You Only Live Twice: tired and formulaic film shouldn’t have lived even once

Lewis Gilbert, “You Only Live Twice” (1967)

By the time this, the fifth film in the James Bond spy movie franchise, came along for the blockbuster treatment, the original Ian Fleming novels were looking tired and outdated and so “You Only Live Twice” becomes the first in the JB series to depart significantly from its source material with a completely new story that hews closely to the movie franchise’s formula. With each new film, and the hundreds of millions being made in global box office profits, the formula became more and more set in stone. Character development and a proper plot that made sense were secondary to a fast-moving string of linked set pieces. With Fleming having died in 1964, screenplay writer Roald Dahl – who had had previous experience working in British intelligence during World War II in Washington DC – nutted out a script that included various characters, plot and scene elements and devices from the novel and which stuck closely to the formula. The result is a spy fantasy that plays loose even with details and aspects of the plot and which presents flat, even stereotyped characters. The freshness of earlier James Bond films has gone and lead actor Sean Connery as Bond appears fed up, even exasperated at times.

The film is set firmly in the period of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, and also references the split between the Soviets and the Communists in China under Mao Zedong. After the now customary opening scene that sets up and readies Bond for his next assignment, the film sends him to Japan straight away where he is to discover how a remote volcanic island in the country is linked to mystery disappearances of US and Soviet spacecraft while in orbit around Earth. Through a series of sketches that involve a lot of fighting, killing and furniture being thrown about at Osato Chemicals corporate headquarters, and Bond being rescued twice by Japanese intel agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) in ways that suggest she has the power of clairvoyance, the MI6 super-spy obtains secret documents that, when examined by the Japanese secret service, lead Bond and Aki to investigate the cargo ship Ning-po in Kobe. The two are ambushed by thugs and Bond is captured by none other than the Osao Chemicals CEO (Teru Shimada) and his secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), both secretly working for global criminal organisation SPECTRE. The two try to kill him but Bond escapes.

Discovering from the Japanese secret service that the Ning-po had unloaded rocket fuel in the area of the remote volcanic island, Bond surveys the area in an armed autogyro; he is attacked by four helicopters and manages to defeat them all. He meets with Aki and Japanese secret service head Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) to arrange for him to infiltrate the volcanic island disguised as a Japanese fisherman married to a local girl pearl-diver. While Bond prepares for his mission to discover the island’s secrets before the US launches another spacecraft, SPECTRE sends out people to assassinate him: Bond thwarts all their attempts but Aki ends up as the film’s sacrificial lamb.

When the US revises its schedule to launch the spacecraft earlier than anticipated, Bond has to marry the pearl-diver Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), also a protegee of Tiger Tanaka, and the two go off to the volcanic island. Their discovery of a secret rocket base hidden inside the volcano leads Bond to come face-to-face with SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and Blofeld’s bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich).

To reach the point where Bond meets Blofeld, the film has to navigate (and sometimes just crash) through a web of often unnecessary plot detours that often look like last-minute additions such as the autogyro scene, his encounter with Brandt and the fight scene with Hans that sends the bodyguard into the piranha pool. The scenes with Blofeld come very late in the film and look rushed. Pleasance is wasted in the film yet his understated portrayal of Blofeld is vivid enough that it has become the template for evil villains in Western pop culture. The actors do what they can with the plot; at least their reputations and future careers weren’t too badly affected by being in the film. The action scenes and special effects pall after too many repetitions and make the film too long. Given his career writing children’s books, Dahl’s attempts to insert often infantile humour into the film fall flat.

At least the film’s later scenes set in southern Japan (Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu island, Nachikatsuura in Wakayama Prefecture on Honshu island) are lovely; pity they are wasted in a silly and forgettable film.

The film’s title derives from a haiku by 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho: “You only live twice / Once when you’re born /And once when you look death in the face”. Take his advice and fill the time between birth and death watching better films.

