Welcome to James Bond Revisited, a series in which I watch and review every James Bond film leading up to the 25th film in the franchise No Time To Die, set to release this April. Today, we examine You Only Live Twice.
James Bond Revisited: You Only Live Twice
The film opens in space, where an American space shuttle is sabotaged and hijacked by an unmarked spacecraft that lands in the Sea of Japan.
James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to investigate and heads to Japan where he meets a Japanese agent named Aki (Akiki Wakabayashi), who takes him to a MI:6 agent named Dikko Henderson (Charles Gray), who has information on the missing shuttle. However, Dikko is assassinated and Bond tracks the assailants to Osato Chemicals. Bond breaks into a safe and steals important documents containing the word “LOX.” He is discovered but saved by Aki, who takes him to a secret subway used exclusively by her superior, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba). Bond and Tanaka agree that Osato Chemicals is up to something.
Bond meets with Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada), the head of Osato Chemicals, pretending to be a businessman, however, Osato and his secretary, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) discover that he is a spy after scanning his body and noticing his Walther PPK. Mr. Osato is revealed to be a SPECTRE associate and the shadowy No. 1 deduces that the businessman is actually 007. He orders Bond killed.
Bond is captured and almost tortured by Helga but convinces her to turn on SPECTRE and to help him escape. Flying him to freedom, Helga bails out of the plane, leaving Bond to die, but he survives the plane crash.
Following a lead from Osato’s stolen documents, Bond flies a miniature helicopter (provided by Q branch) over a Japanese volcano before coming under attack. Meanwhile, a Soviet space shuttle is swallowed by the same spacecraft that attacked the Americans and tensions between the two superpowers flare. Tanaka helps Bond discover the secret of the volcano by disguising him as a Japanese fisherman and marrying him to one of his students, Kissy (Mie Hama).
Bond and Kissy discover that the volcano is actually a secret lair for the terrorist organization, SPECTRE. The volcano functions as a landing for the rocket that has been consuming the American and Soviet spaceships. Bond attempts to board the rocket when he is discovered and taken to meet SPECTRE No. 1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). Blofeld reveals that he is attempting to start a war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, at the end of which, China will emerge as the new superpower.
Bond manages to open the roof of the volcano lair and Tanaka’s ninja warriors descend upon the base. Bond disarms Blofeld and activates the base’s self-destruct function. The base explodes in the form of a volcanic eruption and Bond escapes with Kissy, adrift at sea (again) before they are rescued by MI:6 in a submarine.
Bond Song/Opening Titles
“And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on. Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone.”
“You Only Live Twice” was composed by James Bond regular John Barry and written by Leslie Bricusse. The vocals were provided by Nancy Sinatra after her father, ol’ Blue Eyes passed on the opportunity.
The Bond franchise is full of these what-could-have-been moments and this one works in the movie’s favor. Frank Sinatra is a legend, there’s no doubt about it, but Nancy’s more delicate and (obviously) feminine voice lends a more inviting nature to the song.
“You Only Live Twice” is widely considered one of the best songs of the series. It joins the ranks of “Live and Let Die” and “Nobody Does It Better” as songs that are often covered by other artists and played regularly without it’s James Bond association.
Maurice Binder returns to direct the title credits. Previously, I wrote about my dissatisfaction with his credit sequence to Thunderball. You will find none of that negativity here. Nancy’s calming melodic voice sets the audience at ease, while Binder provides visuals that are both elegant and arresting.
Foreshadowing the film’s Japanese influence and volcanic finale, Binder crossfades close-ups of Japanese women and Japanese parasols over erupting volcanos. The bubbling lava and magma spit and ooze violently contrasting wonderfully with the elegant, minimal Japanese design.
A Bit Too Familiar
To be clear, I think that You Only Live Twice is a hilariously goofy Bond adventure in all the best ways, but no film is perfect. If I’m going to give this film credit for being out there (which rest assured, I shall), it also deserves to get penalized for its occasional reliance on worn-out tropes.
These crutches appear instantly when Bond “dies” at the beginning of the film. However, this death is prolonged, lasting a whopping 11 minutes of screentime, which is a total drag because of course, he isn’t dead. This is the third time the series has opened with a “Bond’s dead!” fakeout (From Russia With Love and Thunderball reveal that the person killed wasn’t really Bond at all) but the elongated nature of this double-cross is tedious, and the film’s justification of Bond having to fake his death just can’t justify its length.
