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Sean Connery was a friend, more than a star: Japanese assistant director to Bond film

Sean Connery, left, who came to shoot on location in Japan for the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice," with Japanese assistant director Kazuto Kawabe. (Photo courtesy of Kazuto Kawabe)

FUKUOKA -- A former Japanese assistant director who took part in making the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice" with Sean Connery spoke about his memories of the late Scottish actor to the Mainichi Shimbun, saying, "I wish I could've seen him again."

    Kazuto Kawabe, 89, who was the former head of a screenwriting institute run by the Shochiku film studio in Japan, spoke to the Mainichi on Nov. 1, the day after he received the news that Connery had died. "Connery was difficult to please, and a loner. But he also had a companionable side to him," Kawabe recalled.

    When the 1967 film "You Only Live Twice" was filmed on location in Tokyo, the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo, and the southwestern prefecture of Kagoshima, among other places in Japan, Kawabe had been chosen to be an assistant director on the Japanese crew for his ample experience filming in the air and in water. When he introduced himself in English to Connery, Kawabe says the actor responded by saying that Kawabe's English was better than his own.

    Kazuto Kawabe, who was the Japanese assistant director for the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice" starring Sean Connery, holds the script for the film in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward, on Nov. 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Masanori Hirakawa)

    Shooting with the British crew, who came from a very different cultural background from the Japanese crew, was not easy, Kawabe remembers. For example, in a scene in which Connery wore a yukata, or lightweight kimono, the British costume staff had tied his obi belt around his belly. Saying, "This is undignified. This should be tied at the hips," Kawabe re-tied the belt, as the costume staff watched, looking dissatisfied. "They probably thought of it in the same way as a western gown," Kawabe said.

    In another instance, British prop staff had laid out futons across the threshold of a sliding door. The late Japanese actor Tetsuro Tanba who was also in the film pointed out, "We would never do this," and had the staff rearrange the futon on the floor.

    During the approximately two-month-long shooting period, the British and Japanese staff grew friendly with each other. When shooting in the ocean in southwestern Kagoshima Prefecture, a small boat that Connery was on ran aground. Suddenly, the Japanese boatman became extremely upset, saying that the British staff were calling him stupid. What they were actually doing was calling for help by saying, "Back up!" which sounds like the Japanese word for stupid, "baka." When the misunderstanding was resolved, everybody was able to laugh together. During breaks in the shooting, Kawabe went swimming in the ocean with Connery.

    "There were few people who could casually talk to a big star like Connery, so he was somewhat of a loner. But there was a charming side to him, too, like when we saw each other for the first time in a while, he jabbed me on my side," Kawabe said.

    The script for the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice" starring Sean Connery, which has been carefully preserved by the Japanese assistant director for the film, Kazuto Kawabe, is seen here in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward on Nov. 1, 2020. Kawabe said that some portions of the script were significantly changed during shooting. (Mainichi/Masanori Hirakawa)

    The film, which had attracted attention from the time it was being shot, became a huge hit at the box office. There is a commemorative monument engraved with the autographs of Connery and Tanba in the Kagoshima Prefecture city of Minamisatsuma, where Connery and the crew were on location for the movie, making the place a "holy site" for fans of the movie. Even now, after more than half a century has passed since the movie hit theaters around the world, Kawabe is still very aware of how popular Connery is.

    "For me, Sean was more like a friend with whom I spent my youth with, than a star," Kawabe said. "The staff from that Bond movie all lived long lives, but he's finally gone ..." Kawabe looked with nostalgia at the script and schedules from the film that he has kept.

    (Japanese original by Masanori Hirakawa, Kyushu News Department)

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