Talking Movies [Global James Bond Day]: You Only Live Twice

To celebrate the release of Dr. No (Young, 1962), the first film in the long-running series of James Bond movies (Various, 1962 to present), October 5th is officially recognised as “Global James Bond Day”. Today, this franchise stands as the longest-running franchise ever and the character is one of the most recognised and popular movie icons of all time.

Talking Movies

Released: 13 June 1967
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Distributor: United Artists
Budget: $9.5 million
Stars: Sean Connery, Tetsurō Tamba, Akiko Wakabayashi, Karin Dor, Teru Shimada, Mie Hama/Nikki van der Zyl, and Donald Pleasence

The Plot:
A disaster in space threatens all-out war between American and the Soviet Union. When renowned super spy James Bond/007 (Connery) is dispatched to Japan to investigate, he uncovers a plot that finally brings him face-to-face with Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Pleasence), the head of the terrorist organisation known as the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE).

The Background:
James Bond, Agent 007 of MI6, was created by writer Ian Fleming in 1953 and was heavily based upon his time and experiences as a navy intelligence officer. Following a very strange, comedic adaptation of his first book, James Bond was brought to life through Sean Connery’s immortal and iconic portrayal of the character, which kick-started an unparalleled cinematic franchise with the box office success of Dr. No. This led to Eon Productions producing annual James Bond films, each of which out-performed the last at the box office and was based, however loosely, on Fleming’s books. While Thunderball’s (Young, 1965) $141.2 million box office made it the most successful Bond film at the time, the production was fraught by legal disputes and, initially, the filmmakers planned to produce an adaptation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Fleming, 1963) but switched to adapting Fleming’s eleventh Bond novel and drafted Fleming’s war-buddy and noted children’s writer Roald Dahl to pen the script.

You Only Live Twice featured an elaborate set and was Connery’s first swan-song.

Though Dahl ended up making numerous changes to the original story, You Only Live Twice retained the Japanese setting of the book, which led to some uncomfortable issues of cultural representation. The film included one of the most expensive and elaborate sets in the series’ history, a massive volcano lair designed by the legendary Ken Adam, but star Sean Connery was beginning to become jaded with the super spy and, while an increased salary returned him to the role, he would bow out after this film. You Only Live Twice’s $11.6 million worldwide gross meant it underperformed compared to Thunderball and critics bemoaned the preposterous gadgets and plot and the oversaturation of the franchise. These days, the film’s reputation is slightly more positive and Pleasence’s turn as the villainous Blofeld is regarded as an iconic aspect of the franchise. While Connery left the series after this film, he would eventually return after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Hunt, 1969) was a critical and financial disappointment and the franchise soon bounced back into prominence with the fresh-faced Roger Moore taking the role, and the series, into further success.

The Review:
You Only Live Twice begins in one of the most surprisingly oft-used locations for a Bond film, in orbit around the Earth. The Jupiter 16 spacecraft is minding its own business circling the globe as its astronauts test a new probe when an unidentified, missile-like spacecraft comes along and hijacks the ship, swallowing it up and sending astronaut Chris (Norman Jones) floating off into the infinite void. As you might expect, given that tensions between the United States and Soviet Russia were somewhat frosty at the time, accusations are thrown around at the United Nations, though the United Kingdom’s government offers a more level-headed point of view after tracking the craft’s crash-landing off the coast of Japan. This is where we catch up with James Bond…and where he’s suddenly and brutally gunned to death while sharing a bed with Ling (Tsai Chin).

After faking his death, Bond’s investigation into a crashed spacecraft takes him to Japan.

Given his status as a navy commander, Bond is buried at sea; however, upon drifting to the sea floor, his body is recovered by scuba divers and brought onboard a naval submarine. Of course, Bond isn’t really dead; the entire sequence, as explained by M (Bernard Lee), was an elaborate ruse to fake his death in order to shake off some of his old enemies (presumably SPECTRE, but it’s never really made explicit; still, it’s understandable that Bond would have made many enemies out in the field, especially with his tendency to forgo false identities and cause a ruckus). With the Americans and Soviets both planning missions into orbit and ready to launch a full-scale war unless the true culprits behind the hijacking are discovered, M stresses that time is not on Bond’s side, and 007 immediately begins his investigation. Ever the overconfident and suave ladies’ man, Bond has no need for Miss Moneypenny’s (Lois Maxwell) “instant Japanese” dictionary and walks the bustling streets of Tokyo with an assertive and polite demeanour. Because Bond films are all about spectacle, 007 of course meets with local liaison and fellow secret agent Aki (Wakabayashi) at a sumo wrestling match, where as much of the film’s focus is on depicting the pre-match rituals and the clash between the competitors as it is Bond’s suspicions at going through a middle man (or, in this case, woman) to get to his true contact, MI6 operative Dikko Henderson (Charles Gray). Aki is one of those sultry Bond Girls who appears distrustful and playful to begin with but soon reveals herself to be a capable and assertive agent in her own right; indeed, she is pivotal in getting Bond out of numerous scrapes throughout the film, and even unknowingly gives her life to save his.  

Bond makes new allies and enemies along the way, some of whom are just as won over by his charms.

