♣ Spoilers. All the spoilers.
♦ While I try to keep things tame on my normal posts, I will get very profane here.
♥ All screen captures fall under the rubric of Title 17, Section 107 of the United States Code as regards Fair Use of copyrighted materials for critique and parody.
Hot on the heels of Dr. No comes another adaptation of Ian Fleming’s book series: From Russia With Love! Like the first movie, this one was chosen out of sequence from the novels. Dr. No had been adapted in 1962 because it was topical to delays and setbacks in the American space program. FRWL was chosen next after John F. Kennedy mentioned in an interview that the book was one of his favorite stories. It was apparently the last movie he ever watched, before his fateful visit to Dallas.
This is often considered the movie that refined the style first established with Dr. No. The action is bigger and more spectacular. It introduces more of the classic tropes and hits more of those old-school 007 notes. It was also a much harder recap to write…because there’s a LOT of stuff going on here.
Right off the bat, that graphical gun barrel opening is definitely tighter and more refined, even though it uses pretty much the same footage as before. It’s a lot more musically oriented, closely timed to the cues of the Bond theme. The theme is a new rendition that’s richer and a bit jauntier, with more restrain on the brass and more percussion, played in a slight swing feel. Dr No‘s opening may have been the originator, but FRWL‘s is definitely what people think of when they think of the archetypal 007 opening. It will also start the trend of Bond movies using a different recording of the theme for each gunbarrel opening. Though they will recycle visual footage in the future, each song is just a little different.
And then we’re in the movie already? That was fast.
James Bond is hurrying through a well-manicured garden at night. He’s looking rather pale and sallow, and very panicked. He’s being followed slowly but determinedly by a big blond guy. It’s a duel to the death! They both sneak around the hedges, but James is making some sloppy mistakes, losing his composure and making too much noise. The blond guy readies some sort of garrote watch, gets the jump on Jim…and kills him? OK, that’s a wrap people, movie over!
A wall of floodlights snaps on to reveal the garden is part of an old mansion staffed by men in black speaking Spanish. The duel was some sort of sinister deadly training exercise, and the victim was only wearing a mask. Ah, so that’s why Bond looked a little “froggy” before.
Cut to the credits! These feature a new theme song, a lush and super-’60s instrumental version of English crooner Matt Monro’s “From Russia With Love”. The sequence also introduces another staple to the Bond credits: LAYDEEZ! They dance and pose in close-up as the credits are projected onto them. It’s groovy, swingin’, and stylish…but it does render some of the titles pretty much illegible.
But there we have it. THE basic Bond intro. Gun barrel set to the Bond theme, cold open, credits with gals and a new theme song. From now on, every 007 movie will use this formula, at least up until Daniel Craig’s entries.
Venice! The final match of a chess championship is playing out in tense silence, in a gorgeous palatial chamber. Canadian Macadams versus Czechoslovakian (still a country back then) Kronsteen, who’s more than a little creepy.
An attendant gives him a new glass of water, and on the bottom is a simple summons signed with an ominous death’s-head seal. Oooh!
Kronsteen takes the time to finish the match anyway before briskly heading out.
He arrives at a huge yacht staffed with tall guys in black with submachine guns. And inside is…holy crap, Blofeld! We never see his face, or even much of his body at all. Only his fluffy white cat in his hands, adorned with a black cameo-style ring with the same seal as before. With him is a short, intense-looking older woman played by pre-war German film veteran Lotte Lenya. She is Rosa Klebb, a senior Soviet intelligence commander who is secretly the third in command of SPECTRE. Blofeld is showing her his fighting fish, while using them as a metaphor to expound on his philosophy of playing the world powers against each other to exhaust them.
In comes Kronsteen, Number Five in the organization. He has devised an operation to trick the British into stealing them an important Soviet encrypter, using an unsuspecting Russian officer. They can also use the incident to raise tensions between the Eastern and Western blocs, and kill James Bond in scandalous fashion as revenge for the death of Dr. No. The British may very well know the operation is a trap, but Kronsteen predicts they will dive in anyway, responding to the scheme as a challenge.
On an aside, was Julius No the former Number Two? He certainly seemed pretty damn powerful, and as we shall see, SPECTRE doesn’t always lose sleep over the loss of just any top member.
It’s a great intro for a fantastic cast of villains. Kronsteen is creepy and conceited. Klebb is gruff, stern, full of nervous energy, and clearly resentful of having to manage Kronsteen’s plan. And we have the teaser introduction of the secretive Number One, whose presence will continue to haunt the 1960s Bond movies. It’s cool how FRWL keeps continuity with Dr. No, giving us a tantalizing deeper look into SPECTRE while keeping them mysterious and bigger than just one or two movies.
The use of SPECTRE also puts a different spin on the world of 007. The original adversaries of the Ian Fleming books were SMERSH, a sort of Soviet super-KGB invested in all sorts of criminal and terrorist schemes. James Bond was the quintessential Cold Warrior, fighting against the machinations of global communism. Changing the foes to a secretive organization with no care for nations or ideologies gives the Bond films more of a “big picture” feel, especially in retrospect. The Cold War isn’t a battle of good and evil or clash of civilizations, but a dangerous and potentially self-destructive tangle of alliances ready to be exploited, something like the run-up to World War I.
Cut to the blond assassin relaxing in the sun with a woman. Hey, even a killer needs his time off. Klebb arrives by helicopter in front of the mansion we saw in the cold open. She’s greeted by the training instructor, Morzeny.
He welcomes her to…SPECTRE Island! God, that’s an awesome name for a secret base. The assassin’s name is Donald Grant, an escaped murderer who’s the best on SPECTRE’s list. Klebb is brisk and imperious, and has no time for delays or pleasantries. They march past a crazy firing range featuring live targets dodging bullets and flames. It’s the ultimate in supervillain training!
Finding Grant lounging, they call him to attention. Klebb intently inspects the statuesque agent, and then just socks him in the gut with a set of brass knuckles, to which Grant barely moves. She’s got her man for the job.
To Istanbul! Some young ladies get out from their jobs at the Russian consulate. The blonde woman leaves her friends behind, and makes her way to a shaded and very quiet neighborhood. Grant shadows her as she enters an old building to meet Rosa Klebb. The young woman’s name is Tatiana Romanova. She is to be Klebb’s patsy, a loyal Soviet cryptographer who has no idea Klebb is working for criminals. It will be her job to seduce James Bond as part of the master plan, as well as help him get the Lektor decoder SPECTRE wants.
Klebb is a stern and domineering taskmaster, complete with swagger stick. She’s almost perving on Romanova, though, as she inspects and briefs her. She makes Tanya take off her coat so she can inspect her figure, gets in close, and even lays hands on her.
Cut to an English couple boating down a pond while listening to…”From Russia With Love” the song? It’s a fourth wall gag in a James Bond movie! They’re actually a little more common than you might think; I’ll try to keep track of them.
On the banks of the pond, 007 is relaxing with none other than Sylvia Trench, the gambling lady who once broke into James Bond’s apartment! FRWL is just full of great callbacks to Dr. No, isn’t it? It is also interesting to see Bond stick around with one woman for multiple films.
He gets a beeper (high-tech gadgetry for the 1960s!) from MI6, and car-phones Moneypenny. He has to report to M, but Sylvia keeps messing around during the conversation and even gives Moneypenny a defiant remark over the lines. Funny thing is, Moneypenny doesn’t seem the least bit bothered, and even tacitly encourages Bond to take a little extra time with Sylvia.
Entering the Universal Exports office in high spirits, James starts to make a quip only to stop in mid-sentence, deflated, when he realizes M is in the room too, glowering at him. I love the chemistry between the MI6 members in these early movies. And waiting to the side is Q! Now the Home Office Triad is complete: Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn.
M isn’t actually that upset at Bond for his insouciant tardiness, as much as he is occupied with the seeming absurdity of the mission at hand. Romanova, that Russian cryptographer in Istanbul, has contacted Turkish intelligence in order to defect with a new Soviet encoder. But she’s obsessed with James Bond, and refuses to travel to London with any agent besides him. M and Bond know it stinks of a trap, but just like Kronsteen’s prediction, they decide to wade in anyway in the hopes they can get something out of it. Bond is definitely taken with Romanova’s photo…and he even seems to show a little performance anxiety!
In comes Q, to demonstrate the Bond series’ first Q gadget of all time- an intricate briefcase full of hidden goods. It’s got gold coins for transactions and bribery, a disassembled AR-7 sniper rifle, throwing knife, and a tear gas boobytrap triggered by opening the case the wrong way.
On the way out, Bond and Moneypenny flirt around a bit, but M interrupts them with a perfectly timed beep. He has to leave Tatiana’s photo behind, so he signs it for her.
Once more unto the breach via Pan Am!
At the airport, Bond exchanges codewords with a valet who is to be his contact with Turkish spy chief Kerim Bey. A Groucho Marx looking fella shadily follows them out.
Red Grant is waiting at the airport turnaround too, but he just hangs back while Marx gets in his own car to chase them. Bond notices their tail right away, but the Turkish agent is unconcerned. There are “gentlemen’s rules” to the spy game in Turkey, and the two blocs stay pretty non-belligerent in their activities. Theirs is just the Soviet chase car for the day.
They head into a carpet store in the Grand Bazaar. It’s actually a front for the avuncular spy patriarch Kerim Bey. He runs his outfit as a family business. Wait, are his men literally all his sons, or is it more in the Mafia sense? If he’s being literal, the man must sure get busy!
Anyway, he too thinks this mission is a uselessly risky trap, and urges 007 to relax and then just go home.
But outside, Grant has jacked the Soviet spy car and kidnapped the driver, leaving Groucho behind and very confused.
And then it’s hotel time. Interesting isn’t it, there’s a real sense of romance surrounding hotels in these early Bond films. Not that travel lodging can’t be classy and luxurious in the 21st century…but you get a real feel of distinction and even personality from these depictions of foreign hospitality in the ’60s, that doesn’t seem to resound in the modern commercial image of high-end hotel chains and resorts.