Minamata: a solid film on the power of image as social activism

Andrew Levitas, “Minamata” (2020)

In these times when fake news and deliberate disinformation are the norm in mainstream news media, here comes a very welcome, solid film on environmental pollution and its lasting effects on two, even three generations of families, and on the power of image to convey this message and call for justice for the families made victims by the pollution. “Minamata” is based on events that took place in the early 1970s to bring the suffering of the victims of what was then known as Minamata disease – actually the effects of environmental mercury poisoning – to world attention. Johnny Depp plays US photojournalist W Eugene Smith, world-weary and with his life in tatters, who is approached by two Japanese fans of his work in 1971. The two fans, of whom one is Aileen (Minami), persuade him to follow them back to their home town of Minamata, a one-company town on Kyushu island, to document the injuries and deformities suffered by Minamata town residents. Smith grudgingly accepts and accompanies the two activists on what is supposedly a three-month assignment. Once there, Smith gradually becomes more involved in the lives of the Minamata families, befriending a teenage boy suffering from Minamata disease and teaching him photography; he himself eventually becomes an activist participating in and visually recording protests against the Chisso company which has been discharging mercury into local waters. The Chisso company discovers the American living in the Minamata community and, after failing to bribe Smith, ramps up the harassment and violence against the community and Smith himself. His studio is burned down and much of his work is destroyed, and the photojournalist realises he must try to persuade the Minamata community to work more closely with him and allow him to photograph affected family members if he is to get their message to the outside world.

While the film revolves around Depp’s performance, excellent as it is for most of the time he is on screen, he allows his fellow cast members including Minami as Aileen, Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada as activist leaders and Jun Kunimura as the Chisso company president their moments in the spotlight. Minami’s character is basically supportive but is upfront when it needs to be. Kunimura puts in a powerful performance as the president who tries to bribe Smith and is then later forced to admit the company’s culpability for the harm caused by his company to Minamata residents. Though Depp himself occasionally lapses into his kookly old Hunter S Thompson character from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” which he made back in 1998, his portrayal of Smith as initially gruff and cynical (this appearance hiding deep self-loathing, past trauma and lack of purpose in life) and then later turning into social crusader with a cause that consumes his life seems credible. The film does a good job detailing the menace that hired uniformed goons present to Smith and the Minamata residents, less so on how the issue of mercury poisoning divides the community, especially as so many people in Minamata depend on the company for employment.

The film’s cinematography highlights Minamata town’s charms as a rural seaside village, focusing at times on villagers’ activities such as drying fish or on children playing in the town park where Smith first meets the teenage boy. Over the course of the film the background settings become important in advancing the film’s narrative and message as historical film reels are mixed into the live-action scenes and some scenes are recreations of actual photographs taken by the real-life W Eugene Smith.

The action may be slow and the plot doesn’t rev up until quite late in the film but the slow pace allows viewers, like Smith himself, to fully immerse themselves into the life of Minamata as drawn by Levitas and his capable cast. By the end of the film audiences may well find themselves rooting for Smith, Aileen and her fellow activists. However the end title credits present a very sobering conclusion to their efforts: to date, the Minamata community has still not been fully compensated for its suffering by the Chisso company and the Japanese government.

Senga Tsubo: a tale within a tale about gratitude and returning favours

Sanae Yamamoto, “Senga Tsubo” (1925)

Said to be the first animated film commission by the Ministry of Education in Japan back in 1925, this 16-minute short features a morality tale within another morality tale about being grateful and returning favours to one who has done you a good deed. A young hard-working fisherman goes out to catch the day’s fish with his net and instead hauls up a small pot. A genie comes out of the pot and threatens to eat the fisherman. The quick-thinking would-be dinner challenges the genie to return into the pot which the dull-witted demon promptly does, only to be trapped by the fisherman. The fisherman then tells the genie the tale of the lion and his free-loading fox friend who eats the lion’s leftover meals. The fox tricks the lion into chasing an ostrich; while the lion is preoccupied, the fox steals the building materials from the lion’s den and makes up his own den. The lion soon returns and is angry at being robbed. The fox entices a human hunter to kill the lion. However the fox has become dependent on the lion for fresh food and soon grows hungry and thin. Venturing out of his den, he goes down to the river where a crocodile attacks him. Too weak to run away, the fox is chowed down by the reptile.

