Sean Connery vs. Japan: “Rising Sun” and “You Only Live Twice”

The man himself
The Man Himself

In a rare instance of parallel lives with MF commenters (who were doing the same thing in the replies to this post), I got into a spontaneous fit of impersonating Sean Connery’s Japanese last weekend. When my girlfriend started demanding the original article for comparison purposes, we decided to have a private screening of Rising Sun, where SC speaks a lot of Japanese, and You Only Live Twice, where he actually “becomes” Japanese.

Rising Sun (1993)

We’ve made fun of Rising Sun on Mutant Frog a few times now: Sean Connery’s dialogue came up in comments on two posts dealing with our favorite craptacular bilingual action star, Steven Seagal; the book came up in a discussion regarding that dude whose name rhymes with Balex Barr; and our esteemed commenter Gaijin Biker went as far as to call it “the worst movie ever made about Japan“.

I read Michael Crichton’s book long before I saw the movie, and I can briefly explain the suckage of both as follows: Michael Crichton is a doctor with a nose for science and technology. He is used to writing really entertaining fiction on science and technology-related topics. In Rising Sun, he tried to extend his nose to sociology and anthropology, and failed miserably. He never understood Japan beyond a few books he read far too literally, and while this might suffice for genetics (granted, Jurassic Park was still really pseudo-scientific) or air disaster investigations (my aircraft mechanic father loved Airframe), it doesn’t suffice when one is talking about entire societies.

The movie suffered from another form of suckage: like many B-grade Hollywood productions involving Japanese characters, the studio never bothered to get the cooperation of a Japanese studio to help with casting, and as a result they had to make do with a hodgepodge of Asian-American actors who couldn’t speak Japanese to save their lives. Only one of the actors spoke good Japanese: the late and great Mako, a Japan-native Hollywood actor who played Admiral Yamamoto in Pearl Harbor. Here, he played the crusty old president of the evil corporation.

Sean Connery and Mako sharing an oyaji moment
Sean Connery and Mako sharing an oyaji moment

Now, if Mako’s Japanese was the best (inasmuch as it was authentic), Sean Connery’s had to be the worst–much worse than the Asian-Americans in the movie, and even worse than Wesley Snipes, who actually wasn’t half bad at it (I enjoyed his dialogue with the Pimsleur tape early on in the movie).

He started by introducing himself in a ludicrous exchange with the disgusting Japanese corporate shill, Ishihara-san. And then, later on in the movie, he got very okotta. The lone money quote: Connery calls Snipes “kouhai” one too many times, and Snipes responds “Look, sempai, apple pie, whatever…”

You Only Live Twice (1967)

This is my favorite James Bond film by a long shot. Here’s my short synopsis of the plot, which should make the film’s greatness rather obvious:

Bond fakes his own death in Hong Kong, is buried at sea, breaks out of his wrappings and gets rescued by a submarine, and after getting a mission briefing on board, swims to Japan in scuba gear. He tracks down a sketchy mega-corporation (based in a rebranded Hotel New Otani) which seems to be bankrolling a mysterious Jaws-like rocket that is eating American and Soviet spacecraft in orbit and threatening to start World War III. After a few close scrapes, Bond finally meets the director of Japanese intelligence, who is named Tiger and has his own poshly-fitted Marunouchi Line train so he can travel around Tokyo in secret. They figure out that everything’s going down on a quaint little island with a fishing village, which Bond patrols in a ridiculous-looking autogyro equipped with flamethrowers. He then meets Japanese intelligence’s secret weapon: an enormous school of NINJAS who are training in a rebranded Himeji Castle.

The Himeji School of Hard Knocks
The Himeji School of Hard Knocks

The team turns Bond into a Japanese guy (which apparently mostly involved restyling his hair), teaches him how to silently kill people, and marries him (!) to a nubile young fisherman’s daughter, ostensibly so he can fit into the little village.

Kicking some ass

As it turns out, the rockets are coming out of a nearby volcano, which has been hollowed out and occupied by good ol’ Blofeld (a.k.a. Dr. Evil’s godfather). Bond leads an invasion of ninjas, stuff happens and he ends up making out with his “wife” on top of a submarine. The end. (Oh yeah, there’s one part where a car chase is interrupted by a helicopter with a giant electromagnet.)

That is seriously the most awesome story ever. Especially the ninjas. In fact, the ninjas quite literally saved this movie. Five of the producers behind the Bond films, including Messrs. Saltzman and Broccoli themselves, got to see a ninjutsu demonstration on short notice right as they were scheduled to leave Japan for Hong Kong. They had to rebook their flight, and the flight they were supposed to be on, BOAC Flight 911, fell apart in midair due to a burst of turbulence near Mount Fuji, killing everyone on board. So not only were the ninjas totally awesome (i.e. totally sweet) in this movie–they also saved the production crew to die another day.