Though a loquacious and accommodating host, Henderson does amusingly mix up Bond’s iconic vodka Martini (“That’s stirred, not shaken. That was right, wasn’t it?”) and is abruptly killed in mid-sentence by a knife in the back; fortunately, he was able to point Bond in the direction of Tiger Tanaka (Tamba) before his untimely death. Bond chases down and dispatches the killer and, thinking on his feet, steals his coat, hat, and mask in order to infiltrate Osato Chemicals. After obtaining documents from Mr. Osato’s (Teru Shimada) safe, Bond is rescued by the coy Aki and finds himself blundering into what appears to be a trap but turns out to be an elaborate meeting with Tanaka, a wealthy and influential figure who travels exclusively by use of his own personal subway train and discovers that Osato has been buying large quantities of rocket fuel. Furthermore, Osato appears to have ordered the death of an innocent tourist for taking pictures of a ship, the Ning-Po, which is enough to convince Bond to masquerade as a potential buyer (“Mister Fisher”) to meet with Osako. This leads to one of those traditional games of subterfuge between Bond and one of his villains where both are aware of each other’s identity or unscrupulous nature but play along with the ruse simply to keep up appearances. Realising that Bond knows too much (or, at least, is close to stumbling upon the truth), Osato orders his secretary, Helga Brandt (Dor), to have him killed. Of course, both are agents of SPECTRE, the true organisation behind the mysterious spacecraft, but their half-hearted attempts to gun Bond down in a simple drive-by naturally end in failure. When they’re attacked by a bunch of trigger-happy henchman at the docks, Bond has Aki flee in order to contact Tanaka and is left helpless and at the mercy of Brandt (or “Agent 11”) on the Ning-Po; interrogated by Brandt, Bond maintains his cover and answers with only glib remarks even when she threatens him with a number of sharp blades. With very little effort, Bond is able to seduce her but, rather than simply killing him while she has him tied to a chair, she decides to parachute out of a small aircraft and leave him to die in suitably dramatic fashion. Of course, Bond is able to pull the plane out of its nosedive, land it, and escape before it explodes with barely a wrinkle on his suit. For her failure, Brandt meets a most gruesome fate at the hands of her superior after Osato places the blame squarely on her shoulders and she ends up being dropped into a piranha pool!

Bond finally comes face-to-face with the warped director of SPECTRE, and perhaps his greatest nemesis.

Having determined that the true culprit behind the mysterious spacecraft is hiding somewhere on one of Japan’s islands, Bond concocts an outrageous plan to pose as a simple fisherman and investigate further; he manages to infiltrate the elaborate volcano lair of SPECTRE’s elusive head-honcho, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, an enigmatic and ruthless villain whose appearance had been obscured up until this point. Constantly stroking a beautiful, long-haired white cat, Blofeld is a merciless and callous man whose sole aim is to incite and profit from global discord. It was common for Bond villains to have some kind of physical deformity or tell, be it mechanical hands or an eye patch, but few have been iconic as Pleasance’s bald-headed, squinty-eyed Blofeld. Sporting a vicious scar down his right eye and dressed in a plain, grey suit, the character is the antithesis of not only Bond but also his literary counterpart (who was known for his ever-changing appearance but was also a far bigger and more imposing foe). However, Blofeld doesn’t need to be a physical challenge for Bond and is the definition of the quintessential puppet master; a genius criminal mastermind, Blofeld is both incredibly perceptive (he’s easily able to see through Bond’s disguise by recognising that he isn’t following proper astronaut procedure) and stoically ruthless in his actions as he doesn’t hesitate to punish those who fail him with death. However, like basically every Bond villain, Blofeld’s weakness is his need to boast of his superior intellect and plot to an audience, in this case Bond, which leads to him keeping 007 alive to witness his plot unfold and thus allows Bond the opportunity to defeat his plans.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One of the most entertaining aspects of any James Bond film is the elaborate title sequence and song choice; Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of John Barry and Leslie Bricusse’s title track may not be one of my favourites, but its soft-spoken melodies certainly make it a memorable and haunting theme that recurs throughout the entire film. The sequence itself seems geared around establishing that the vast majority of the film will have an oriental flavour as well, which is perfectly in keeping with the themes and locations of the film, but I have to say that few of these early Bond title sequences managed to impress me and this is probably one of the weaker ones.

The film showcases Japanese society and then uncomfortably “transforms” Bond so he can “blend in”.