After hearing the story, the genie is apologetic about his ungrateful behaviour and offers the fisherman a larger pot for his troubles. The fisherman takes this pot home and discovers it full of gold coins.

The animation consists mainly of often astonishingly detailed and fine line-drawn scenery and backgrounds with no colour, against which cut-out figures of the humans, the animals and the genie act out the story. Though “Senga Tsubo” is a silent film, the characters communicate through speech balloons with cut-out characters, similar to what is found in comics. The characterisation of the fisherman and the genie is very deft; the fisherman proves himself cunning as well as diligent and loyal to his family, and the genie turns out to be a good-hearted if not too intelligent fellow.

The film’s emphasis on plot and characterisation may be unusual for Japanese anime films of its time, and indeed for much animation around the world being produced at the same time. While there is some farce, it grows out of the story itself and does not depend on character stereotypes. Viewers may find the plot quite absorbing which compensates for the limited appeal of the animation style used.

A folk tale with a moral in “Kyoiku senga: Ubasuteyama”

Sanae Yamamoto, “Kyoiku senga: Ubasuteyama” (1925)

A restored animation, “Ubasuteyama” is based on a traditional Japanese folk-tale as so many animated films made in Japan in the early 20th century were in order to compete with Western animated films. The title, meaning “Abandoning Grandma on the mountain”, refers to the alleged practice of ubasute, the dumping of elderly people in the wilderness to starve or be killed by wild animals once they became too old or helpless for younger family members to support them. Historical evidence for this custom in Japan seems to be scant so perhaps it exists more as something akin to a meme or ongoing black joke in the corpus of Japanese folk customs, tales and traditions.

Long ago, the lord of Shinano province deemed all people aged 60+ years to be a burden on his peasant tenants (and his own budget as landlord) so he had all such elders banished to the mountains where they suffered exposure and being killed and eaten by a giant bird. A farmer takes his elderly mother to the mountains and leaves her there but, conscience-stricken, returns for her and hides her in a cellar he has dug under his house. Not long afterwards, the lord of a rival province throws down a challenge to the lord of Shinano, the challenge being how to guide a thread through a meandering tunnel from one end of a crystal ball to the other. The rival lord warns the lord of Shinano that if he cannot solve the riddle, the two provinces will be at war.

The lord of Shinano offers a reward to anyone in his province who can solve the challenge. The farmer consults with his mother in the cellar and she offers an ingenious solution. The farmer meets the lord of Shinano and offers the solution: cover one hole with honey and an ant with the thread tied to it enters the other hole. Attracted to the honey, the ant will crawl towards it thus threading the crystal ball. The lord of Shinano is amazed and rewards the farmer handsomely.

Before long though, another envoy from the rival lord arrives with another riddle, this time two identical mares, one of which is mother to the other. The lord of Shinano must guess which is the mother and which the daughter, else the provinces will be at war. The farmer is summoned and told of the new challenge; he consults his mother who offers an answer.

In its restored state the film appears to have bits of story missing though Japanese-language cue cards and English-language subtitles help to guide viewers through the story. As portrayed in the film the story has a strong moral of respect for the life experiences and knowledge of the elderly. The figures of the farmer, his mother and various other characters including the gambolling horses appear as cut-out dolls and are animated in a way that will appeal to young viewers though the scene in which an old man is killed and eaten by the giant bird can be very distressing. The animation ingeniously appears quite simple; the real visual glory is in background scenery details where landscapes and buildings appear to have been painted and traditional Japanese weaving and painting patterns are used in the backgrounds and to switch from one scene to the next.