Meanwhile, the villain’s henchwoman Helga Brandt is a carbon copy of Fiona from Thunderball, though, to my mind, she is more compelling (more on that in a bit).
Elements like Bond bedding a female associate with whom he has little history is also tired, but that’s a staple of the franchise that many people enjoy. These are meant to be fantastical in nature and I’m willing to accept it here.
It is impossible to talk about the tired tropes of the Bond franchise without also talking about the Bond Girls.
The Bond franchise has a winning formula. Gadgets, car chases, beautiful women, globe-trotting adventures, and colorful villains with elaborate plots have kept the franchise running for decades, but sometimes you can feel the producers putting pressure on the writers to include more. Such is the case with the Bond Girls in You Only Live Twice.
Here we have Aki and the wonderfully named Kissy Suzuki. As Tiger Tanaka’s associate, Aki is warm and takes to Bond immediately. She’s also seen saving Bond’s life on more than one occasion, a rarity for this series at the time. Unfortunately, Aki is killed when she accidentally ingests poison meant for Bond in her sleep. Aki’s death is poorly justified and Akiko’s performance is so stilted it could be read as a form of protest.
Worse still, her death has no bearing on the plot. Bond is a cold and reserved man who kills for a living, sure, but as an audience, you want to see Bond carry the weight of her death with him and purge himself of the grief when he avenges her. If you went to the bathroom during that scene, you would be excused for not knowing an important character had been murdered. Connery’s performance lets her down as much as the writing.
What adds insult to injury is that she seems to have been killed to make room for another woman, Kissy.
Bond is told he must take a wife for the mission (the horror!) and is presented with Kissy and Bond thanks his lucky stars that she isn’t a dog, no joke. Apart from fun banter about how Kissy won’t share a bed with him resulting in Bond pushing away a plate of oysters, Kissy is just arm candy.
It is impossible to deny that Aki and Kissy could be folded neatly into one character. Aki was a good ally and would have been fun to see in the big final blowout in the volcano (the series would right this wrong in Tomorrow Never Dies).
You Couldn’t Do That Today
As fun and outlandish as You Only Live Twice is, it is also outrageous. These days, studios are selectively sensitive about cultural appropriation. If Batman is going to train as a ninja in Batman Begins, he must travel to an unnamed, vaguely Asian town, but forty years ago, if Bond is going to travel to Japan, you can bet he’s going to watch sumo wrestling and take ninja classes!
Obviously, these films are meant to be big-budget larks and you take it all in stride, but the treatment of Asian people occasionally brushes with being distasteful.
In the bathhouse, Bond looks at the beautiful women and compliments “the plumbing.” Heck, Bond is introduced kissing an Asian woman (an interracial kiss being a big deal at the time) and asking “why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” Jesus, James.
But the most outrageous and ludicrous plot detail of all is that Bond needs to go undercover as a Japanese fisherman, which means he must undergo elaborate prosthetics to make him Japanese. That’s right, James Bond dons yellow face.
Luckily, the filmmakers seem to know that Connery as convincing an Asian fisherman as he is a woman. They remove the makeup almost immediately.
A Villain of Iconic Proportions
You Only Live Twice has many baddies, but really only three to speak of.
The first villain, Mr. Osato is the head of Osato chemicals and a secret SPECTRE associate. With sleeked back, grey hair and mustache, Osato looks the part of a professional whose company is providing ingredients for rocket fuel to SPECTRE. He fails to make much of an impression, especially when he stands next to his henchwoman, Helga Brandt.
As I mentioned before, Helga is almost identical to Fiona. She has a similar appearance, with identical auburn hair. The pair could be sisters. Where she gets points up on Fiona is in her cunning. After she and Osato discover Bond’s true identity as an undercover agent, Helga threatens to kill him before Bond seduces her to the side of good with minimal effort and she agrees to fly him to safety. A weak-willed woman, more than susceptible to Bond’s masculinity.
However, before you can say “Pussy Galore much?”, Helga double-crosses Bond and leaps out of the airplane, leaving him to die! That kind of twist plays on the audience’s expectations of the women in this series and I love it.
She even gets an excellent villain’s death, dropped into a pool of piranhas by SPECTRE No. 1.
And finally, after three films of hinting and teasing, we finally get to meet the head of SPECTRE, the infamous and instantly iconic Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played by Donald Pleasence.