This Istanbul hotel’s maybe a little too epic though. The real bombastic Dr. No version of the Bond Theme is blasting loudly as he deliberately walks around and inspects his suite for bugs. Rather undercuts that slow, tense espionage feel, doesn’t it? It’s a scene that the first movie nailed a lot better.
The room is tapped after all, but the reception only have the bridal suite ready as an alternative for him. The staff glance at each other like they’re in on something…
Grant drops off the stolen car in front of the Soviet consulate for the security to find, with the driver dead inside. Klebb is there to give him a ride. The plan is underway to frame Bond and stoke East-West tensions.
The next morning, Kerim Bey’s mistress wants some lovin’, but he is preoccupied and very cranky. She manages to coax him away from his desk just in time for…
Bond visits later to inspect the scene. The bomb was Soviet retaliation for the dead driver, but the two of them don’t know that. Seeking answers, they head underground into the old Byzantine sewers.
Under the Russian consulate, Kerim has…a full-scale submarine periscope just looking into the secret parts of the building?! He says his people snuck it in as part of a renovation, but has no one in the building ever noticed any strange openings or unaccounted-for spaces in between rooms? Cleaning lady never found a funny-looking lens on the floor?
Inside the consulate’s secret conference chamber, the military intelligence higher-ups are in a furor. Three of them are the usual suspects, but the odd man out is Krilencu, an assassin who hasn’t been in Turkey for a while. He’s known for his viciousness, and was kept out of Istanbul in the past in order to keep tensions low. Kerim Bey suspects him of the bomb job. In comes Tatiana as well, likely to deliver a coded message. Bond can’t see her face, but he’s eager to meet her in the flesh.
Kerim Bey feels Bond’s hotel room is too dangerous for the night, so he drives him out of town to a Gypsy camp where he feels there’s more protection. He uses them to do his dirty work the way the Soviets employ Bulgarian spies in Turkey, and now the two groups hate each other. Good job, asshole.
Though really, it is an extremely appropriate metaphor for the Cold War at large- the world powers creating discord by fueling proxy conflicts between local countries. Considering the geopolitical bent of FRWL, I wonder if that was intentional or not.
Unfortunately, Krilencu’s gang has not been fooled, and is already waiting to strike as Bond and Kerim Bey arrive.
I don’t know what Romani in Turkey were like in the 1960s, but the Gypsies in FRWL are real fanciful and medieval, with tons of rich fabrics, music and dancing, swarthy men, and bewitching ladies.
Maybe too much with the ladies.
There’s a rather extended belly dancing scene, and then two young women engage in a vicious catfight to the death to determine who will get the chief’s son’s hand in marriage. I really mean a catfight, with claws and hissing even! The whole thing is a bit gratuitous, distracting, and rather interrupts the escalating spy tension, especially as the Bulgarian assassins are sneaking in at the same time. Grant is there too, stalking in the background with a distinctive broomhandle Mauser (think Han Solo’s gun) that really suits him.
One of the ladies is straight-up about to glass the other in the face when they are mercifully interrupted by the plot, in the form of the Bulgarians busting down the gate. And speaking of sci-fi references, I swear that gate just made the original Star Trek door sound!
Total chaos erupts. Fistfights, knives, bullets and fire! It’s the birth of another staple of 1960s Bond- the ensemble battle!
Kerim Bey is shot in the arm, but manages to keep up the fight. James is running around helping out, though some of his actions look like they’re threatening friend and foe alike. Like here, he just cut this burning carriage loose and it’s about to run into this fight.
The whole time, Grant is simply hiding and watching. When Bond is about to be killed from behind, Grant takes aim…and saves his life! 007 has his own personal guardian devil now! After all, SPECTRE still needs him alive to fulfill their plot. Feeling the tide turning, Krilencu calls a retreat.
For saving the chieftain’s life, Bond is honorarily adopted by the chief. As his son, he uses his newfound power to call off the ladies’ duel to the death. The chief allows him to decide who will marry the chief’s son. And he…sleeps with both of them?
Oh Jim, you devil.
And they seem to have given up their feud completely, judging by how content they seem to be sitting next to each other.
Wait, what happened to the chief’s son? The guy we haven’t seen, over whom the women were fighting? Is he OK with this little usurpation?
Or did he die in the fighting? If that’s the case, isn’t it a little too soon for this kind of stuff?
Whatever. James Bond hath charms to soothe the savage beast.
Later at night, Bond and Kerim Bey set out to personally assassinate Krilencu. Wow, the intelligence community has really gone to hell since 007 showed up. So far I’d say SPECTRE is winning. Krilencu’s hideout is an otherwise unassuming building with a giant movie poster- for a comedy Eon Productions was producing at the time, no less! Does that count as another fourth wall gag? The two stand right out on the street with Bond’s collapsible rifle, when some cops round the corner.
Fortunately they’re actually Kerim Bey’s spies, there to startle Krilencu out of the building by coming a-knocking. Kerim Bey wants to get revenge himself despite his wounded arm, and Bond offers his shoulder as a rest (take that, Fury Road!). Krilencu escapes out of Anita Ekberg’s mouth, in one of the strangest scenes from a Bond movie.
The 007 franchise does have its occasional moments of true bizarreness. Look forward to more “no comment” scenes like this in the future.
Anyway, Kerim Bey makes the shot, and Bond makes his first truly flippant quip of many more to come (he was a little more low-key in Dr. No).
007 returns triumphantly to the hotel, but he hears someone else in his suite. It’s Tatiana at last, butt-naked and in total seduction mode. She introduces herself by saying her friends call her Tanya. James Bond says his friends call him James Bond. Haha. Yeah, that is kinda badass. Tanya is self-conscious about the size of her mouth, but he reassures her it’s just the right size…for him.
No really, how did they get away with a line like that in 1963?
But James isn’t just a horndog, he’s got a job to do and starts asking about the Lektor right away. Because it’s not clear how much Tatiana knows about the ultimate plan, it’s unclear just how deliberately she’s stringing him along by insisting on business strictly after pleasure. They get in bed and…OH SHIT! SPECTRE are making a secret sextape behind a false mirror! Rosa Klebb is personally there to watch and have a smoke.
The next day, Bond and Romanova arrive separately at Hagia Sophia so she can surreptitiously drop off a floor plan of the consulate in her cosmetic mirror. Agent Groucho Marx has shadowed her there, though. Oh no, now the Soviets suspect her too? Now everyone’s in hot water. Marx intercepts her drop, but Grant silently kills him and leaves it behind for Bond.
Bond then meets with Kerim Bey, but he’s produced his own architectural drawings for the consulate anyway! What, what was the point of that earlier handoff then? Was it just a test of her trustworthiness? Was it just because 007 didn’t know if Kerim Bey’s people could produce blueprints in time? It was a good tense scene, but now it seems kinda superfluous…
Anyway, Kerim’s leery of the whole plan as always, but Bond sticks to the mission single-mindedly…well, not entirely single-mindedly. He does have a fancy for Tanya, after all.
James meets her on a midday cruise down the Bosphorus. He’s brought a nifty gadget, a wireless transmitting tape recorder hidden in an old-timey camera, and he’s ready to talk business. She’s nervous and reticent after discovering the Soviets shadowed her, but he coaxes her into describing the technical details of the Lektor. She keeps diverting into romantic talk while MI6 and other intelligence officers awkwardly listen in London. Moneypenny seems especially amused.
But the home office conclusion is that the encoder is legit, so 007 gets the all-clear to work on pilfering the device, and sets a date with Kerim Bey.
Bond shows up at the Soviet consulate, in the guise of an ordinary man seeking a visa arrangement. Considering the spies that have been tailing him, how the gate guards don’t recognize him is beyond me. Though maybe regular staff just didn’t get told any of the intelligence details, and so wouldn’t know who he was. It would also explain why we see Tatiana working in the cryptography room later as if she’s not in trouble.
Kerim Bey has set up explosives under the building. Holy shit, that’s a risky maneuver! Isn’t that tantamount to an act of war?
In the ensuing panic, 007 strolls right through into the basement and high-security areas. He’s even brought a gas mask for the tear gas security measure in the hallways. Working her shift in the inmost cryptography room, Tatiana is surprised to see Bond. Apparently he showed up a day ahead of schedule. Huh, why? Maybe that was because he didn’t quite trust her yet, and wanted to make sure nothing got leaked.
Kerim Bey is waiting to usher them out through the smoking new hole in the wall, but their planned route is interrupted by…
So they are forced to exit onto the streets.
They need to skip town now, and fast. The three of them jump on an Orient Express train just as it’s working up steam. Benz, one of the consulate’s chief spies, spots them and leaps aboard as well. And Donald Grant is already on board, coolly watching as is his wont.
Kerim Bey has everything covered for the escape, with rooms, fake passports, and a cover story as a married couple. They’re to jump train at an unscheduled stop where Kerim’s agents will drive them out.
The train trundles out of Istanbul. Now that the risky business of stealing the encrypter is over, Tatiana and James seem to be really falling for each other. He’s even bought her some new clothing. When he found the time in between all that spy skulduggery, I’m not sure.
In the corridor, Kerim Bey spots Benz trying to listen in. He decides to detain the Soviet agent in his room so he can’t try any funny business while they prepare for their escape. For such an easygoing, older guy, Kerim still knows how to do the rough work. But while he regales the bound and gagged Benz with tales of his life exploits, and Bond and Romanova kill some time together before the dropoff, Grant shadows behind.
It’s now time to jump train, but there’s been a startling development. Both Kerim Bey and Benz are dead, from what looks like a knife fight! The escape plan is off, and the Turkish getaway drivers watch in confusion by the jump point as the train keeps rolling through.
Bond is devastated and furious at the loss of his friend, and suspecting Tanya, he takes it out on her, outright smacking her down.
But come on Jim! Even disregarding the cruel anger…you’re smarter than this!