Even though the film is very old and shows signs of wear and tear, the quality of the animation, its detail and the distinctive style of animation with an emphasis on Japanese folk art can be seen clearly. This film is clearly a classic work of early Japanese animation, highly original in its design and detail.

Tora-chan no Makan Mushi: warning children to behave well at work

Kenzo Masaoka, “Tora-chan no Makan Mushi” (1950)

In the last cartoon to feature Tora-chan (Little Tiger) and his friend Miike-chan, the two kittens have grown up a bit and are now working on a cargo ship as a welder and painter respectively. The sailor in charge of them, a buffoon and the butt of many jokes in this cartoon, boards the ship with his monkey and loads his cargo of fireworks onto the ship’s deck. He carelessly tosses aside his cigar and Tora-chan needs at least four attempts (involving a lot of repetition) to tell the sailor that the cigar is about to blow up the fireworks. Sure enough it does and Tora-chan jumps into the sea to enlist the help of several octopuses to squirt ink at the ship to quench the pyrotechnics display.

The animation is much, much better and more detailed and realistic in its backgrounds. The ocean especially is rendered well in its waves and the light reflecting off them. Fish are drawn very well even if the octopus characters aren’t. The characters look a bit more refined in their technical details even if one of them is boorish in behaviour. The animation does well in portraying distance perspective and in characters moving forward from mid-distance in the background.

While there’s a lot of slapstick about and the film does end inconclusively, it at least carries a message about being disciplined at work, working well with one’s colleagues and the consequences of bad behaviour, poor personal habits and not listening to warnings. The sailor gets his comeuppance and presumably will have to spend much more time hauling cargo.

I confess to being quite disappointed in this film and the previous film “Tora-chan to Hanayome” after having seen “Suteneko Tora-chan” which has quite serious themes for a work aimed at families with young children.

Tora-chan to Hanayome: family friction in a crude slapstick cartoon

Kenzo Masaoka, “Tora-chan to Hanayome” (1948)

The last three animated films made by Kenzo Masaoka revolved around the adventures of the kitten Tora-chan (Little Tiger). The first one “Suteneko Tora-chan” addresses the issue of caring for abandoned war orphans in a post-war society ravaged by poverty and urges people to foster and adopt such children to preserve social values, maintain cultural continuity and ultimately strengthen Japanese society. Second film “Tora-chan to Hanayome”, made a year later, is a much more conventional animated film in which Tora-chan and sister Miike-chan are given the responsibility to run interference against Grandfather who has just charged into town to stop his elder grand-daughter (and big sister to Tora-chan and Miike-chan) from marrying. The parents quickly hustle off the big sister to the church leaving the kittens on their own at home. When Grandfather barges into the house, the kittens try all kinds of ruses to stop him from going into the bride’s room. When their efforts fail, Grandfather seizes the kittens and races off to the church to find the wedding party.

While the animation is good if not great, the plot drags on and overdoes the slapstick in a number of scenes. The donkey that is to take the wedding party to the church spends too long preening itself in front of a mirror. In order to keep Grandfather away from the stairs, Miike-chan starts posing a bit provocatively in ways that modern audiences might not condone today. Some characters are not drawn very well and the background scenery often looks crude and hastily done.

Even for a film aimed at children, the plot has large logic holes and its resolution looks unconvincing. We never learn why Grandfather opposed his grand-daughter’s wedding or (spoiler alert) why he changes his mind later. An opportunity for the film-makers to say something about how Japan must adapt to the modern world is lost. At least no-one is badly hurt, everyone is reconciled and Tora-chan and Miike-chan can go back to playing in the sunshine.