Cold and calculating, with the face of a deformed cherub and perpetually stroking a white cat, Pleasence is the most striking and memorable Bond villain in history. His high-pitched and eerily calm voice presents him as a man without feeling, and his scar and bald head show he is a man with a violent past and no ego.
While Blofeld will be portrayed by several actors in the future, this is the interpretation most well-known and beloved, and for good reason. Pleasence’s Blofeld is less frightening and more unsettling.
His look is homaged (some would say ripped-off) by Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series and it would be easy to think that the comedy has overshadowed the inspiration, but one look at the man himself says otherwise. It is a brilliant combination of aesthetic and performance.
The Plot Is Ludicrous… I Love It
All that racial unpleasantness out of the way, I can now say openly and frankly that I had a ball with You Only Live Twice. In my youth, this film was never in constant rotation. If I were to watch a Connery, I would watch Goldfinger. Thanks to this series, I now have a renewed appreciation for the seriousness of Dr. No, the shadowy suspense of From Russia With Love, and the bonkers insanity of You Only Live Twice.
If you had to describe You Only Live Twice in one word, it would be ‘audacious.’
The 2.35:1 aspect ratio gives the film a sense of grandeur, captured beautifully in technicolor. Cinematographer Freddie Young is primarily known for David Lean epics like Lawrence of Arabia, and he is the perfect man for the job.
It is wonderful to see Japan captured so beautifully. The way the city is lit up at night is gorgeous as well as mysterious, and the scene where hundreds of people watch a professional sumo match is absolutely remarkable to behold.
By this time, the Bond franchise functioned as escapist entertainment and global travelogue in equal measure. Removing Bond from his tropical locals is a refreshing change of pace.
This is also the first James Bond film to take us into outer space, though Bond wouldn’t go there himself until Moonraker. An enemy ship opening its jaws and consuming another space shuttle is just the right amount of goofy, and the image of the spacecraft severing the connecting line, leaving an astronaut floating in the vast emptiness of space haunted me as a child.
Even the silly aspects that ought to sink this flick works in its favor. Q’s primary gadget this go-around is a miniature aircraft affectionately named ‘Little Nellie.’ This tiny, yellow helicopter is absurd but then again, You Only Live Twice doesn’t want to be taken seriously. It wants to be a romp, and when the Monty Norman Bond theme blares as Bond takes down enemy aircraft with on-plane flamethrowers, I couldn’t help but grin. We’re a long way from the gritty realism of Casino Royale, and closer than I’d like to the flippancy of Moonraker. James Bond has proven with time to be a versatile and flexible series, and You Only Live Twice strikes the perfect balance.
A brief word about those sets: I’ve raved to no end about the work of production designer, Ken Adam. His work on the Bond franchise is as iconic as it is striking. He single-handedly set the tone for what a grand spy adventure looks like. In this film, he simply outdoes himself.
The sets for Blofeld’s office, complete with a precarious bridge over a pool of piranhas is enough to make your mouth water, and anyone who says they don’t want to take a dip in Tiger Tanaka’s bathhouse is a goddamn liar, but Adam’s greatest achievement is the Volcano Lair.
The film was completely shut out by the Academy Awards, proving conclusively that they have no idea what greatness is. The set is a marvel. Spacious and dynamic, timeless and of its time, the volcano lair is a monument to the cutting edge and a feast for the eyes. Nothing, and I mean nothing in this series will ever come close to touching this miraculous set. It has a rocket ship, helicopter pad, and a functioning monorail for goodness sake. Someone, get LEGO on the phone! This set must be made!
Ken Adam, you were the best.
You Only Live Twice: Insanity Pays Off
I hope I’ve conveyed just how FUN this movie really is. At this stage, it would be easy for the filmmakers to rest on their laurels and phone it in, knowing they had the entire world in the palm of their hand. And yet, each film had become bigger, grander, and more technically ambitious than the last. It doesn’t get much bigger than teams of ninjas descending down a volcano to fight goons to prevent a rocket launch.
Unfortunately, You Only Live Twice was effectively Connery’s last hurrah as 007. Connery was a conservative man, frustrated by the near-constant invasion of his privacy. Famously, a Japanese paparazzi snapped photos of the star while he was in a bathroom stall. Connery felt that if he were to give away his privacy, he wanted to be paid handsomely for it. The producers disagreed and the feud soured their working relationship.
Despite positive reviews and impressive box-office returns, Connery decided not to return to the franchise. But how would the series fare without him? Tune in next time as we cover a new James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.