Do you really believe the two spy chiefs killed each other? Do you really think Romanova was in on it as some sort of Soviet plot? You know SPECTRE is out there! You know there’s something fishy about the whole mission! And you KNOW an unknown third party killed the Groucho Marx agent in Hagia Sophia!
To play devil’s advocate, she continues to hide facts from him even now, saying she’ll only tell what she knows once they reach London. There’s little reason to suspect her of foul play, but she sure isn’t doing herself any favors by refusing to level with him now that their friends are dying.
We travel via a map montage (very unique for a 007 movie) to Belgrade, where one of Kerim Bey’s sons is waiting. Bond has to break the news to him, and requests help from MI6 getting out of Yugoslavia. Grant is stalking in the background as always.
The Orient Express thunders inexorably into Zagreb, and this time it’s Grant who steps out and Bond who waits in the passenger car. Grant, with his own keen spy skills, knows exactly who Bond’s MI6 contact is supposed to be. He has picked up the code words from watching Bond, greets the agent, takes him out offscreen in a restroom and takes his place. He’s not just a powerhouse goon or a sharp shot, this guy is frighteningly brilliant!
When he greets 007, Bond doesn’t suspect a thing yet, and they both hop on the train. He’s already concocted his cover story, complete with a fabulous old-timey English accent and jolly old-boy demeanor as “Captain Nash”, an identity likely stolen from the real agent. Bond and him confer about how to cross the Iron Curtain with the Lektor. They may just have to leap out en route. Nash wants to unwind and asks the two of them to supper. He escorts a still visibly shaken Tanya to the restaurant car, while 007 takes his time rearranging the weaponry in his Q case. Perhaps he does suspect something after all.
At dinner, Bond orders fish, and the other two follow suit. White wine all around, except for Grant who goes with red. This is actually something important to note.
He “carelessly” knocks over Tanya’s wine, and slips something into the glass when he refills it.
On the way back from dinner, she gets drowsy and passes out. Bond pulls his gun on Grant, having noticed his wine trickery earlier. But Grant still keeps in character, and gets him to calm back down by explaining MI6 wasn’t prepared to extract two people along with himself and the Lektor. He begins explaining the escape plan, then wallops Bond once he’s let down his guard, searches him, and holds him up.
007 knew something was fishy when Captain Nash ordered red Chianti with grilled seafood. A true MI6 agent always knows the right wine pairings! Grant seems almost relieved to be able to drop the deception and show his true side to Bond. He explains his involvement with SPECTRE and his role in Istanbul, as well as the fact that Tatiana Romanova is a patsy who knows nothing of the real plan. It’s his plan to kill her and Bond and make it look like a murder-suicide with a lurid, tabloid edge, complete with the hotel sextape and a crazed letter. The Lektor they want not to actually decode Soviet secrets, but to ransom back to Moscow.
It’s the old cliche that villains always explain their plans in the third act, but Donald Grant sells it well. Not just a stooge with a dirty job, he truly holds Bond in contempt and wants to see him suffer. He relishes explaining his exploits because he wants Bond to see just how brilliant he is, and what a fool Bond got played for. He’s also extremely volatile and insecure. 007 could keep jabbing at Julius No while he ignored him in stony silence, but it only takes one remark about Grant being insane for him to get angry. He won’t let anyone call him into question.
Bond’s opportunity comes when he requests a last smoke, and offers to pay Grant with the gold coins he’s carrying in his Q case. Knowing Grant, he probably won’t honor the request, he just wants that gold. Of course, he doesn’t know about the case’s security feature, and its tear gas canister explodes in his face. It’s no knockout punch, but it gives 007 enough time to leap to his feet. What follows is one of the franchise’s most acclaimed fight sequences. Grant and Bond throw each other around the small sleeping room, with only the rhythmic clattering of the train for accompaniment. The light gets broken and the two struggle in twilighty blue darkness. Grant finally gets leverage on 007 and chokes him with his watch, but Bond is able to scramble for his case knife, break his grip, and kill him with his own weapon.
No time for rest.
The Orient Express is nearing Grant’s intended escape point. A flower truck is “inconveniently” stuck on the tracks in order to force the train to stop. Tanya is in no condition to make a run for it, but James carries her out, then hides her in the bushes. Using the train to ride a few meters ahead, he gets the drop on the truck driver, who is waiting for Grant. He lays Tanya on a flatbed of flowers, then takes off with the bound driver as passenger. After all, he’ll need him to figure out where to go.
In the daytime they’re buzzed by a light helicopter. SPECTRE’s got a pretty big contingency plan. Of course 007 refuses to pull over, and seeing Romanova in the back only confirms Grant isn’t in charge anymore. They respond by dropping grenades. Sheesh, they have to be careful if they want to get that Lektor intact! Bond draws them off on foot to play a dangerous game of helicopter jousting a la North by Northwest. But James has got his rifle. Not powerful enough to take down a chopper. But when the crew slows down to drop another grenade he nails the bombardier, causing him to lose his explosive fruit in the cabin and down the craft.
Tanya, now properly awakened, goes to embrace Bond but is interrupted by the violent delayed detonation of the wreckage. I’m not sure if that was timed or coincidence, but it’s a great action moment.
Venturing onwards, they come to the waterfront and SPECTRE’s original getaway plan, a heavily supplied speedboat. 007, a killer but not a total bastard, unties the truck driver and kicks him overboard to swim for shore.
Cut to Blofeld’s yacht. The boss is not amused. Kronsteen (oh yeah, I remember him!) is unflappably confident, but Klebb is shitting bricks, and they both blame each other. Blofeld calls in the chief we saw at Spectre Island, who reveals a poisoned knife tip in his boot. After making a show of blaming Klebb for the setbacks, he has Kronsteen killed. An egotist to the end, Number Five seems less afraid than simply shocked that Number One would be upset at him.
And by the way, did you notice that strange occult picture on Blofeld’s wall?
What’s the story behind that? SPECTRE’s origin and true nature is kept pretty nebulous throughout the movies, but I’m pretty certain there’s no other reference to the organization having a full-on cult angle in any of the later movies.
Bond and Romanova are speeding along on their way to Italy, but a group of boats heads them off. It’s a SPECTRE force lead by the training chief, and they begin firing to try and get our heroes to surrender. But they’re aiming a little too close, and puncture the boat’s ample supply of fuel barrels. This gives 007 an idea. He throws them overboard, then slows down to give the impression of giving up the ship. The SPECTRE armada is now stopped in the slick, preparing to board. Then he fires a flare gun into the fuel.
Total chaos ensues as all hands abandon ship. A lot of extras on fire.
Afterwards, Bond and Tatiana enjoy a much more relaxed moment at a hotel in Venice. Oddly enough, that’s where this whole plot started. They’re preparing to leave when the cleaning lady comes in. It’s Rosa Klebb, but 007 doesn’t notice at first, preoccupied with packing up and calls to London. It’s only when she holds him up that he recognizes her. Tatiana, falling back on her training in confusion, helps her take the Lektor out, but then jumps her rather than betray Bond. Klebb loses the pistol, allowing 007 to charge her, but she has her special poison knife shoe.
In the original novel, Bond’s gun fails, Klebb gets him with her poison, and he is narrowly saved by French agent Rene Mathis, who won’t get to appear in the film series until the next millennium rolls around. Dr. No takes place afterwards, and it is this incident M and Boothroyd are referring to when they mention 007’s old Beretta failed and he ended up in the hospital.
In the movie, Bond and Klebb struggle a little awkwardly before Romanova decides to shoot her former taskmaster in order to save him.
Now our heroes can safely escape to England!
In due time, that is. For now, they’re enjoying a boat trip through Venice. Some tourists with film cameras remind Bond he still has that sextape he took from Grant. Curiosity overcomes him, and he looks at a few frames before tossing it overboard and bidding farewell to the film.
The end credits are where we finally get to hear the full version of Matt Monro’s “From Russia With Love”. I’m not really into this style of music, but it is a really nice song. Lush and romantic, sentimental but very well-written and even rather poetic and personal.
Well, the biggest problem I have with FRWL is Tatiana Romanova. Not her as a character, her screen time, or her performance, mind you. Her character arc. It’s incomplete. Her job is to seduce James Bond for what she thinks is a Soviet operation. By the end, she’s genuinely fallen for him and defects with him. Yet she’s pretty much the same throughout, clinging to him without any noticeable shift in her actions. What she really needed was a “reveal scene” where she discovers she’s been an unwitting patsy for SPECTRE, and decides to abandon her mission in order to escape with the spy she was supposed to set up. Without it, there’s practically no contrast between her early duplicity and later sincerity, and her arc comes across as half-baked.
Apart from that, FRWL is so busy it does sometimes feel like the filmmakers just crammed too much into the movie. With so many scenes, even some of the good stuff can seem tacked on and superfluous. Kronsteen, for instance, is cool and creepy, and helps set up a great introduction to the plot, but really doesn’t play any role in the rest of the story. The back-to-back vehicle fights near the end are sweet, and yet seem a little excessive and long, and make the final showdown with Klebb feel anticlimactic.
On the other hand, there’s just so much going on in this movie. If Dr. No was intimate, FRWL is labyrinthine. It’s a very complicated story, full of layers of deception, double and triple crosses, mystery, and well-employed dramatic irony. And yet it’s relayed to the audience crisply and clearly.
A lot of this has to be attributed to the editing of Peter Hunt, who arranged all these exceptionally disparate and diverse scenes so they would flow together into a coherent and paced narrative. It was his idea to take the scene of Grant killing the false James Bond from early in the movie, where it might have slowed down or distracted the plot from moving on to Istanbul, and make it a punchy cold open, a distinctive trope that has endured to this day in the movie series.
With all those balls to juggle in the air, it’s not surprising that a few inconsistencies made it through or were unavoidable, like Krilencu’s strange resurrection or the mysterious “third man” at the helicopter fight. After all, movie scenes do not get filmed in order, and it’s the editor’s job to just help make sense of it all. And From Russia With Love is a triumph of editing. Peter Hunt would continue to edit the 1960s Bond movies before getting to direct On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a movie whose cinematography continues to inspire modern action directors like Christopher Nolan.
