24 Weeks of Bond: You Only Live Twice

Art by Paul Mann

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: You Only Live Twice, released in 1967. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (Sink the Bismarck!, Alfie), who initially declined but accepted after being reminded how big of a blockbuster the 007 series was.

Most surprising to me was the fact that the screenplay was written by Roald Dahl, a close friend of Fleming’s who nonetheless said it was Fleming’s worst book, and was more a “travelogue” than a movie-worthy source of material. Though he created a lot of original material for the film, he still kept an extended Japanese wedding sequence and focused quite a bit on Japanese culture, keeping in line with Fleming’s work.

The movie itself sees an American spaceship hijacked by another craft, unknown but suspected by the Americans to belong to the Soviet Union. The British believe the Japanese may be involved, and they send Bond undercover to meet with government connections in Japan to try to uncover what’s going on.

While there is plenty of positive aspects to the film (gone are the artificially sped-up action sequences of Thunderball; Japan is an incredible setting; the plot is mostly exciting; the final action sequence is flat-out incredible), I just can’t help but think how poorly the sequences of Bond getting skin pigmentation and eye surgery to go undercover as a Japanese man have aged.

THE BOND: Sean Connery returns for his fifth outing as James Bond, and he looks great, although he was bored with playing the role and had a terrible relationship with the producers of the film. It was announced during filming that this would be his final turn playing Bond, although future years would see him return for one more film with Eon (Diamonds Are Forever, which I will cover), as well as a single film with another production company (Never Say Never, a remake of Thunderball, which I will not cover).

In terms of the film, there are some notable absences of Bondisms. He doesn’t wear a tuxedo, nor does he drive a car, and the martini he accepts from his host is (mistakenly on the character’s part, but intentional for the film) stirred and not shaken. He does, however, wear his Navy uniform, and he does also welcome some warm sake.

THE GIRLS: The first of You Only Live Twice’s Bond Girls that we’re introduced to is Ling, played by Tsai Chin. She doesn’t get much screen time, but she is central to an opening sequence that seemingly sees Bond killed. This isn’t the first time the films have done this to us, but it remains startling.

More prominently featured are Aki (Akiko Wakibayashi), a Japanese operative that Bond first meets during a sumo match, and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), an ninja operative who “marries” Bond to maintain his Japanese cover. Kissy Suzuki’s name is not uttered in the film.

It should be noted, too, that this is the second Bond film to end with him canoodling in a life raft, proving he really does live twice.

And then, of course, there is femme fatale Helga Brandt/Spectre No.11, played by Karin Dor. She crosses Bond’s path a number of times and attempts to kill him. Her role in SPECTRE, however, hinges entirely on her ability not to fail.

THE VILLAINS: In addition to Helga Brandt, SPECTRE is all over the place in this film.

Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada), a Japanese industrialist, works with SPECTRE to retrieve and cover up the stolen space shuttles and urge the U.S. and Russia closer to all-out war. In a neat piece of trivia, his henchman who fights Bond in his office, is played by Peter Maivia, grandfather of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Burt Kwouk and Michael Chow play SPECTRE henchmen (#3 and #4 respectively), while Ronald Rich plays Hans, Blofeld’s imposing bodyguard.

But it’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld/SPECTRE No.1 who really steals the show. After spending three films visually obscured save for the occasional back of his head, and the hand stroking his white cat, we finally see Blofeld’s scarred face. He is played by Donald Pleasance, who never blinks when on screen, and his ruthlessness is on full display. His massive volcano lab, filled with secret entrances, deadly piranhas, trapdoors, armored rooms, rail tunnels, and scores of armed men cost nearly as much to build a set for as it did to make the entirety of Dr. No, Bond’s first film adventure.

Pleasance’s appearance here would later serve as Mile Myer’s visual template for Dr. Evil in his Austin Powers spoofs.

THE LOCATIONS: This is the first Bond film not to show MI6 headquarters. Instead, the film really only shows two locations: Hong Kong, China, in the beginning; and then primarily Japan for the rest of the film (Kagoshima, for the most part, although some scenes were shot in Tokyo).