Suteneko Tora-chan: a charming and graceful film on the plight of war orphans and keeping society together

Kenzo Masaoka, “Suteneko Tora-chan” (1947)

A charming film about an orphaned kitten found and adopted by a family of cats, “Suteneko Tora-chan” addresses some of the concerns and issues of Japanese society in the period after World War II. The plight of war orphans was uppermost in people’s minds after the carnage of war. Keeping family together and everyone pulling their weight together just to survive adversity and poverty were also major concerns. A mother cat and her three kittens find a tiny abandoned orphan kitten, Tora-chan, and the mother and two of her kittens immediately adopt the orphan. The third kitten, Miike-chan, rejects Tora-chan and bullies him during the kittens’ play-time. When Mother Cat gently but firmly separates Miike-chan and Tora-chan, and treats Tora-chan as one of her children, Miike-chan runs away from home. Feeling responsibile for Miike-chan’s behaviour, Tora-chan goes in search of her. He catches up with Miike-chan but in trying to bring her home, the two kittens encounter many obstacles and hostile animals including a dog and a hen defending her chicks, and barely survive being dumped over a waterfall.

The animation is very graceful and well done with smooth transitions from one scene to the next. The cats are very endearing in their rounded forms and the background scenery can be very detailed. The adoption of Christmas at the beginning and end of the film, and the use of sunflowers as a motif delineating summer-time show the growing influence of Western and specifically American culture on Japanese society during the immediate post-war period. In the plot, the kittens’ arduous adventures, the characters of Mother Cat and Tora-chan, and the sung dialogue, the film tries to persuade its target family audiences to care more for war orphans and children made destitute by circumstances not of their families’ making. In caring for the young, Japanese society ensures that its collective values will survive and continue.

The Bear Dodger: a tale advising children to choose their friends carefully

Noburo Ofuji, “The Bear Dodger” (1948)

Made in 1948 but with characters drawn in a much older early-1930s style, this animated short has a moral behind its drawn-out tale. A boy befriends a wobbly-looking stranger who imposes various onerous burdens on him. Little does the boy know that the stranger had also injured a baby bear and Daddy bear is out looking to punish the culprit. The big bear pounces on the boy and the stranger: the stranger promptly scoots over to a tree and climbs it, leaving the boy to fend off the bear on his own. The boy evades the bear through various visual puns involving a giant python and turtles in a river but ends up trapped before a waterfall. Just when all seems lost, a frog the boy and the stranger had met earlier (the stranger had picked it up and the boy rescues the frog from him) offers the boy some useful advice that saves his life. The big bear is reunited with the baby bear, now no longer crying, and the boy resumes his journey. The stranger pleads for the boy’s assistance but the boy continues on his way.

While the cut-out characters hark back to the period in the 1930s when much Japanese animation was influenced by US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, the backgrounds with their distinctively designed bushy trees are intricate and have a delicacy and line detail that look very Japanese. The film pays a lot of attention to detail – the boy even manages to recover his sandals near the end of the film – and the camera adopts various points of view (including a viewpoint that looks back at the character and moves away from it while that character advances) that are original. Characters move very smoothly in a film that barrels along fairly briskly though the plot is uncomplicated and perhaps a bit too long. The Japanese-language soundtrack includes constant spoken dialogue and singing.

The film’s moral, delivered in a whimsical and flowing style, is that friends help one another and if someone takes advantage of you and abuses your friendship, you should avoid that person. This is made clear even without the benefit of English-language subtitles, through the plot and the actions of the various characters. In that sense the film succeeds. With the changes in Japanese animation and Japanese society and culture that have occurred since 1948, whether such a moral still resonates with audiences in Japan may be questionable. Perhaps the emphasis these days might be on treating animals with respect and leaving them alone.