The action’s a lot more varied, larger in scale, and more intense: that chaotic ensemble battle, the visceral fistfight in the dark, those vehicle battles full of huge explosions. Really envelope-pushing stuff for the early 1960s.
The supporting cast are awesome on both sides. Turkish spymaster Kerim Bey is likeable and avuncular, the chemistry between everyone in M Branch is fantastic, and we get the first proper appearance of Q and his gadgetry.
And the villains! Oh, the villains! There are a whole bunch, and they’re all different and fun to watch, especially “Red” Donald Grant, not only quiet and hulking but intelligent and devious, an intimidating assassin who hangs over his scenes like a dark cloud. James Bond’s guardian devil. I also really like the continuity with Dr. No, as it continues to tantalize and build up the SPECTRE saga bit by bit.
The soundtrack of Dr. No was a little limited and dated, but the atmosphere of FRWL is boosted considerably by the greater presence of John Barry, who writes some real moody, pensive, or tense background music as well as some percussive action themes. Barry would go on to become a titan of 007 soundtracks, unarguably creating the sound of James Bond. As a songwriter myself, I’ve only recently come to realize how much John Barry’s music has influenced my musical sensibilities.
Just as Dr. No was a trendsetter, From Russia With Love is an equally or even more influential film. Everything is more refined, stylized, or envelope-pushing for its time than the last movie. It helped to define the tropes of 007 on the screen so much, that even other classic Bond movies will feel like they’re trying unsuccessfully to emulate parts of FRWL from now on. And when they succeed, it’s partially because they’re building on the foundation this movie laid down.
On a final note, SPECTRE arguably won out in this movie.
Sure, they failed to get the decoder or to get rid of Bond. But as for the goal of playing the Cold War powers off of each other? What started out as a spy scene with tacit rules and a code of honor is now home to assassinations, open gunfights, and embassy bombings. SPECTRE has successfully used James Bond’s presence in Turkey to ruin the peace in the Mediterranean intelligence community and make it look like his fault. Man, Blofeld’s long game is good…
Fourth-Wall Moment Count: 2
Bizarre Visuals Count: 1
Over a long period of time covering 2013, I stopped posting here, and just put photos up for a smaller contingent of friends and family on Facebook. Eventually, I got tired of the site’s lossy image re-sizing and photo ownership policy, and wanted to share things with more people (I keep my FB profile private).
I saw and photographed some cool stuff in 2013, so it would be a shame not to put it up here.
From reading my posts, you may have gathered Nara Prefecture is a place where a lot has happened, the traditional heartland of Japan.
The city of Kashihara, on the other hand, is a very modern invention. An unremarkable semi-rural suburb of Osaka on the south end of the Nara plains, it was created by merger in the 1950s from older towns. The area, however, has a significance in Japanese history that goes back thousands of years.
For one, this is the place where the Age of Gods ended and Japan was founded.
Well…in the annals of mythology, that is.
The 8th century CE creation myths Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the two earliest known pieces of Japanese writing, tell of a man named Kamu Yamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto (people had very long names in early ancient Japan). He was a mortal man born of the gods in the 8th century BCE, the direct heir to the sun goddess Amaterasu. He sailed with his people from southern Kyushu to find a new home, made landfall in the Kinki area, and conquered it. With this he became Japan’s first emperor. This marked the end of the Age of Gods and dawn of the Age of Men. He was posthumously named Jinmu, the name by which he is known nowadays.
This all was very important to the 19th century Meiji government, who were promulgating a Shintoist nation-state centered around the emperor. They established February 11th, the supposed date of Jinmu’s ascension as a major national holiday celebrating the foundation of Japan, and built Kashihara Shrine to enshrine him in 1890, at the base of Mt. Unebi where Jinmu is said to have died.
With its connection to the mythos of the imperial state, the holiday was abolished after World War II. It was reinstated in 1966 as Foundation Day, only with vastly reduced significance, festivities, and overt political-religious tones. Nowadays, it’s mostly only hard-right nationalist groups who make a big deal about tying Kashihara, Jinmu, and Foundation Day together.
Of course, Jinmu’s very existence is unproven, and the account of his life is pure myth. Even if he actually existed and was a seminal leader of his people, calling him the first emperor would be a bit of a stretch, since the ancient conception of a chief or ruler of the Yamato tribe was undoubtedly very different from even the 8th-century CE concept of an Emperor of Japan, let alone the 19th-century interpretation.
Certain elements of the myth do ring true however, such as the likely migration of the Yamato clan from Kyushu, and the vital significance of the Nara region as the foundational cradle of the imperial state.
This early imperial state was semi-nomadic, with the emperor’s palace and thus the center of power burned down and moved around Yamato every time the emperor died, or omens and signs suggested it was time to change location.
When the Japanese state transitioned to a more Chinese-inspired administrative model in the 7th century, their first attempt at a fixed capital city wasn’t Kyoto or even Nara. It was here in Kashihara. Of course it wasn’t called that yet.
Fujiwara-kyo was the great capital city only briefly, however. A series of fires and illnesses was blamed on a vengeful spirit, and the site was completely abandoned for Heijo-kyo (Nara) in 710. Archaeological excavations still continue at the site, as its largely incomplete history is slowly filled in.
Think about it, though. If it weren’t for one angry ghost, Kashihara might have been the grand city, and Kyoto might have been a big grassy plain.
A thousand years later, Kashihara became significant in a rather different way. It was the site of Imai, a wealthy town of traders and merchants that served as a hub for traffic on the inland highways of Nara.
As foot and horse traffic through Nara lost its importance for the Japanese economy after the Meiji era, Imai faded from the scene. Perhaps because it was no longer significant, it was never developed or razed. Now the entire former town is a cultural property, a rectangle-shaped historic district on the east side of central Kashihara.
A few people still actually live and ply their trades there, though I’m sure there are lots of rules and regulations that come with historic preservation.
I dedicated my entire last post to the vast, sprawling grounds of Kumamoto Castle. I mentioned that though it was established by the Kato family, it became the seat of the Hosokawas for the vast majority of the Edo period. I also mentioned that a lot of historic structures have survived. The daimyo and his kin lived in the castle palace, which was lost in the 19th century. However, to the northwest of the castle was a separate residence for another branch of the family. Now called Hosokawa Gyobu-Tei, it is a surviving example of the more simple, rambling, almost rustic Shoin Style of high architecture, inspired by that ancient hall at Yoshino. Wow, everything just comes together, doesn’t it?
In the outer yards, the leaves were brilliant.
The Kumamoto cityscape doesn’t extend very far beyond the castle. Instead, it stretches south past the city center, as it slowly becomes more rural.
The garden is among Japan’s most famous. With a much higher focus on countours, slopes, and landscaping, Suizenji Jojuen makes a fantastic contrast to some of the other Edo gardens that focus more on stones and water features. It resembles a miniature landscape of the rolling mountains around Kumamoto, plus a miniature Mt. Fuji.
Also surviving- the old teahouse, where I sat down and enjoyed some proper matcha!
The pond of Jojuen flows into a river.
Who would ever guess this was December?
Last year, me and my wife traveled to Fukuoka, the island of Kyushu’s biggest metropolis, for our second anniversary. This time around, we found cheap fare to Kumamoto. Coincidentally also in Kyushu, Kumamoto is another of its most populous cities, south from Fukuoka, far less maritime in character and located further inland.
Downtown Kumamoto. If it looks deserted, that’s only because it was early in the morning.
Everyone comes out at night.
This could partially be because Kumamoto is growing and prosperous, with a proportion of young people above the national average. It could also be because Kyushu people just really like to party- Fukuoka had a pretty kickin’ night scene as well.
Kumamoto has lots of distinctive local cuisine too, including horse meat (both roast and raw!), roast chicken (Kyushu locales tend to pride themselves on their chicken), and spicy mustard lotus roots. Kumamoto ramen isn’t nearly as famous as Fukuoka’s Hakata ramen, but it’s a really tasty variation featuring a more Chinese-style blend of spiced oil.
The city has been growing in nationwide stature and popularity, but its sights and historical locations are not necessarily that well known.
There had been smaller forts in the area since 1467, but Kumamoto Castle (and thus to a large extent, the town) in its current iteration was built late in the 16th century by Kato Kiyomasa, a ruthless and renowned general of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The castle design was celebrated for the extent and toughness of its fortifications.
Last year, I was unprepared for how cold Fukuoka was. This year’s winter, however, was (and still is) bizarrely warm. The unseasonable climate caused the autumn leaves to hang on weeks after they usually fall.
The Kato family built the castle, but the Tokugawa Shogunate soon gave the domain to the Hosokawas, a much older and more aristocratic family known as patrons of the arts.
The throne room has been painstakingly rebuilt, using historical texts and drawings to recreate the paintings. Note the classic features of throne room architecture, visible at other sites as well: the offset dais for the lord, the staggered shelves to the side, and the square panels for housing bodyguards.
The tale is a unique part of Kumamoto’s history, and a pivotal chapter in the emergence of modern Japan. The 1868 Meiji Restoration brought about the abdication of the Tokugawa Shoguns, the end of their feudal system, and the installation of a constitutional monarchy. The support of the samurai of Satsuma Domain, further south of Kumamoto in Kagoshima, had been instrumental. However, the end of the feudal system effectively meant the samurai had put themselves out of work. The new Meiji government took a very dim view of Japan’s feudal era, as evidenced by their demolition or intentional neglect of most of the historic old castles, symbols of the old order. The samurai were forbidden from carrying their swords, lost the rice stipend that constituted their salaries, and were replaced with a more European-style police force and standing army.
Thus the 1870s saw the emergence of a community of unemployed warriors, feeling betrayed and abandoned with practically nothing to lose.