The producers did another thing well: unlike the guys who made Rising Sun, they brought Toho on board to supply real Japanese actors, actresses and consulting. So even though the story is ridiculous, the characters and settings are pretty authentic. This wasn’t really ahead of the times, by the way–nearly ten years before, Fox and Shochiku teamed up to make The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), where John Wayne played Townsend Harris setting up the first American legation in samurai-era Japan.

But that isn’t the point of this post. The point of this post is Sean Connery speaking Japanese. Sadly, he didn’t really speak it in this movie. It’s counter-intuitive because the movie made it abundantly clear that Bond could speak it–he says that he made “a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge,” or something equally Anglosnobbish to that effect–but the only line he manages is a somewhat credible “Ohayou gozaimasu.”

The way God intended
The way God intended

Well, I may be making fun of him largely because I am very jealous that he got to romp around Tokyo in the 60s shooting this thing. (And apparently, this guy is jealous of the whole death-faking part…)

12 thoughts on “Sean Connery vs. Japan: “Rising Sun” and “You Only Live Twice””

  1. Actually, from memory, in the book version of you only live twice, Bond’s Japanese is so good and his plastic surgery so convincing that he actually gets knocked on the head somewhere towards the end of the novel and winds up thinking that he IS Japanese. I guess Connery’s Japanese wasn’t good enough for that plotline.

  2. BBC Radio broadcast a short audio reading of Fleming’s book last year. The 3Yen website has a link to a download if you fancy something to listen to on the train:

    By all accounts, Connery had a miserable time filming in Japan and wore a permanent scowl. He was getting tired making the Bond films and found the attentions of the Japanese press and Japanese fans very intrusive to the extent that one photographer tried to get shots of him in the toilet.

    I listened to the DVD commentary track for the film some years ago and Tetsuro Tamba, who died in 2006, played a key role in handling the two Japanese actresses. Toho may have put up talent up for the jobs but the producers found most of the actresses badly wanting. They seriously considered rejecting them all and using Asian Americans or Hong Kong Chinese instead. They eventually plumped for Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi but soon ran into trouble.

    Mie Hama was chosen to play the role of Suki but couldn’t master the dialogue. Tamba was told over dinner that she would have to be fired and was asked to break it to her. He allegedly came back and said that she would accept the decision without complaint but would have no choice but to commit suicide. The shocked producers asked if he could do anything. Tamba came up with the compromise where Hama would play Kissy Suzuki, swapping roles with Wakabayashi who instead played Tiger Tanaka’s agent Suki – except she managed to rename the character Aki. The producers say they still don’t know whether Tamba told them the truth or conned them.

    It was quite common for the Bond producers to dub characters. Gert Fröbe’s Goldfinger was dubbed and Tamba’s own dialogue in “You Only Live Twice” was spoken by Robert Rietty. Consequently, Hama didn’t actually have to speak English well but her performance fell somewhere between the two: it didn’t look natural enough to be successfully dubbed but wasn’t comprehensible either. She also had a problem later with the swimming scenes because she had cramps. The woman you see swimming in the film is actually Diane Cilento, Connery’s wife at the time, in a black wig.

    Ironically, the producers were told that the biggest miscasting, as far as Japanese audiences were concerned, was Tamba himself because he was far too young to be the head of the country’s secret service.

  3. “I guess Connery’s Japanese wasn’t good enough for that plotline.”

    Nor was his makeup. Incidentally, one fun thing about that movie is they are driving from Tokyo south to check up on Osato, in the special custom-built Toyota 2000GT that Toyota build for the film, it is amusing for someone who knows Japan to see that for some reason they head north to go south. I forget the exact tourist attraction they drove by, but it was obviously just for the Travel Brochure aspect of the film.

  4. You can’t fairly blame Connery for the quality of his Japanese. He doesn’t speak Japanese and as an actor, merely speaks the lines the script-writer provided. Of course the producers could have put more effort into coaching him.

    People perhaps don’t remember how remote, unfamiliar and insignificant Japan was in the late 60s, to western people. Air travel was very expensive.

    My parents-in-law, who lived in Tokyo at that time, remember the film as being one of the events that helped put Japan into international consciousness. The others being the Tokyo Olympics and marriage of John and Yono.

  5. In order to prepare for his role in Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro drove cabs for months. For Raging Bull, he trained with boxers for months and put on close to 80 pounds. I think that Connery could have practiced Japanese for an hour or so. Actors should be rewarded for initiative and criticised for lack.

    I’m not sure if you speak Japanese but Connery’s is not just silly, it is legendary.

  6. Here’s a thought – and no, I don’t mean it seriously. Connery played the “raging out-of-control gaijin” to get some things done in the film, right? What if his appalling Japanese was a sham to make the Japanese think of him as even more of a Crazy Gaijin and in private he (the character) would actually speak perfect unaccented Japanese? Nah….

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