As a James Bond fan, it is often important to be cognizant of the history of the franchise and the character and the attitudes that propelled and shaped both. The films and the character are both products of a fading empire desperately clinging to its status as a world superpower while faced with the reality that it isn’t what it once was. This combined with the colonial tendencies that Britain was yet to work out of its system when the character first burst onto screens around the world, results in a film series that often fails to show an appropriate amount of respect to the various world cultures in which it often places its protagonists. Stereotypes were the stock and trade of the Bond franchise and film in general for decades, so it is important to sometimes allow a little wiggle room for films that are merely reflecting the attitudes and shortcomings of their time. That being the case certain films, both in this franchise and in others, feature missteps so egregious that they must be commented on. You Only Live Twice is such a film.
It is honestly hard to pinpoint a decent starting point when trying to discuss the almost absurd level of racism that is found within the fifth entry of the Bond franchise. While all of the Bond films dabble in exoticism to certain degrees, You Only Live Twice revels in it and builds the entire film upon the foundation of it. Set entirely in East Asia the franchise manages to merge absurd levels of orientalism, with white washing, and insane levels of stereotyping.
Probably the first red flag to fly up in the film is the opening exchange between Bond and what appears to be some sort of Chinese escort in Hong Kong. After remarking on the fact that Asian women “taste different” (an inauspicious start) it is followed with the woman in question responding to a comment about duck with “darling I give you very best duck” (once again, not ideal). It would be one thing if this moment was an outlier within the film, but instead it only serves as a primer for the truly offensive insanity to follow. The only positive if you can call it that from the opening scene is the fact that at the very least the actress in question is actually the ethnicity that she is portraying, which is not something that can be consistently said for several other portrayals in the film. There are multiple instances in the film where the producers clearly hired a white actress to play an Asian woman and simply applied makeup to make her seem more Asian.
The overall insanity and offensiveness of the film really does seem to come to a head when Bond arrives in Japan. It is here where we witness some truly absurd levels of fetishism and stereotyping of Japanese culture. In the film Bond partners with the Japanese secret service, who were clearly conceived entirely off of the premise of what the producers thought such an organization might be like, rather than any actual knowledge thereof. Beyond the all-female servant staffs who bathe Bond and the head of the Japanese agency, Tiger Tanaka (because “In Japan, men come first”) there’s the ninja school. Yes, a film set in 1960’s Japan features a government organization that is still built around the concept of training ninjas. They train in karate as well as sword and spear fighting, and the fact that they are trained to use guns is treated mostly as an afterthought. This combined with the patently ridiculously grey morph suits that they wear on missions craft the image of a backwards, comical, and exotic nation, never once bothering to actually craft characters, much preferring to play exclusively in these stereotypes. This is however, not the most offensive aspect of the film. That honor belongs to the plan to get Bond to the enemy base.
The use of makeup to obscure or “change” a person’s race is discussed in previous paragraphs, as it was often a common practice in the film industry at that time. Today we almost universally understand this to be offensive, whether done in a movie or as part of a costume. Even so, even back in the 1960’s it should have been apparent that a plot point of a white Scotsman, putting on a wig and makeup in order to disguise himself as Japanese, was wrongheaded at best. This is however exactly what is done to Bond around the midpoint of the film. In order to smuggle Bond into a village near the villain’s lair, he is “made Japanese”. What follows is the most unconvincing makeup job I’ve ever seen, which combined with Connery’s butchering of the Japanese language in his thick Scottish accent results in something so comically offensive that it borders on indescribable. No one with eyes or ears would for one second believe him to be Japanese and when combined with the fact that it’s overall impact on the plot is minimal at best, it leaves you wondering how this made it through the script phase even then, and certain that it wouldn’t have gotten past the conceptual stage now.
You Only Live Twice is not a horribly made film, in fact, a lot of the plot and overall mechanics of the story work very well. It does however traffic in ideas and practices that are terribly offensive and as such must be discussed. It’s important to recognize when discussing a franchise like Bond that there is often a fairly nasty core at the center of many of the early films. This does not mean we cannot enjoy them, but it is imperative that we learn from them and work to be better. A film like You Only Live Twice would spark serious outrage today, and rightfully so. That is progress, but we have to keep working. We have to demand that the entertainment we consume represents the world around us accurately, and treats cultures different than our own with a baseline of respect, because that’s not always been a guarantee.