Saigo Takamori, a Satsuma samurai who was influential in the Restoration, went on to become a respected core member of the new government. The samurai cause was very close to his heart, and he quickly became disaffected with Meiji policies. One of the major reasons for the rebellion against the Shogunate was its conciliatory treatment of the Western powers, who the dissidents believed were barbarians who needed to be kicked out of Japan. Instead, the new Meiji government not only continued to maintain relationships with foreign powers, but modeled its institutions after European ones, and emphatically promoted the Westernization of Japanese customs like clothing and hairstyles. Saigo was also extremely hawkish and lobbied for an invasion of Korea. The government’s rejection of his proposal was the final straw that caused him to resign and return to Kagoshima.
There he established an academy and private military school to support the former samurai. It quickly became a political institution, whose members filled the regional government. To the Meiji government, it was tantamount to separatism. Then came a wave of samurai revolts throughout western Japan. Tensions were extremely high on all sides. The national government sent a warship to remove the weapons from their Kagoshima arsenal to prevent them from being stolen and used in another uprising. This provoked Saigo’s students to do just that. The Satsuma Rebellion, or Seinan War, had begun. Saigo Takamori wasn’t behind the arsenal raids, but it was too late for him to distance himself, and he was too loyal to his people to repudiate them.
At the beginning of 1877, the Satsuma rebels marched north with the intention of petitioning the emperor. The road passed through Kumamoto, with its massive castle and garrison standing in the way. The castle garrison opened fire from a defensive position, and the rebels besieged it. The fighting was desperate, with the defenders having lost their food supplies in a recent fire, and the attackers trying to press on before imperial reinforcements arrived. The keep was lost, but the new conscript army turned out to be tougher than the elite samurai had thought. They were forced to abandon the siege when reinforcements flooded in.
Saigo’s samurai had to spread themselves thin and lost the initiative against overwhelming numbers. He eventually retreated to Kagoshima, where he and the last of his soldiers were killed. The end of the Seinan War marked the practical end of the samurai, and the Japanese state moved resolutely ahead in its modernization, industrialization, and imperialism.
But let’s go up and take a look at the keep. Interestingly, the museum inside isn’t very impressive. Clearly Kumamoto has been spending its efforts on restoring other buildings instead. But there is a view of the city.
So much more to see…but I better save that for later.
♣ Spoilers. All the spoilers.
♦ While I try to keep things tame on my normal posts, I will get very profane here.
♥ All screen captures fall under the rubric of Title 17, Section 107 of the United States Code as regards Fair Use of copyrighted materials for critique and parody.
For the first entry in In Too Deep, let’s dive right in without too much prefacing. Cold open, if you will.
So it’s 1962. Maybe you’ve read the Ian Fleming novels before, or maybe you’re just here for an action flick. But even if you know “Dr. No” the book cover to cover, nothing can prepare you for…
Sci-fi electronic bloops and a wandering white circle like a searchlight give way to strangely placid chimes and a well-dressed man walking through empty space, seen through the barrel of a gun. He suddenly leaps to action and fires at the camera, the odd calm shattered by a loud gunshot. A wash of stylized bright blood comes down in silence. Then BAM! The triumphant, arrogant brass swell of the theme song!
Yes, it’s “The James Bond Opening.” Everybody knows “The James Bond Opening”, even if this one is a little different from the rest to come. But still, what the hell just happened? When you break it down, it’s an extremely surreal sequence. An abstract, stylized representation of assassin vs. assassin, rendered in the visual imagination of the 1960s. I really wish I knew how it felt to see something like that for the first time, more than half a century ago.
The credits are equally as stylish and abstract, with super-mod Technicolor shapes flashing in futuristic technological arrays, set to that classic Bond surf guitar. Though maybe it does look a little bit like a screen saver these days.
But then suddenly we’re in another credits sequence entirely, featuring tropical percussion and multicolored dancing silhouettes. And then it transforms into yet another sequence, with three blind men feeling their way past…a giant Mondrian painting out of focus? With a Caribbean-flavored rendition of “Three Blind Mice”?
Maybe the credits feel like three different sequences because the James Bond Theme is great but honestly pretty short, and they didn’t have any separate full-length songs ready to fill out the time. And if you have to keep shifting the music, might as well change the visuals too.
They could have used “Underneath the Mango Tree” though. Lord knows we’ll be hearing it so many times, it might as well be Dr. No‘s theme song.
This may be a lot of time to spend on the movie before it’s even truly started, but the intro and credits sequences are a staple of the 007 series, so it’s only proper to take a good look at them.
ON TO THE MOVIE
The credits segue very smoothly into the film as the three blind beggars jauntily feel their way through Kingston, Jamaica now that they’re out of the art gallery. Huh. This is odd. I thought we were in a James Bond movie. Why does the tone feel so different?
The three make their way to an exclusive gentlemen’s club, wherein are four very proper British men playing bridge. One of the fellows, a Strangways, excuses himself early to take a business call. He meets the Mice on his way out. As it turns out, they’re assassins and not blind at all, and blow him away with silenced gunfire before absconding with the body in a well-timed getaway hearse.
They drive to his house, where a woman is preparing to send a secret message via hidden radio. They smash in and coldly kill her too, but seem completely uninterested in the radio set- only the documents, especially a file titled DOCTOR NO.
Dun dun dunnnn!
Cut to a gloomy London twilight.
Inside a nondescript office building, a room full of busy radio operators. Strangways has of course failed to report, but the radio is still running, ruling out an electric failure. Foul play? The message is quickly relayed up the ranks, and the mechanism of MI6 moves into action.
Who ya gonna call? James Bond.
A fancy-ass London club, full of smoke and high-stakes society gamblers. So exclusive even the operative looking for Bond has to wait at the entrance. At a packed baccarat table, a striking woman in a red dress is the center of attention as she brazenly plays for high stakes, only to get cleaned out by a mysterious stranger. He asks her name: “Trench, Sylvia Trench”.
And then yeahhh, there it is. Sean Connery, cool and aloof like an old noir character, cigarette drooping from his mouth. “Bond, James Bond”. One of the greatest film introductions ever.
Though wait…is Bond just mimicking her introduction? Is Sylvia Trench arguably responsible for that famous line?
They definitely seem like kindred spirits as they banter and up the ante. The calling card from MI6 comes, and she eagerly follows him right out as he cashes a fat stack of cash. They’re really coming on to each other, and arrange a date for another day.
Entering the Universal Exports office we meet Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, one of the long-running characters over at MI6. As chief M’s secretary, she’s the intermediary and liaison between Bond and the top. She and Bond are apparently very close, as they enjoy bantering and teasing one another. But she seems a lot more like an old friend than a hopeful lover. I really want to know how they met…
007 enters the posh office to be briefed by an acerbic M played by Bernard Lee, another long-standing actor in the series. As it turns out, Strangways was an important agent on a mission with the CIA, investigating a mysterious signal that seemed to be sabotaging the guidance systems of American rockets. In comes Boothroyd “The Armourer”, who is not Q and definitely not Desmond Llewelyn (the third piece of the MI6 equation). M asks Bond to take off his jacket, and Bond gives him an unusually surprised look, like he asked him to take off his pants instead.
It’s about his pistol. He’s being forced to retire his old trusty Beretta from the 1950s for the Walther PPK, the sidearm he’ll become famous for. There’s an extremely bizarre dialogue dub where M’s voice stiltedly says MI7 when his mouth clearly says MI6. MI7, the defunct pre-WWII propaganda section? Why? They can’t have really been trying to avoid mentioning MI6 for politically sensitive reasons, can they? After all, it’s too late for that- the film already mentioned them in the radio room. Actually, the dub is so crammed in it sounds more like he’s saying “M.I. Seconds”.
Bond gets back to his lush, expansive apartment (Jesus, how much would a place like that cost in 21st-century London?), and immediately gets the sense someone’s broken in. It’s Sylvia, just playing golf in his flat to pass the time like it’s no big deal, even though she wasn’t invited that evening. He has to go in a few hours, but she convinces him to take a little break first. Woman’s got gonads of steel.
Funny, isn’t it? The first woman James Bond beds in the movies, and she’s the one who really puts the moves on him. There have been some good leading ladies, and even some crafty spies among Bond women. But in this very first outing, we already have a decent approximation of an actual female James Bond, in attitude if not in profession.
A quickie, and then off by Pan Am to Jamaica! Fresh off the plane, everyone seems suspicious. A tall guy with sunglasses hanging around and hiding behind a newspaper, a young photographer who tries to snap Bond’s face, and the slightly awkward driver sent to pick him up all seem to be creeping on 007. Getting a hunch, he telephones the capitol to ask about the driver they sent…and they haven’t sent anybody. Bond gets this dastardly grin, and gets in the car anyway. He’s in his element, after all.
The cinematography is perfect, with nice long takes, great composition, and tons of details. It took me a few viewings before I realized just how many times the photographer is hanging around in the background. Check it out- she’s the one in turquoise!
Sunglasses Guy gets in a car of his own and hurries after them, but Bond’s driver quickly loses them on a country side road. The driver clearly isn’t a professional goon, however. He’s very nervous and a bad liar, and Bond kicks his ass easily when he goes for a pistol. But his agent instincts surprisingly fail him when he lets the guy take a final cigarette, and he takes some hidden cyanide. Sloppy work, Jim.
He brings the car, dead body and all, right to Government House like it’s no big deal. On consulting with the colonial officials (oh yeah, this was when Jamaica was still a British colony!), it turns out the driver wasn’t Jamaican and his car was stolen. Time to dig deeper. Checking out the crime scene at Strangways’ house, Bond notices a receipt for a geological sample test from a Professor Dent, one of Strangways’ bridge partners.
The police commissioner doesn’t know why he’d want a rock sample tested, though. There’s also a fishing picture of Strangways with a boat pilot who happened to be Sunglasses Guy’s driver earlier. Curious indeed.
