The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Cherry Blossom Affair”

Napoleon skulks around New York Airport, waiting for the arrival of famed geologist Dr. Grayson, who is carrying vital information stolen from THRUSH’s Eastern headquarters. Upon reaching the gate, Dr. Grayson looks about nervously for Napoleon, clutching a film canister to his chest. A young Japanese filmmaker, Cricket Okasada (The Joy Luck Club’s France Nuyen), who is carrying a film canister of her own, approaches him and asks for a light; visibly agitated, Dr. Grayson fumbles with his lighter. It’s a little startling to see Cricket casually puffing away in an airport terminal, but then again, this second-season episode hails from 1965, back when you could light up a cigarette pretty much wherever you damn well wanted. You know what you couldn’t do in 1965, though? You couldn’t meet a flight at New York Airport, because no such place existed: New York International Airport, more commonly known as Idlewild, was rechristened in honor of JFK in December 1963.

While Cricket chats with Dr. Grayson, a pair of THRUSH agents stage an ambush. A man posing as a photographer releases a cloud of smoke from his camera while a matronly Japanese woman in a kimono shoots and kills Dr. Grayson with a gun disguised as a parasol. Mistaking Cricket’s film canister for the one Dr. Grayson was carrying, they snatch it and escape.

And where’s Napoleon during all this? Predictably, he’s flirting with a sexy lady over by the bank of vending machines, blissfully unaware that the poor dude he’d been ordered to escort safely to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters is being brutally murdered five feet away from him. Oh, Napoleon, this isn’t good. You’ve been coasting on your good looks and rakish charm for far too long, and sooner or later, you’re going to have to start doing your job.

Back at headquarters, Mr. Waverly, Napoleon, and Illya screen Dr. Grayson’s smuggled film, which documents the attempts of scientists at THRUSH Eastern to perfect a device that can trigger volcanic eruptions. Waverly gives Napoleon and Illya their assignment: Destroy the device before THRUSH can use it to wreak havoc on the world. To do this, they’ll first have to find THRUSH Eastern’s top-secret headquarters. Waverly orders Napoleon to infiltrate a known THRUSH lair located inside a judo academy in Kiryū, Japan. Illya, meanwhile, will keep an eye on Cricket to see if she’s involved in THRUSH’s scheme.

Cricket, Waverly explains, works as a dubbing expert at a film studio. “Dubbing?” Illya asks, whereupon Napoleon immediately launches into an explanation: “That’s the process where a person from one country says lines on film for a person from another country—” Illya cuts him off mid-sentence, his tone dripping with contemptuous hauteur: “If there’s anything I can explain to you, don’t hesitate to call.”

Ooo, cold! Kind of hilarious, but cold! This might be worth pointing out: During the show’s wild heyday, multiple gossip magazines reported that, despite their startling and near-freakish onscreen chemistry, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum pretty much loathed each other. To this day, both actors vehemently deny all such rumors, insisting they are now and always have been close friends. However, per a report at this cool U.N.C.L.E.-centric website, guest star France Nuyen once claimed filming this episode was difficult, because Vaughn and McCallum refused to speak to each other. This adds some entertaining nuances to this throwaway moment in which Illya bites off Napoleon’s head for daring to presume he doesn’t understand the concept of dubbing.

In Japan, Harada (Jerry Fujikawa), the head of THRUSH Eastern, discovers that the film recovered at the airport is actually Cricket’s directorial debut. A visiting high-ranking representative from THRUSH Central named Kutuzov (ubiquitous character actor Woodrow Parfrey) is unimpressed by the ineptitude of Harada’s agents. I always hold my breath and prepare to wince during U.N.C.L.E. episodes set in Asia (or Africa, or the Middle East, or any location with a largely nonwhite population), because this show is—how shall I phrase this?—not always an unassailable source of thoughtful and even-handed racial representation. And yeah, the casual use of Japanese stereotypes throughout this episode, particularly in the depiction of Harada, is pretty egregious. However, at no point does Illya don yellowface to disguise himself as an Asian man, the way he does in both “The Hong Kong Shilling Affair” and “The Deep Six Affair”, so… it could be worse?

And for all this episode’s flaws, I’ll always be grateful to it for bringing us the glorious Cricket Okasada, who is brash and clever and mouthy. I love her madly, from her omnipresent cigarette to her fabulous proto-Princess Leia hair buns.