Tengu Taiji: a lively and comical animated folk tale from an early Japanese pioneer

Noburu Ofuji aka Fuyo Koyamano, “Tengu Taiji” (1934)

A very comical tale about a town besieged by tengu – dangerous goblin spirits with the characteristics of humans and birds of prey including beaks which in some spirits become unnaturally long noses – and how they are fought off by a lone swordsman and a watch-dog helper gets the cartoon treatment from Noburu Ofuji, one of the first Japanese animators to gain international recognition for his work. The watch-dog allows the tengu to invade the town and carry off one of the performing geisha. A samurai attempts to fight the tengu but they squash him flat on the ground with a door off its hinges. The dog takes the flattened samurai to another swordsman who promptly folds up the samurai into a headcloth, dons it and then (with the watch-dog in tow) hurries after the fleeing tengu. There follows a tremendous battle in which the swordsman eventually cuts down nearly all the tengu and the watch-dog tosses their heads into a quarry. The two race after two spirits carrying the geisha, they rescue her but are confronted by a giant tengu and a crab. The watch-dog rips off a claw and scissors off the tengu’s nose.

The humour is very violent and bawdy and armchair Freudian psychoanalysts will have the time of their lives dissecting the symbolism of the giant tengu’s long nose and the dog cutting it off. Ofuji’s style of animation shows clear influences from US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer but the backgrounds and scenery are very Japanese in their details. The characters in the film can clearly be seen as cutouts, part of Ofuji’s preferred animation method. The busy music soundtrack combines both Japanese traditional folk and contemporary Western music of the time.

The film has a very lively character and many visual puns that perhaps poke fun at Japanese social conventions and expectations. The watch-dog makes amends for his earlier fear and becomes a hero. The samurai is brave but ends up ignominiously as a scarf for a more lowly swordsman. For a nine-minute film, this animation packs in a lot of subversion of Japanese culture!

Ugokie kori no tatehiki: the battle between fox and racoon dog spirits given fast energy and wacky style

Ikuo Oishi, “Ugokie kori no tatehiki” (1933)

Japanese animators in the 1930s sure loved the Max Fleischer style of animation and Ikuo Oishi was no different: the fox and raccoon dog characters in this cartoon fantasy have those Fleischeresque rubbery elastic limbs that sometimes stretch out forever when the occasion calls for it. In this animated short which could be based on Japanese legend, a fox spirit turns himself into a samurai after scaring the wits out of a frightened farmer walking through a forest at night. The samurai sees a wooden temple in ruins and walks in. His arrival alarms two raccoon dog spirits (who appear to be dad and junior) who then try to get rid of him. The spirits try all kinds of magic ruses to deceive and flummox one another before the samurai resorts to using guns (!) and even a machine gun (!) and thus gains the upper hand over the bigger racoon dog spirit. But his smaller friend finds a secret weapon and hurries to bop the samurai before the bigger racoon dog keels over from being Swiss-cheese hollowed out.

The energy is constant and the pace fast in these Fleischer-styled cartoons, and viewers are barely allowed to pause for breath before the cartoons go up to another level of zany slapstick intensity. This battle of the racoon dogs and the fox is no different: the racoon dogs try all kinds of ingenious disguises including disguising themselves as a lock and a key, and later as a flying snake and multitudes of tiny racoon dog clones. The flying snake allows Oishi and his crew the opportunity to portray the battle from a bird’s-eye point of view with the snake tracing a downward spiral into the centre of the film. The lack of English-language or other subtitles means that any underlying theme or message in the cartoon, along with the dialogue (of which there is not much), will be lost on viewers outside Japan. This means non-Japanese-speaking viewers can concentrate on the action and the general plot, and admire the background scenery, the details of which show real Japanese artistic sensibility. The backgrounds are the most outstanding part of the film. It is a pity though that the film is in black and white; the backgrounds might stand out even more with colour and visual perspective. The music soundtrack is traditional Japanese folk with solo stringed instruments like shamisen used throughout the film.

The technical background details, scenes with unusual points of view, many visual puns involving the technology of the day and the cartoon’s energy and wacky style make this fight between the fox / samurai and the determined racoon dog duo quite a memorable one to watch and cheer.