While part of the fun in Bond movies is seeing all the exotic locales the secret agent is traveling to, keeping the majority of the film set in Japan allows it to have a unique flavor (Bond would say it’s like Peking Duck). The entire movie is steeped in culture, from the food to the drinks, the bathhouses and the samurai/ninja mentality and training, the nature and the customs, and even the sports. However ill-advised Bond’s method for going undercover is, the rest of the movie does exude a true love for Japan.

THE CARS: As I stated above, Bond doesn’t actually drive any cars this go-around, let alone his now-signature Aston Martin. As to be expected in a film set primarily in Japan, there are a lot of Japanese makes and models featured here: Toyotas, Subarus, Nissans, etc. You can find a full list here.

But that doesn’t mean Bond doesn’t get some exciting machinery! Instead of the streets, he takes to the SKY for a thrilling helicopter chase that was reportedly difficult to film. Bond flies the Wallis WA-116 Agile Series 1 gyroplane, nicknamed Little Nellie. Q outfitted it with offensive and defensive capabilities, of course: machine guns, flamethrowers, aerial mines, rockets, and a pair of heat-seeking missiles!

THE GADGETS: Aside from Little Nellie, most of the gadgets are relatively mundane here. There’s a flip-up trap bed (not so different from normal folding beds), a purse with a microphone in it, a camera controlled by a typewriter, and an x-ray screen built into a desk. Tiger Tanaka has a chute trap that leads to a sofa in his office.

Bond gets a couple things to work with: a cigarette with rocket ammunition built to fire from the tip, and a transportable safe-cracking device.

Most of the rest is built into Blofeld’s volcano lair: hidden compartments and collapsible bridges, armored blinds and a retractable roof to hide from the forces of justice.

Also there are a ton of samurai and ninja weapons. I wouldn’t exactly call those gadgets.

THE MUSIC: This is the fourth Bond film to be scored by John Barry, and he did so while trying to incorporate Eastern music styles, finding them elegant. For the theme, he composed “You Only Live Twice” with lyricist Leslie Bricusse. It was offered to Frank Sinatra, who passed, and then his daughter, Nancy, making her the first non-British vocalist for the 007 series. She was reportedly so nervous it took her upwards of 25 takes to perform, with the final version being pieced together from the best takes.

THE SUPPORT: Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell both return as MI6 head M and his secretary Moneypenny, respectively. This would mark the last time Lois and Sean Connery shared a scene together, as their encounter in Diamonds Are Forever was filmed separately. Also, with no MI6 headquarters in this film, they make do with a portable office set up aboard an aircraft carrier, a hilarious and appreciated design.

Desmond Llewelyn returns as the incorrigible gadget master, Q, while Charles Gray plays British contact Dikko Henderson in a small but pleasant role.

Most important to the film is Tetsurō Tamba’s Tiger Tanaka. What Felix Leiter is to the USA, Tiger is to Japan. His jovial nature and reliability in a pinch make him invaluable to Bond’s mission in Japan, and Tiger is instantly memorable for both his sense of humor and his combat prowess.

FINAL THOUGHTS: You Only Live Twice is one of the more memorable ones for me: the sumo match, the ninja warriors, Little Nellie are all stand-outs. Some folks might not like the parts near the middle that run a bit slow, but as I’ve grown older, I find I focus more on what those longer sequences add to the film it’s in. As much as I enjoy the action in Bond films, they were never really supposed to be the kinds of movie that, say, the Mission Impossible series has turned into. These films are about style and espionage, charm and culture as much as anything else.

That said, there were were action sequences that really stood out to me here. The first, obviously, is the final battle in the volcano base. Ninjas rappelling from the ceiling, police officers and terrorists shooting it out, grenades blowing up left and right, shuriken flying, Bond nearly dying repeatedly, and even getting trounced, and the explosive finale. It’s astonishing in its scale.

The other scene that comes to mind is a foot chase across a long rooftop, where Bond is being pursued by several gangsters. As he flees from superior numbers and pauses to hand out a beating or two and then flees again and then fends off the enemy the camera pans out further and further. I thought it was a really cinematic moment, and I was transfixed.

Anyway, this movie is important to the Bond mythos because of SPECTRE’s overt presence and because it’s the first time we see Blofeld really, and the first time he takes a direct hand in the conflict at hand. The slower parts in Japan mixed with the insane final battle in a massive lair almost make it seem like two different types of films jammed together, but it works more than it doesn’t.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

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