Cricket, who is desperately seeking the return of her stolen film, follows her only clue: Dr. Grayson’s cigarette lighter, which she traces to a novelty shop in Kiryū. She interrogates the shop owner (frequent U.N.C.L.E. guest star Dale Ishimoto), who stonewalls her. Suspicious, Cricket demands answers. As the shop owner discreetly summons THRUSH goons to detain her, Illya pops up out of nowhere. Posing as a Russian-accented American tourist, he brandishes a toy pistol topped with a cocktail umbrella and hustles Cricket out of the shop to safety.

While Cricket escapes, the THRUSH goons trap Illya in a locked room with a retractable floor over a pit of sharp metal spikes, which is exactly the sort of thing every novelty shop should have. Illya avoids a brutal death by dangling from the doorknob. Through a mixture of acrobatics and luck, he manages to escape, impaling one of the THRUSH goons on the spikes in the process.

Meanwhile, Napoleon loiters around in back alleys, scoping out the judo academy and chowing down on popcorn.

He sneaks into the academy, which turns out to be a training center for THRUSH goons. Check out those bowling bags emblazoned with the THRUSH bird logo! Look how cute those are! I love those. I want one of those. I can’t be the only one. I’m going to make my fortune recreating them and selling them on Etsy, right up until MGM’s legal department slaps me with a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

At the judo academy, the elderly sensei recognizes Napoleon on sight, because Napoleon is the world’s most indiscreet secret agent, and calls him to the front of the class to demonstrate his skills. Napoleon beats the crap out of the old man, then makes a break for it. A beautiful young woman in a kimono apprehends him and effortlessly clobbers him unconscious.

Illya visits Cricket at her film studio, where she’s in the middle of dubbing an episode of Dr. Kildare into Japanese. Here’s one of the many, many reasons to love Cricket: the way she keeps raising one hand like a claw and hissing at Illya, snakelike, whenever he interrupts her attempts at dubbing. Cricket is awesome. While Illya chats with Cricket, a representative of THRUSH calls and tells her to return to the novelty store if she wants her film back. Cricket is concerned about walking into an obvious trap; Illya reassures her everything will be fine. “Tell me, Mr. Kuryakin, are you talented in your profession?” she asks. “Yes,” Illya calmly lies.

Back at the judo academy, the elderly sensei ties Napoleon to a mattress frame mounted over sharpened bamboo shoots, which will skewer him to death as they grow. Oh, THRUSH, how I love you. You’re evil, sure, but you’re so gimmicky and ridiculous that it’s hard to take offense.

Cricket heads off to the novelty store to get her film back. Illya tries to follow her, but ends up arrested on suspicion of murder: THRUSH goons placed the corpse of the spike-impaled henchman in the backseat of his car and called the police. Illya is taken to headquarters and interrogated by a bunch of cheerfully inept police officers.

Upon seeing Illya hauled away by the cops, Cricket heads to the judo academy to find Napoleon. She frees him from the bamboo, whereupon they flirt outrageously for a while.

At THRUSH Eastern, Harada puts the finishing touches on the volcanic activator. For the activator’s trial run, he’s going to destroy Bulgaria, because he’s holding a grudge against the head of THRUSH’s Bulgarian office. Fair enough. When Kutuzov mentions that THRUSH Central will be taking control of the volcanic activator after the demonstration, Harada murders him to keep the activator in THRUSH Eastern’s hands.

Napoleon and Cricket head to the novelty store. Cricket is reluctant to walk into a trap, but Napoleon assures her she’s in no danger, as he’ll be waiting right outside. She heads into the shop and finds Kutuzov’s freshly-murdered corpse. Napoleon hears her startled screams and rushes inside, whereupon they’re both captured by heavily-armed THRUSH goons.

Good plan, Napoleon. How exactly was that supposed to work?

Strapping Napoleon to the mattress frame and slowly impaling him on bamboo was pretty ridiculous, but I know you, THRUSH: You can get more gimmicky and preposterous than that, right? Right? Damn straight. Harada, who owns a pair of life-sized sword-wielding samurai marionettes, strings Napoleon and Cricket up alongside his puppets, then duct-tapes a samurai sword to Napoleon’s wrist while cheerfully informing him of his plan: Following the demonstration of the volcanic activator, he’ll order his puppeteers to manipulate the marionettes to butcher Napoleon and Cricket to death.

Having been released from police custody, Illya poses as an air conditioning repair man and infiltrates THRUSH Eastern. He plants a bomb in the volcanic activator and blows it to smithereens right before the demonstration. Furious, Harada confiscates Illya’s gun and vows to kill him.

Meanwhile, Napoleon breaks free of the marionette strings, slaughters the puppeteers, and rescues Cricket. Samurai sword in hand, he storms off to rescue Illya. While Harada holds Illya at gunpoint, Napoleon raises his sword to his shoulder: “I think it’s only fair to warn you I threw the javelin in college.”

