works of Colonel Blimp/Ian Fleming just wasn't that good an idea. Maybe it's just that nothing is ever done quite as well as it should be in this film, whether it's the slightly crappy miniature work in the helicopter fights, or the torture/sex scene that should have had more made of it, or the vague implausibility of firing a rocket out of a volcano base without killing everyone inside.

Whatever it was, I was looking forward to cleaning my palate by watching Le Samouraii instead, held up as a fine piece of noir, with the impeccable heritage of being butchered for the American market. Then again, as I previously mentioned ways to simulate fluency in French, part of me expected it to go like this:

Jeff: Bonjour Adele!
Adele: Bonjour Jeff!
Jeff: Ca va, Adele?
Adele: Oui. Comment-me: c'est une sword dans votre culottes, ou est-que vous etes pleased to see me?
Jeff: Pardon?
Adele: Ah, dommage! Est-ce vous etes pleased me voir?
Jeff: Ah, mais no! C'est une katana.
Adele: Quoi? Katana?  C'est anglais pour "chat-une-une"?
Jeff: No, Adele. Une katana. Ecoutez! Les italics, ils signife le Japonaisse.
Adele: Le Japonaiisse?
Jeff: Oui.
Adele: Mais Jeff, vous etes un garcon de school. Vous habitez Cergy-Pontoise, un banlieu de Paris tres repugnante. Vous n'etes pas un homme Japonaisse.
Jeff: Aha! Celui est ou vous etes wrong! Je suis un Samouraii! Regardez les italics!
Adele: Bof! Vous avez treize ans, vous live avec votre mere et pere dans une semi-detached maison, et le semaine derniere vous desirez chanter avec le Human League. Et quoi sort de nom pour un homme francais est 'Jeff', anyway?
[Jeff decapite Adele avec le sword imitation de Japonaisse. Les gendarmes ont appele. Les parents ont desolee. C'est un furore dans les newspapiers. Pensez de les enfants!]

As it turns out, Le Samouraii isn't the exercise in Franglais I'd imagined, and unlike Ronin, the only other Japanese-titled film I know that's set in France, there aren't lots of car chases and beautiful locations. Instead, it's set in a gloomy part of Paris at a gloomy time, when everyone wears hats. Better hats than Bond has, incidentally.  And gendarmes have those cute little capes.

As it turns out, the police aren't that competent: the main way they identify criminals is whether they wear hats and raincoats, which seems vaguely laughable, but since all the criminals in this film forget to ever stop wearing raincoats and hats, turns out to be a fairly reliable way of catching the blighters. At least Bond changed costume occasionally.

He's allowed to be gloomy: he's French.
Worse, when it comes to changing the license plate of a car, Bond could just flick a switch; Alain Delon has to drive to a lock-up in the middle of nowhere so a bloke in a sensible cardigan can unscrew the plates and put new ones on - Q Branch isn't about to get nervous. On the other hand, the evil conspiracy of the film is led by a bloke who has more hair than Blofeld.

Not that Le Samouraii is completely dour: it has elements of farce. Just like The Pink Panther before it, a key plot element is that somebody is being cuckolded, and the main character is called Costello, which makes you worry whether Abbott is far behind, or if Jeff Costello is just Elvis Costello's older brother.

Ronin has better chase scenes though, as they have FAST CARS in them, rather than a bloke in a raincoat walking steadily through Parisian Metro stations. I'll say little more about the plot, except to point out that most of it involves Alain Delon staring, and that if you pay close attention, you'll notice that his curtains and his duvet cover match, suggesting that the eponymous samurai gets his soft furnishings from Argos. So much for French fashion, huh?

Nothing much happens for most of Le Samouraii; ten minutes go by before the first line of dialogue (apart from a bird cheeping). There's no plot to destroy the world by gobbling down astronauts. There's only two sexy ladeeeez, and no corny one-liners, and instead of exotic and warm locations, there's a man in a coat walking around railway stations, scruffy streets and crappy nightclubs in Paris. But there's much more of a feeling of impending doom, of dread and danger, than in You Only Live Twice, probably because we know that Bond won't die, because he's becoming part of a successful franchise, whereas Le Samouraii is just some bloke in a hat, and although Gallic, still mortal. Plus the shadows in Le Samouraii are a lot more scary than an angry bloke with a leather settee in You Only Live Twice.

Both, though, co-opt Japan as something mysterious and glamourous: Bond may have it as a place to fly over in put-it-together-yourself-helicopters, and to learn special fighting skills from men in pyjamas, but Le Samouraii suggests a myth of lonely warriors, fighting and then dying for their honour, while some bird wears a dressing gown with a vaguely Oriental symbol on the back. I suppose 22 years had passed since World War Two: long enough to stop viewing the Japanese as just an implacable enemy, and before the Eighties turned the Japanese into a terrifying economic force that was going to gobble up the world. The Sixties were the right time to make the Japanese seem something exciting and different, a background for a film or just a mythology for it to co-opt, reboot or no reboot.

Still, I can't be alone in wishing both of these films had Godzilla make a cameo appearance. Can I?


filmrruss said...

Cheers for the mention! I'm wondering by the end of Blogalongabond I'll be able to do a post purely on furniture-fighting!

Mr Cushtie said...

Maybe we should be more niche - one of us could concentrate on fights involving chrome tubular furnishings from the 1970s, somebody else gets all the Louis Fifteenth French armchairs, and so on... :)

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