Monday, March 29, 2010

“You Only Live Twice”: A Review

You Only Live Twice, the fifth movie in the James Bond series, has been showing up on T.V. lately, so I figured it was time to offer a proper review and some commentary on mid-1960s Japan. The plot, mind you, really has nothing to do with Japan--it just happens to be the location from which arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld is launching ships into space that gobble up American and Soviet spacecraft in the hopes of provoking the two super powers into another world war.

Plot aside, it’s also clear the producers wanted to explore some of the mystery and intrigue of the Land of the Rising Sun. Released in 1967, You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film with an Asia-centric setting. A 27-year remove from World War II provided enough historical distance for old wounds to heal. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, a game-changing revolution was underfoot. Viewers were introduced to brands like Toyota, Sony, and Toshiba that, within 10 years, would come to dominate the consumer landscape...and never really look back.

The producers also did everything possible to play up cultural peculiarities. Sumo wrestling and ninjas are both featured prominently (though not in direct combat!), and there seems to be an overabundance of kimono and yukata wearing among females.

Here are some of my favorite moments, followed by the original theatrical trailer.

  • John Barry’s beautiful soundtrack and title song (by Nancy Sinatra--enjoy here). Even better is the way Barry mixes the melody into the movie soundtrack.

  • Bond asksing Ling, his first love interest, “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls,” followed by, “Peking Duck is different from Russian caviar, but I love them both.”

  • Yukata-clad spies, priceless scenes of mid-1960s Tokyo, a genuine sumo match, and Aki’s Toyota 2000GT “Bond Model”—one of only two built as a convertible

  • Henderson, Mi-6’s man in Tokyo, getting stabbed to death through a paper wall. Shouldn’t a man of such high profile live in more secure environs?

  • Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese intelligence agency, shuttling under Tokyo in a private subway car and assuming that M has similar accommodations in London. When Bond says he prefers his sake served at the correct temperature--98.4 degrees Fahrenehit--Tiger compliments, “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”

  • Tiger stating, “In Japan, men always come first. Women come second,” and Bond replying, “I might just retire here.”

  • Aki saying to Bond, “I think I will enjoy very much serving under you.”

  • The Hotel New Otani being retrofitted to serve as Osato Chemicals HQ.

  • Ninjas! Tiger’s showpiece agents train at classical swordplay and the art of deception, while the modern ninjas practice indoors with guns and other Q-branch inspired gadgets.

  • Bond-san getting plastic surgery so he can go undercover as a local in a small fishing village. An all-female surgical team (conveniently dressed in swimsuits) performs the procedure.

  • Aki getting poisoned, which I guess proves that you only live once, after all.

  • Tiger saying that Bond’s new wife has “the face of a pig.”

  • Kissy Suzuki, Bond’s new Japanese wife. (In the pantheon of ridiculous Bond Girl names, this is an all-timer, but I still give the nod to Chu Mi, who Bond encounters seven years later in Thailand in The Man With the Golden Gun).

  • Bond refusing a plate of oysters once Kissy informs him their mock marriage will be all business, including separate beds. (Don’t worry, they’re sucking face by the next morning.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Penned In

ESPN’s Outside the Lines examines Japanese-American internment through the sports prism: Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles was used as a sort of way station where internees were housed before being dispatched to points East. To add to the indignity of being rounded up like criminals and losing their homes, businesses, and property, the internees were forced to sleep in the Santa Anita stables. However, to prove that everything comes full circle, the piece concludes with a mention of jockey Corey Nakatani, whose grandfather passed through Santa Anita in 1942. Corey has won more than 900 races at Santa Anita. In addition to watching Corey race, many former internees conduct period reunions at Santa Anita.

Several other sources offer more perspective on Japanese-American internment. There is of course the standard Farewell to Manzanar, which most Californians read in school sometime between seventh and ninth grade. For a fictionalized account of one family’s experience, there is Julie Otsukua’s stirring and moving When the Emperor was Divine. (The title alone caught my interest.) Finally, if you’re ever in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a comprehensive internment exhibit within “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” wing. If you can’t make it to DC, take this virtual tour.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How Much Is a Liver Worth?

This story first broke a few years ago—I read it in the L.A. Times in 2008. But last fall 60 Minutes decided to hop in with a feature story. The synopsis is that a yakuza boss, Tadamasa Goto
• Paid about a million bucks for a liver transplant at UCLA
• Jumped to the front of the transplant queue because of his financial largess
• Avoided pesky visa problems by becoming an FBI informant.

Needless to say, the story created much outrage and consternation—especially among those awaiting liver transplants. Can’t say that I blame them. And, to no one’s surprise, Goto didn’t provide the inside dirt he promised.

The clip below gives some neat insights into the yakuza and suggests it’s just as prominent and thriving as ever.

And, finally, this story, and other accounts, make it clear that the yakuza have a hit order out on Jake Adelstein, the journalist who essentially broke this story. CBS reports that Adelstein lives under virtual police protection in Japan. Well, Adelstein should be the first to realize that if he’s relying on the Japanese police to stand up to the yakuza and protect him, then he should be very, very worried!

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is Our Daughter at Auntie Norie’s This Weekend?

My new novel, Tokyo Lives, features a teenage runaway-turned-prostitute named Megumi. She’s introduced in chapter one—but don’t get attached because she’s dead by chapter two.

Young Megumi plies her trade in the dark alleys of Shibuya. She’s left home, but we’re not sure why. At this point, it doesn’t really matter. As rain falls and the weather turns, she’s cold, hungry, and desperate for a sanctuary for the night. Along comes a familiar John, and things are looking up.

Never mind that she gets murdered; Tokyo Lives is fiction. But in reality, there are thousands of girls just like Megumi prowling the streets of Tokyo. They’ve alighted from the doldrums of their (mostly) bucolic upbringings in search of excitement and money in the big city. A strong distaste for overbearing or abusive parents is the most common precipitator.

Nobody knows for sure how many runaways there are, or how many end up as prostitutes (though this helpful article includes some stats). The Japanese only grudgingly admit such imperfections exist.

Cultural burdens play a role. The parents are so ashamed that they don’t admit their daughter has run away. With a wink and a nod, people in town whisper stories of visiting relatives or attending boarding school. In Jane Austen’s day, such tales covered up unplanned pregnancies. In modern Japan, they mask crumbling family units. And the smaller the town, the worse the indignity for the family.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

8-9-3 Deconstructed

Let’s start with the basics: The numbers 8-9-3 essentially mean yakuza. Like so much in Japanese language, it derives from word play. In the card game oicho-kabu (similar to the Western blackjack), the object is to amass three cards that add up to a number ending in nine. Therefore, 19 is the best score, while 20 is the worst possible score.

So do the math. An unfortunate hand consisting of an eight (ya), nine (ku), and three (za) adds up to 20. Yakuza members have always considered themselves losers, or outcasts, and thus the name stuck.

In my book Tokyo Lives, the meaning is elucidated in this passage:

“Ice deals a round to the contestants, including Pig Face. Cards shuffle and pass through sweaty palms, but finally the players showcase their hands. Pig Face busts with a 20, displaying a hand of 8-9-3, or ya-ku-za in slang. Chewing on his cigarette, Ice reveals a sum of 19, and roars with laughter as he collects money from the others. ‘How fitting,’ he snarls as he makes a show of raking in Pig Face’s money. ‘A worthless score from a worthless human. You were meant to be a gangster!’”