After all that, it’s finally time for 007 to freshen up and unwind with a martini before meeting Strangways’ bridge partners, apparently the last people to see him besides the killers. But first, he thoroughly inspects his room and lays down little bits of powder and hair so he’ll know whether anyone’s been trespassing while he’s away. It’s neat to see James Bond doing some real detective work, being deliberate and resourceful.
Meeting with the players at the club, Dent raises a few eyebrows right away when he makes a comment about Strangways’ late secretary, the secret radio operator. He’s “seen her around?” I thought she was new on station…
Anyway, Strangways had become obsessed with fishing recently, and his chartered pilot, the man in the photo, was named Quarrel.
Bond goes to the docks to see Quarrel, but the man just stonewalls him, refusing to give a straight answer about anything. He follows Quarrel to a beach bar where Quarrel seems to know the owner, nicknamed “Puss-Fella”, very well. Quarrel agrees to talk with Bond in a supply shed, only for him and Puss-Fella to hold him at knifepoint. A good fighter, 007 throws them off with his judo-fu, only to be held up by the man with the sunglasses. It’s actually Felix Leiter! Him, Quarrel, and Puss-Fella are all working for the CIA, and were only creeping on Bond because they suspected he was a mole.
So everyone’s been working on the same case this whole time?! Jesus, MI6 and the CIA really need to work on communicating better with each other! That’s what allies are for! All this mutual suspicion could have really ruined everyone’s shit if one of them ended up killing another!
Well, water under the bridge.
Later that night, Puss-Fella is hosting a big dance party where Bond, Leiter, and Quarrel confer at a private table. The suspicious photographer with the smoldering gaze is there as well.
Also this guy on the left.
Everyone’s getting into the music, but this guy is just freaking out and going insane! You can even see from the screencap, some of the other extras are just looking over their shoulders in sheer bemusement. Is that just how this one guy always dances? Did someone spike his drink? Put a big spider down his pants?
Or maybe he just decided to relish his time as an extra and photobomb the movie.
Whatever the case, your screen presence lives on, Uncredited Crazy Dr. No Dancing Guy! Bravo.
Back to the serious business. With the Space Race in full swing, NASA is very concerned about the success of its upcoming moon probe, and the agents are running out of time to ferret out the rocket interference. Their conversation is interrupted by the snooping photographer who grabs a picture of them all at the table and swiftly moves on to…
Okay, not all serious business. The Dancing Guy is still at it.
I’m really glad the filmmakers gave him another scene. Bless you, man.
Quarrel brings the photographer over to the table so Bond can check her film. Fiercely defiant to the end, she sticks to her story and goes so far as to cut Quarrel up with a broken flashbulb. He shrugs it off like a boss, but there’s nothing they can get out of her, so he turns her loose.
Back to the conversation: in their search for the interference, Quarrel and Strangways had trouble with an island called Crab Key, owned by secretive Chinese magnate Dr. No, who mines aluminium ore there. Security is suspiciously tight: fishers and sailors disappear there, and they even have a search radar. Crab Key is where Strangways took his samples, the ones for which Professor Dent sent him that invoice. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Returning to his hotel, 007 is nearly bumped off by the Three Blind Mice hiding in the shadows. A passing car is the only thing that saves him, when they duck to avoid being spotted.
The next day, Bond visits Dent at his laboratory and shows him the sample invoice. The Professor explains geology was a hobby of Strangways’ and he was looking for valuable stones or minerals. But wait…remember during the investigation of Strangways’ house, the commissioner mentioned the spy had had no apparent interest in geology. Bond’s got that wolfish smirk again…he knows Dent is lying.
Sure enough, Dent is in on something. Bond’s little visit has spooked him, and he rushes off to the feared Crab Key even though he’s breaching a very strict protocol against traveling in daylight. For a bauxite mine, there sure are a lot of men with submachine guns.
The tense sense of anticipation builds- we’re going to meet the Big Bad at last.
Enter an expressionistic, surreal empty room where the only visible furniture is a wooden chair in the corner. Dent seems like a scared little man, shrinking into his chair as the deep, dour, menacingly calm disembodied voice of Dr. No dresses the professor down for his lapses. Is No in the room too, or is he only talking over a speaker system? The cinematography of this whole sequence is fantastic.
No directs Dent to the only thing else in the room, a simple table with a big spider in a cage, which he handles gingerly.
I’ve heard complaints about how long Dr. No takes to actually introduce even the mere voice of its villain, but I think the pacing is great with that slow, deliberate buildup. As we shall see in a later movie, it’s far far better than the opposite: showing us everything way too soon. This is the point where James Bond enters full swing, blooming from a gritty, intimate detective story into a world of impossible lairs and supercrooks.
Back at the hotel. The attendant eagerly watches him go to his room.
As expected, someone has been through Bond’s room, trying their best not to leave a trace but leaving the telltale signs. He goes to pour himself a drink, but wisely discards the open bottle of vodka. Instead, he just cracks a fresh one open! I mean sure, the other one might have been poisoned, but dammit man, 007 needs his drink!
In the fitful heat of night, something moves under his sheets. It’s not a perverted ghost, it’s…OH SHIT A SPIDER!
OK, so maybe tarantulas aren’t generally lethal. Could have fooled me, though. Apparently neither Connery nor his stunt double wanted to deal with the arachnid. It’s why it doesn’t seem to move when Bond squirms- it’s on a pane of glass above him.
Sweating bullets, he waits for the spider to get back onto the sheets before flipping it off and smacking the shit out of it with his shoe. Every time he whacks it, there’s a brass hit from the soundtrack. It must be one of those musical spiders.
After that eventful day, Bond has plenty of leads and it’s time to just pull the colonial government’s files on No and Crab Key. But Strangways was the last man to borrow them and now they’re gone- that’s why the Mice burglarized his house. Moreover, the file clerk Miss Taro seems to be up to something, snooping in on the conversation. Having noticed, Bond simply puts on the charm offensive and asks her out on a date.
Bond also received a diplomatic package from London, containing a plain Geiger counter (sorry, no Q gadgets here). He heads back to the docks to check Quarrel’s boat, with him and Leiter watching. Bond finds it’s been radioactively contaminated by the samples Strangways brought back from Crab Key. Of course, that’s something Dent didn’t mention in their last meeting. They really need to get to that island soon, but Quarrel’s reticent to go back to that dangerous place. Is it the radiation? No’s armed guards? No, apparently there’s a dragon.
“WHAT?” says Sean.
It’s a plot point that makes no sense. Mythical creatures don’t really work with the universe of James Bond, really clashing with its grittier flesh-and-blood elements as well as its more fantastical technological elements. So we know it can’t be a real dragon. But why would Quarrel, an experienced man and trusted agent for the CIA, believe in something so far-fetched? It just doesn’t gel.
Back at the hotel, Bond has a call waiting from Taro. She invites him to drive over to her house rather than meeting at the hotel.
But now he’s being tailed- it’s the Three Blind Mice in their getaway hearse! Whipping around dusty mountain switchbacks, they suddenly run into road work. Bond drives his jaunty little roadster straight under the construction excavator, but the Mice’s bulky vehicle has no chance, swerves off the road…and just explodes, from the inside of the passenger cabin, no less!
“How did it happen?” asks the workman. That’s a really good question.
Taro’s shocked to see Bond show up at her door. After all, her invitation was supposed to be a setup. 007 is a bit of a bastard, forcing his way into her house and perving on her. But he knows she’s working for No and is determined to stall her for time. Taro gives in to his advances, determined to stall him as well until the next assassin can show up.
After sex, Taro wants to stall him further with dinner, but he’s determined to eat out, calling a cab despite having come by car. What’s he up to? Also is it just me, or is Sean Connery really menacing when he smiles and lowers his voice?
They leave the house all done up, but surprise!, that taxi is actually the cops, and Bond simply hands Taro over to the commissioner. Damn smooth agent work, if you ask me.
Bond goes back into the house to play the waiting game, rearranging the furniture and setting up a decoy in bed to make it look like he’s asleep. More savvy, resourceful agent work in this film. Eventually an assassin does come in, emptying his silenced pistol into the bed. It’s the Professor! Bond confronts Dent, but he slowly gets his gun off the floor as he talks, before faking him out in the middle of revealing his employers and shooting.
But Bond is unconcerned. He knows Dent used up all his ammo in that assassination attempt. He wastes the guy away anyway, not even bothering to get up from his seat.
All this action has made Bond late for the expedition to Crab Key, much to the chagrin of Felix Leiter. They finally set out in the dead of day-for-night. Leiter goes back so he can contact his people, and Bond and Quarrel row onto the island silently. I see Quarrel brought his jug-o-rum as well. Rather than sneak around under cover of darkness, they decide to catch some Zs. Really? Right now? James Bond never sleeps when he’s got partying to do, but he’ll snooze in enemy territory when he’s on the job?
Well, it does let the moviemakers shoot in the daytime, there is that.
Bond awakes in the morning to witness this:
And she’s singing…Mango Tree?
Seriously, is that, like, the only song people know in Jamaica? We’ve heard at least three separate sung renditions so far, not to mention little uses as a motif.
Bond startles her by starting to sing along, and has to convince her he’s not a threat. “I can assure you my intentions are strictly honourable.” That’s one of the most quintessentially Connery lines ever.
Her name is Honey Ryder, the first in a grand tradition of outrageous 007 ladies’ names. She’s on Crab Key to collect rare (possibly illegal) seashells for sale to collectors. She usually has no problem slipping in and out of the forbidden island, but Bond knows that with all the recent activity No’s security is bound to be on a hair trigger.
Sure enough, Quarrel’s spotted a patrol boat. Everyone hides, and paramilitary goons show up to try and call them out, raking the beach with full-on machine gun fire before leaving empty-handed.
