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From Asian Faces to Asian Aesthetics: the Legacy of James Bond’s Anti-Asian Racism

Writing by Juules Bare. Illustration via Unsplash.

To say that the James Bond franchise has a complicated legacy would be an understatement as it has been riddled with controversies since its inception. The problematic depiction of women in the series has never been a secret and the films even seem to pride themselves on their misogyny; using women as props to enhance the image of Bond as the ultimate gentleman spy. However, there is at least a discourse on the objectification of women in Bond - what I’ve rarely seen is a discussion of the anti-Asian, specifically anti-East Asian, racism present in the series. Skyfall gave me hope that the films were moving in a positive direction with equality as it happens to be the film I associate least with the franchise’s history of rampant misogyny. But watching No Time to Die extinguished that hope.

No Time to Die appears to be a homage to the legacy of Bond, warts and all. The references to the Bond heritage are most apparent in its appropriation of Japanese aesthetics when constructing the character of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), the primary antagonist of the film. In this regard, the film finds its strongest affinity with the first Bond film ever made, Dr. No. This reference reinforces the feeling of finality that runs through the film as Craig’s final act has an antagonist that implicitly references Bond’s first on-screen nemesis.

In Dr. No, Bond faces off against a Chinese-German scientist named Julius No. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, considering the era it was produced in,) Joseph Wiseman (a white man) was cast in the role. Not only was a white actor cast as an Asian character, but makeup was used to change Wiseman’s features to approximate an Asian face, otherwise known as yellowface. The characterisation of Lyutsifer in No Time to Die represents a shift in how racist caricatures are presented. Instead of outright yellowface, the film uses Lyutsifer’s association with Japanese aesthetics to imply a racialised and gendered villainy specific to East Asian men.

Lyutsifer comes from a family of assassins who use poison as their weapon of choice. In his fortress of evil, he keeps a Japanese garden filled with various poisonous flora. His clothes approximate traditional Japanese dress and silhouettes. Crucially, the room he keeps Bond’s child Mathilde hostage in is a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats lining the floor. He sits seiza style across from a dishevelled Bond as he offers him his daughter in exchange for his lover, Madeleine. This bizarre association between Lyutsifer, the Russian super villain, and Japanese aesthetics clearly has a purpose when we remember the demonisation of East Asian men.

Yellow Peril refers to the racist fear that East Asian and Southeast Asian men pose an existential threat to the Euro-American way of living. They were classed as non-human, likened to animals or supernatural creatures. The myth that they would invade the West in huge numbers was regularly perpetuated. Yellow Peril was used as a political device to justify the invasion and colonisation of countries like China and Japan. Present in this manufactured fear is a sexual aspect. Metaphorically speaking, Yellow Peril is the fear of white civilisation becoming overpowered by Asian actors. The image of white women’s perceived fragility in opposition to the Asian man’s deviancy powered this ideology. Beyond sexual deviance, Asian men were also portrayed as “irregular” in their masculinity. Contrasted with their white counterparts they were consistently feminised. This is evident in the intersections between race and gender, particularly in regards to colonialism.

Lyutsifer’s need to use Mathilde, Madeleine and Bond’s daughter, as a bargaining chip to coerce Madeleine into staying with him is a facsimile of the sexual anxiety persistent in the Yellow Peril ideology. He steals Madeleine away from Bond but also is unable to keep her on his terms and must resort to manipulative behaviour. He is simultaneously presented as a danger and emasculated. Lyutsifer’s adoption of pseudo-Japanese aesthetics in these scenes enhances this reading. Consider that in the film, Bond is the prototypical white hero figure; now with the inclusion of Madeleine and Mathilde, he is firmly placed within the heterosexual nuclear family. Any deviation from the status quo represented by his previous playboy status has been erased. Contrasted with this, Lyutsifer’s pathetic attempt at maintaining control over Madeleine feminises him even more. Much less a man, according to Yellow Peril ideology, he is not even human.

In isolation, Lyutsifer’s character would not be raising any red flags. I would still be side-eyeing the aesthetic choices behind his character, but it would not go beyond that. It is James Bond’s legacy of appropriating first Asian bodies and now Asian aesthetics that makes Lyutsifer’s depiction so insidious. Rather than presenting an outright racist caricature, his character leans on implicit associations made between East Asian aesthetics and Orientalist villainy. This makes it easier to slip under the audience’s radar. Falling back on subconscious fears that have been ingrained through historical political practice is easier than creating compelling characters independently. The point of a franchise such as this one is to make money. In this industry, reducing risks by relying on societally deep-rooted fears about the other is a sure fire way to achieve that.

Now that Craig has finished his tenancy as Bond there has been a predictable wave of speculation surrounding who the next Bond will be. Some people are advocating for the diversification of the Bond franchise through race and gender blind casting. While the attempt is well intentioned, I don’t think the Bond character or the franchise at large can be detached from its past or the culture it has enmeshed itself in. More and more it is beginning to feel like a relic of a bygone era. The time of the gentleman spy has come to an end.

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