Unimpressed, Harada calls his bluff and fires at him. The gun turns out to be the one from the novelty store, the one that shoots cocktail umbrellas, which Illya has been carrying around this whole time, because Illya likes taking self-amusement to giddy new levels. U.N.C.L.E. agents rush the building and haul Harada off into custody.

This is it: We’ve reached the Tag Ending To End All Tag Endings. The episode wraps up with Mr. Waverly, Napoleon, and Illya watching Cricket’s recovered film. Napoleon snuggles on the couch with Cricket, who coyly asks him for details about his javelin-throwing days. Napoleon describes it as a “personal, intimate” kind of story and offers to tell it to her over cocktails. Cricket appears to be on the verge of accepting his invitation, and then Mr. Waverly swoops in with a counteroffer and asks Cricket to join him for tea. Cricket and Waverly swan out of the room, leaving Napoleon looking gobsmacked and crushed at having been blatantly cockblocked by his septuagenarian boss.

“I’d like to hear your story. Anytime,” Illya says to Napoleon, in what can only be described as a coquettish tone.

So, yeah. Illya just made a pass at Napoleon. That just happened. No room for misinterpretation. Oh, sure, they’ve flirted with each other before (see: “The Girls of Nazarone Affair”, “The See-Paris-And-Die Affair”, “The Ultimate Computer Affair”, etcetera, etcetera), but Illya, probably out of some strange mixture of self-amusement and boredom, just bumped things up to a bold new level. The episode fades out as Napoleon throws Illya a wary smile, confused yet intrigued by this turn of events.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., you are a priceless jewel of a show.


villanelle said…
These recaps are so fabulous. I'm especially pleased that you seem to share my fascination with the glorious, ridiculous wonder that is everything Robert Vaughn does as Napoleon Solo.

I adore this episode. Totally one of my favorites-- it has the best elaborately inefficient THRUSH deathtraps of all time, a cool innocent, AND some of the most blatant Illya/Napoleon flirtation of the whole series. And yes, I have been pining for a THRUSH bowling bag since the moment I first laid eyes on them. They are ADORABLE.
Illesdan said…
I have to say, this episode is probably the highlight of season 2 for me so far. So full of incompetence, so silly, so wonderful. Everything is perfect.

As much as I love reading your episode roundups, I'm really trying to only read what I've watched, and it's hard; believe me.

This ending... it's really no wonder fandoms minds rolled into the gutter and swam happily away into the sewer... I mean, I used to write Star Trek fiction, and never thought to slash fic those characters. But MFU? Damn... where was this back when I had time to write fiction? Oh, the fun I could have had!

Can I just say I love your screenshots of the episodes? They're actually what lead me to your blog. Now you'll never be rid of me. Sorry now, huh?
Morgan Richter said…
Villanelle, this is one of the greatest episodes ever for THRUSH's absolutely ridiculous and ineffective traps. The room with the retracting floor! The bamboo! The marionettes! I love it all. And those THRUSH bowling bags are perfect.

I could watch Robert Vaughn doing weird stuff all day long. Everything he does is wildly entertaining.

Illesdan, I'm very glad that the screenshots led you to this site! You're a very welcome addition around here. And yeah... that ending! Amazing.
Hamlette said…
Wow. Just... wow.

As someone somewhere once said (in a review of one of Sean Bean's Sharpe movies, IIRC), sometimes you have to hunt for the slash, and sometimes the slash finds you.
Illesdan said…
In this case, finds you and clubs you over the head to drag you down a dark alley way you won't soon return from.
Morgan Richter said…
Ha! Yeah. This is one of those episodes where no one needs to put their special slash goggles on -- the slash is right there in front of you, and it's not going to move until you pay attention to it.
Lily said…
I'd say this is one of my favorite episodes, half because of the pass Illya makes at Napoleon. It's amazing, because there's really no room for misinterpretation. One of my favorite things about the series is that, suddenly, Illya will occasionally blatantly flirt with Napoleon.

And half because of Cricket! A non-white female character! One that doesn't faint over Napoleon! Rather than being drawn in because Illya and Napoloen want to put her life in horrible danger,(I kid, I kid. Kinda of) she signs up to help of her own accord--to her film back. Definitely one of the best female characters! ^_^

Morgan Richter said…
Lily -- my fondness for this episode is almost entirely due to Cricket, who is wonderful. I have a handful of favorite female UNCLE characters, but Cricket is at the very top of the list. And Illya's pass at Napoleon is so magnificent and startling that I can forgive this episode all of its flaws just for that.
Anonymous said…
This episode is airing right now on the Heroes & Icons channel.

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