The conversation suddenly turns towards that dragon. Apparently Honey believes in it too, and she’s even seen it. But come on, we all know it won’t be real, and so does Bond, who gives a rational, skeptical reply. She talks about the crazy things she’s seen living creatures do, implying that James doesn’t know nearly as much about the world as he thinks. I suppose that’s true, but all the examples she uses are of animals that actually exist- that’s no reason to just assume the dragon is real as well. Just swap out the dragon in her statements for Bigfoot or leprechauns and see how little sense it makes. The whole dragon thing is really becoming a big distraction from the story.
Bond and Quarrel want Honey to escape quickly so they can continue their mission, but her boat is now riddled with holes. She also knows Crab Key well, so she might as well tag along. Quarrel ditches the rum, though. For shame! Captain Jack Sparrow would be disappointed!
The three wander deeper upriver into the sweltering jungle while 007 is savaged by mosquitoes.
Bugs: James Bond’s worst enemy!
No’s troopers come back with dogs, and Bond comes up with an ingenious trick to hide underwater by using cane reeds as snorkels. One guy almost stumbles upon them, but a startled flock of birds elsewhere in the jungle diverts the search party’s attention.
Luck: James Bond’s best friend!
One goon stays behind, however, and Bond has to sneak up and dispatch him from behind.
Having lost the patrol, our heroes venture onwards.
They eventually stumble upon…dragon tracks?
Bond and Honey get to talking about their lives. Her father was a marine researcher who disappeared on Crab Key- likely No’s doing. Take note because the movie will never bring it up again. Orphaned after his death, she’s learned to live alone and take care of herself despite a tragic life.
And now I really have to let loose and talk about the dragon.
We know for sure it’s a vehicle now. Earlier I rhetorically asked why Quarrel, an experienced sailor and trusted agent for the CIA, would possibly think a truck was a dragon. Now we know Honey Ryder was the daughter of a scientist who traveled the world, and she reads the encyclopedia in her spare time. How about such entries as A for Automobile? T FOR TRUCK!
These people aren’t isolated tribesfolk with no prior contact with industrial societies. For fuck’s sake, BOTH OF THEM KNOW WHAT MOTOR VEHICLES ARE! Their characterization doesn’t make any sense, unless…
I really don’t want to overreach in my analysis, and I do hate it when “cultural critics” politicize works of entertainment and use dubious selective interpretations to impute uncharitably negative motives to them.
But let’s be honest, good old-fashioned paternalistic chauvinism is the only reason I can think of that these characters are portrayed as believing in such a stupid thing, in a movie without a hint of the supernatural. The native islander and the woman are noble and savvy, but essentially infantile and superstitious. They’ll readily believe in any crazy notion, absent a European man’s level-headed appraisal.
What other mindset could possibly create characters like this, in a story that’s otherwise well-crafted and generally respectful to its characters and locales? Things have changed in the half century since Dr. No came out, leaving the dragon plot element simply feeling…wrong.
Quarrel interrupts the reverie to announce the dragon is coming quick, so they set out to see it…and keep going…and keep going…
If it’s quick and nearby, why do they seem to be walking for so long? This whole middle act on Crab Key could really do with some snappier editing.
But there it is at last, in the middle of a swamp. And yes, of course it’s a fucking truck. That looks like something from a monster truck show.
Of course, Quarrel stubbornly maintains it’s a dragon even after hearing it speak English from a loudspeaker and rev up its diesel engine. See my big diatribe above. If Dr. No’s people had painted the truck red and white and given it a big hat, would Quarrel and Honey have thought Santa Claus was guarding Crab Key?
Quarrel quickly comes to his senses and tries to help Bond take out the monster truck, but they just can’t do enough damage with their pistols. Quarrel is killed, and Bond and Honey have no choice but to surrender to guys in clean suits.
Conveyed via Truckasaurus into the secret base, the two are scanned for radiation, hosed down and stripped of their contaminated clothes. Wow, this is going to be an intense scene where the heroes are dehumanized as captives of the antagonist, at the low point in the second act. Right?
“For healthy, natural, beautiful hair, try SPECTRE.”
“Now also introducing new SPECTRE for Men.”
This is supposed to a radioactive scrubdown, not a glamour shot! I haven’t seen Austin Powers in years, but didn’t the first movie parody this scene a little when Austin gets thawed out of cryofreeze? Without any weight and significance to it, this scene is completely pointless. In fact, the whole second act of the movie is still dragon. GET IT?!
But suddenly everything gets very surreal.
Honey and James are ushered through a purple-lit cave and thick coppery vault doors to meet…the bizarrely motherly reception staff for a subterranean guest quarters. What a mindjob!
They’re shown to a stylish double suite immaculately prepared for them, including tailored outfits. They’re to join Dr. No for dinner. So, prison in style, eh?
And wait…this means those goons on the patrol boat weren’t bluffing when they asked our heroes to come out of hiding? They actually just wanted to have Bond and company over for tea? Wow, if they had surrendered on the beach, Quarrel might still be alive.
There’s a light breakfast ready for them, but the coffee has been drugged and they pass out. Why? Dr. No could have had our heroes simply restrained, detained in simple rooms, or just given knockout gas in that purple cave for the extra supervillain touch. Why go to all the trouble of furnishing hospitable lodging for your foes if you just want to knock them out anyway before meeting them?
Then, in the middle of the night, a creepy figure with immaculately pressed pants enters…and just watches Bond sleep.
When Bond and Honey awaken, the hospitality is there to get them ready for their big date. They dress somewhat garishly in a Nehru jacket and pink Shanghai blouse respectively.
They ascend to a master bedroom with the strangest clashing decor.
Enter the Slender Man himself. Tall, skinny, ramrod-straight…and white? You can tell he’s extremely proud of everything he’s done, despite his stern flattened affect. Right away, Bond tries to get under his skin.
DATED REFERENCE EXPLANATION: This Goya painting had actually been stolen from the London National Gallery the year before. It was eventually returned by an elderly retiree who claimed he had stolen the painting to protest BBC licence fees. Not as spectacular as a secret mastermind, but still rather fascinating.
Over dinner, No tells his life story. The abandoned son of a German missionary and a Chinese society lady, he worked his way up through the Chinese underworld to become a triad treasurer, before running off with all their gold. Pretty big enemies to make. He’s also got a keen interest in nuclear power- a radiation accident accounted for the loss of his hands, and the reactor that powers the Crab Key base is the source of all the mysterious contamination.
Before he tells Bond any more, he bids his goons to throw Honey in the dungeons. The tense calm of the dinner is shattered as Bond rather panickedly (is that a word?) leaps up from his chair for a fight, but he’s at a complete disadvantage and is shown back to his seat.
I do really like how much James is trying to piss off Dr. No. He critiques No’s taste in vintage champagne, and brings up his missing hands. Really ballsy. He is pretty angry at the guy, and after all his razor tongue is the only weapon he has right now. Maybe he’s hoping he can get No to lose his cool. If he taunts him, he may become so cross he makes a mistake, to paraphrase a certain movie for the second time in this review.
No reveals he works for no known world power, but a secret organization called…SPECTRE! So that’s why he’s not afraid of the Chinese mob- he’s got even nastier friends! It also means, somewhat ominously, that for all his power and menace there are others like him, and he’s not even at the top of the pyramid! So begins the great classic saga of the original 007 films, a continuity that will be kept through the 1960s.
Despite his perpetual calm, it’s clear No’s conceit is easily wounded. Bond continues to needle him, shrugging off No’s respect for him and rebuffing his offers of SPECTRE employment. No finally grows tired of him, labeling him “just another stupid policeman.”
That may just be the greatest insult anyone’s ever dealt James Bond.
With preparations beginning for the moon launch sabotage, No leaves while his troops kick the shit out of James and lock him in a cell.
The obvious vent is electrified and throws Bond across the room, but still so flimsy he can pat it open with shoes on his hands. Gotta go with union contractors next time, SPECTRE. The tunnels on the other side are bizarrely full of weird cosmic bloops. Are we supposed to infer 007 is claustrophobic? Is it all in his head? What the hell’s going on? Then, out of nowhere, a great cascade of water! He crawls around the bend to find another grate opening into that decontamination room from earlier.
But wait…the shots clearly show Bond crawling forwards and then around a corner. That is to say, consistently on the same level. So does water just burst out of air vents and flood rooms in Dr. No’s secret base all the time? Hope all the sensitive machinery is waterproof. God, the mold problems must be awful.
Bond jumps a technician and snags himself a cleansuit so he can slip into the master control room. Helpfully, it covers most of his face so he can blend in. The room is a classic Ken Adam set design, blending technical details with that surreal modernist style. That exposed swimming-pool reactor just in the middle of the room seems odd, but isn’t actually as implausible as it seems, resembling some of the crude nuclear test rigs of the 1950s. It does make blooping noises, the classic 1960s sound effect indicating technology.
Everyone has their silly suits on, and Dr. No is personally there at the helm. They’re watching the launch they’re about to sabotage live via newsfeed.
SPACE GEEK POINT!: The newscast mentions this is a Mercury launch, but Mercury was absolutely incapable of going to the moon, and the video footage shows what’s almost certainly a Titan I missile.
Amidst all the activity, Bond stands there nervously, absolutely unsure of what he’s supposed to do. Luckily, No mistakes him for the guy he took out, and tells him where to go, atop the reactor assembly next to a guy whose suit makes him look like some sort of marshmallow man.
And I’ve just realized another thing about Dr. No that seems odd now. Julius No is Chinese, I get that. Why are all his employees Chinese or at least Asian-y? SPECTRE isn’t Asian. Sure, maybe No’s got connections from his triad days that made it easy for him to hire from the Chinese underworld. But even Taro, the mole inside the Jamaican Government House, is supposed to be Chinese. There is a strange, racialized vibe to the way the villain seems to bring “his kind” with him to do his villainy, no matter where he goes. Another example of old, outdated mentalities in film?
The countdown is running out for the American launch. With no time to figure out something more elegant, Bond simply turns the reactor to the DANGER LEVEL, sending the room into a panic. As the rocket blasts off safely, No rushes up to fight Bond himself, on top of the reactor rig. The fight is quick but appropriately intense, with the weight of the two causing them to sink down towards the boiling coolant pool. No’s heavy hands pack a wallop, but when Bond clambers to safety, he has no grip and slides under the steaming surface. That’s a hell of a first villain sendoff.
Titan I Mercury moon probe is streaming triumphantly into the sky, but that reactor didn’t have a DANGER setting for nothing.
Armed henchmen and techs are fleeing everywhere, but nobody seems to care about Bond anymore in the panic. Not with a meltdown on their hands. Bond frantically locates a staffer who knows where Honey was locked up, some sort of water chamber where she is slowly being flooded. They flee to the surface mine, where everything is on fire for some reason.
An impressive number of extras are running in the chaos and leaping into the sea. Our duo commandeers a small boat and gets away before:
Time elapse, and Bond and Honey are stranded at sea without fuel. But at least they can have sex now. Huzzah!
In due time, Felix Leiter and a platoon of jolly soldiers come in to give them a tow. But the two heroes decide they want another go, and undo the tow line.
So there’s Dr. No, first in a long line of movies. What do I think?
I think I’ll start with the negatives first, since that means we’ll always end on a high note.
The dragon plot line is definitely the worst thing about the film. It’s dumb, doesn’t fit the overall tone of 007’s story world, distracts from the main plot, and as I’ve mentioned betrays a rather outdated approach to characterization.
Honey Rider, though visually iconic, is essentially pointless as a character. She does nothing of consequence in the plot, and that thing about Dr. No killing her father is mentioned once and then completely forgotten with no resolution, meaning she has practically no character arc.
The whole second act, starring both Honey and Truckasaurus, goes on for far too long and is in dire need of some snappier editing.
The early 1960s cinematography can be truly outdated, with plenty of sloppy mid-scene jump cuts and awkward, disjointed dialogue dubs. Honestly, the first time I watched Dr. No, I thought there was dust or damage on my disc, that’s how pervasive it is.
The soundtrack is also pretty unremarkable, and clearly dates from an age when movie music wasn’t seen as nearly important as it is nowadays. The James Bond theme is cool in all its variations, and adds a lot of swagger and style to the scenes where it shows up. But the rest of the score is the sort of basic 1960s “suspense” stuff that would sound just as at home in a period cartoon like Jonny Quest or Space Ghost.
But there’s so much to like about Dr. No.
When the cinematography’s good, it’s great, featuring long takes, nice camera movement, complex scenes full of extras, and great perspectives. Ken Adam produces some great expressionistic sets, and would go on to be a long-standing member of the 007 crew, responsible for a good deal of its visual iconography. The location shots are lush, full of character, and give Jamaica a pretty respectful treatment, especially considering the colonial mentalities of half a century ago.
The movie has a far slower and more deliberate pace than later Bond films. It’s a rather intimate and personal detective story, making the buildup into spectacular supervillain territory feel not only well earned, but even surprising and exciting. James Bond relies on his resourcefulness, intellect, and skill with people a lot more than some of his later outings. This makes him seem both dangerous and vulnerable at the same time, and gives the whole movie a greater sense of actual espionage.
Those characteristics make the first act pretty much brilliant, in the same way the major complaints made the second act flounder for me.
The cast are great, not only Connery as Bond but all the villains and creeps, allies in the field, and MI6 stalwarts. They not only lend personality to their roles, but set trends and helped create film tropes, helping create archetypes of enemies and allies.
In fact, this whole movie is a trendsetter. The characters, the plot, the tone and subject matter, the sense of style, even the theme song! All became things other genre pics emulated, parodies riffed on, and even people who don’t care about 007 have been familiar with for decades. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say Dr. No changed movies. This one is the instigator, the originator.
I’d go so far as to say it’s required watching for anyone who is earnestly interested in the history of Western cinema, mass media, or popular culture.
Not bad for a relatively low-budget picture with muted expectations. But they were only getting started.
A pleasant autumn day back in Nara, heart of the Japanese polity in the 8th century, when Kyoto was just an open plain!
I always walk through Kofukuji when I’m in Nara. One of the grand original temples of the Heijo Capital, it retains many of its renowned national treasures despite losing some of its ground to the fires of war over the centuries.
But on this particular day, I wanted to seek out some of the fainter traces of history, places where only a little is left.
Gangoji, another of the original city temples, was a truly gigantic compound more at the southeast corner of the old capital. The fires erased almost all of it. One small priests’ dormitory on the east side of the temple survived to become the new main hall of a greatly diminished Gangoji in medieval Nara Town.
As my earlier comments suggested, there was a bit of discontinuity between the ancient capital of Heijo and the medieval town of Nara, even though the area was continuously populated throughout its history. The old town of Nara is still the heart of the city, around the ancient temples and downtown area. But the original capital was actually a bit further west, a little removed from the modern cityscape.
Oddly enough, it was Kofukuji that contributed to the end of the Heijo Capital. Heijo was home to the main “Six Schools” of Buddhism, and Kofukuji was headquarters of the influential Hosso sect. A priest named Dokyo got very close to the reigning empress after healing her, gathering power until he managed to get himself selected to be the new emperor. The court managed to intervene and get him exiled, and it was decided that the imperial capital simply had to move away from the power center of the religious institutions to retain its independence.
It was this that lead to the founding of Heian (Kyoto), and the state approval of the emergence of Mt. Hiei‘s Tendai Buddhism and Mt. Koya’s Shingon Buddhism, as new religious sects that could take power away from the old temples. With these shifts, Japan entered a new era in the 9th century.
Without the imperial court, the town of Nara re-centered around its temples, leaving the capital lands to the grasses and winds.
When my family came to visit, I knew I’d have to go hiking with my sister. I decided on Hiei because it meant the rest of the family could join us at the top later. I’ve gone into detail about this holy mountain before, but it definitely warrants another post from another season, especially since I didn’t talk about the trail much last time.
I only had a little time in the temple of Enryakuji itself. See my older Hiei post for more.
When my family came to visit me earlier in August, I knew exactly what my top-priority destination was.
The keep of Himeji, Japan’s largest and most elaborate surviving feudal fortress, had just been reopened late spring after five years of restoration work. My family had never visited anywhere between Kobe and Hiroshima, my wife couldn’t remember ever having gone, and the last time I went the tower was still under wraps.
Old feudal Himeji’s city streets were centered and built around the fortifications. With the keep fully armed and operational, it’s abundantly clear how much the castle still dominates the city center.
Himeji was kept under a confusing “revolving door” of various lordly families in feudal days, and now I can guess why. Under a system where fortifications were highly regulated to keep the daimyo in check, perhaps the Tokugawas didn’t want anyone getting too comfortable with such a huge fortress.
A rather unique feature among surviving Japanese castles, the west wall served as the domain ladies’ quarters in addition to being a defensive bulwark. It was open while the keep was under wraps- check out my photos from the last visit.
One of the reasons for Himeji’s gigantic fortifications was because the castle was actually at a disadvantageous and difficult position to defend. With all those forested hills and mountains so close, line of sight was limited and attackers could “sneak up” closer to the walls before initiating combat. Himeji Castle needed withering firepower and a grueling climb to penetrate the keep.
Apparently the lordly family ran out of quality stone for building such huge fortifications, and in their desperation added millstones, stone hand tools…and even pilfered ancient tombs for their sturdy stone coffins. There are a few ghost stories circulating about Himeji Castle, actually…
One last look at the castle on the way out, showing the multiple towers and zigzagging walls. We spent a good five hours on the castle grounds, wearing out our feet and exploring one of Japan’s most unique sites.
I’ve posted about Arashiyama a few times here, even posted some of these very same vistas before. But every time, every year, is a little different. Sometimes dramatically so. And it’s been too damn long since I dropped by.
After a brisk hike filled with giant bees(!), I rented a bike to ride out to the very northwest corner of town, where Arashiyama narrows down to one mountain pass.
With the evening growing late and rain slowly rolling in over the mountains, time to soak my feet at an open bath and head home.
The area around Fukuoka has a long and multilayered history I could never do justice to. In fact, it predates written language in Japan to the extent that the early chapters are still hazy and told mainly through archaeology. This may be where the Yamato tribe originally held sway, before sailing to what is now Kansai to gradually develop into the imperial Japanese state. So while Kansai was the heartland of Heian Japan, the Fukuoka area had some very close old ties to the imperial court. As Kansai’s centers of power were Heian (Kyoto) and Heijo (Nara), this region had Hakata (Fukuoka) and Dazaifu. While Hakata was the major city and port of call, Dazaifu was the administrative center, a sort of “secondary capital” with authority over Kyushu and a prestige that lasted even after the fall of the old imperial order in the 12th century.
Slowly fading into obscurity during the Edo Period, it became a small rural village, until the expansion of metropolitan Fukuoka turned it into a burgeoning suburb on the city’s southern edge. The old capital district is now an open field, but the grand shrine Dazaifu Tenmangu remains.
Dazaifu Tenmangu is one of the most significant shrines to Tenjin, originally the 10th-century aristocrat Sugawara no Michizane. Exiled from the court at Kyoto in a power play, he died here in Dazaifu- following which death, fire, and storms reputedly stalked his rivals. It was said he had returned as a god of thunder, and he was enshrined to placate his vengeance. The main shrine is Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto, but Dazaifu is also very important for being Michizane’s gravesite.
Back in Fukuoka, we made our way to the west side of downtown to the old feudal part of the city.
Fukuoka (or Maizuru) Castle was a very large fortification built on the site of a former Heian consular house, a unique layout with rambling, asymmetrical walls and a lagoon on the western edge. Most of the buildings were demolished in the anti-feudal frenzy of the new Meiji government in the 1870s, and the castle grounds are now covered with baseball diamonds and tennis courts. The fortifications themselves are not very well-traveled.
Two historic structures survive, however.
The castle offers a pretty good view of the cityscape.
Then an exhausted walk back to the station to fly home.
An interesting, vibrant city with old history and great food. I’d love to come back for a longer stay, especially when it’s warmer.