It’s unusual for a Bond film to be largely based in just one country and location, but Japan certainly makes for a visually interesting meshing of styles; Tokyo is a huge, bustling city full of neon lights and cloud-tickling skyscrapers and the interiors are a quaint mixture of then-modern aesthetics and traditional Japanese trappings, such as low tables, sliding doors, and an abundance of wood. I can’t really comment much on the depiction of Japanese society as I’ve never been there but it seems maybe a little uncomfortable now to see Tanaka relate his patriarchal Japanese society is; men are the undisputed authority in Japan and women are little more than their obedient servants, who not only clean their men with hot, soapy sponges and willingly massage them without question, but are also driven to distraction by Bond’s body hair and his natural allure. Additionally, Tanaka trains and employs an army of ninjas years before the kung fu craze of the early-to-late seventies, and naturally Bond is quickly able to learn their ways. Of course, it’s difficult to talk about this and You Only Live Twice without mentioning the frankly ridiculous “procedure” that Bond goes through in order to make himself Japanese; this involves dying his body, slapping a terrible wig on him, sticking ridiculous eyebrows to his face, and dressing him in a kimono. Honestly, he looks more like a second-rate Mister Spock (Leonard Nimoy) than a Japanese man and all the make-up and prosthetics of the time would never be enough to convince anyone with half a brain that a six-foot-two man with broad shoulders, covered in body hair, and oh yes sporting a thick Scottish accent could ever be mistaken for a Japanese man. Thankfully, we’re not forced to endure this absurd attempt at subterfuge for long, and it does result in the visual oddity of Bond marrying an unassuming Japanese girl, Kissy Suzuki (Hama/van der Zy) as part of his cover.  

The fights and rear projection might be a bit iffy but Little Nelly stole the show in her brief appearance.

While the film suffers from terrible, absolutely dreadful rear projection in the driving scenes, it was ahead of its time with the depiction of some of Bond’s gadgets; Aki has a video screen in her car that allows Bond to communicate with Tanaka using a transmitter but it’s nothing compared to “Little Nelly”, a speedy one-man portable aircraft that has a variety of weaponry built into it. As always, you can tell that Q (Desmond Llewelyn) is very proud of the machine by the way he talks about it and runs Bond and Tanaka through its many capabilities and, while the rear projection is still pretty terrible for Connery’s close-ups, Little Nelly is definitely a fun highlight of the film that allows for some dynamic and beautiful sweeping shots of Japan’s islands and volcanic regions. Of course, we also get to see Little Nelly’s many armaments in action when Bond is set upon by attack helicopters; the spritely ‘copter is capable of firing flame jets from its rear exhaust, boasts a machine gun and rocket launchers, and is easily nimble enough to run rings around Bond’s attackers and blast them out of the sky. Sean Connery always was a bit of a clunky, awkward brawler; he’s much better at conveying Bond’s unshakable charisma and confidence than he is at handling himself in a fist fight, but there’s something very entertaining about how his Bond can be so commanding and assertive at everything and then be forced to think on his feet and adapt to his surroundings when fighting off assailants. The result is a series of brutal, if clunky, brawls between opponents who are clearly Bond’s better yet the script demands that Bond find a way to overcome them, and he does so through a variety of means. This actually adds a layer of vulnerability to the stereotypically indestructible super spy as he’s left visibly shaken and sweaty following these brawls, but there’s no doubt that he’s far better in a shootout or in bursts of sudden, aggressive energy. One thing that’s definitely true about Connery’s Bond is that he set the standard for the character’s overwhelming arrogance; Bond is a connoisseur of foods and drink and can identify brands, makes, and even the vintage of his sustenance by taste and smell and he uses this ability to both lord his expertise and refinement above others and to impress hosts such as Tanaka with his cultivated tastes.   

After destroying Blofeld’s impressive volcano lair, Bond wins the day but fails to catch the SPECTRE head.

While the film’s model shots and miniatures are quaint and much-appreciated, they haven’t aged too well; however, thanks to some impressive and dynamic camera work, they work fantastically well when incorporated into the film’s expansive and heavily-detailed volcano lair set piece. Honestly, I feel that You Only Live Twice set the standard for elaborate villain lairs and that every single Bond film since has tried to emulate or out-do this simply overwhelming technical achievement; built into a hollowed out volcano, Blofeld’s lair has a fully functional monorail, a piranha pool, a slick, futuristic sheen, gantries, stairs, and walkways for days, and is fully capable of capturing and launching rocket ships from its launch pad. The sheer size and scope of this lair alone is worth the price of admission and it’s only bolstered by Pleasance’s chilling portrayal of Bond’s most persistent and sadistic villain and the massive firefight at the film’s conclusion that sees Japanese agents rappelling into the lair, explosions rocking the environment, and bedlam running wild across every square inch of what remains one of the most impressive sets in all of cinema. The film culminates with Bond being captured by Blofeld and meeting SPECTRE’s main man face-to-face for the first time; while the United States prepares to go to war against Soviet Russia, Bond seems helpless to stop Blofeld’s plot. However, because Blofeld doesn’t just kill Bond while he has the chance, 007 is able to see the entire workings of the madman’s control room and thus knows exactly which buttons and switches to activate to let Tanaka’s ninjas in once he gets the opportunity after using his trick cigarettes to cause a small explosion in the control room. This is all the chance Bond needs to fend off Blofeld’s men and cause a massive firefight to break out across the lair; with his base falling apart around him, Blofeld activates a self-destruct sequence and decides to shoot Tanaka dead rather than Bond. By the time Blofeld finally decides to shoot Bond, Tanaka stops him with a well-placed shuriken but, while the base is eventually destroyed and his plan foiled, Blofeld manages to elude capture. Still, a nuclear conflict between the world’s superpowers is averted (with five seconds left to go). Bond, Kissy, Tanaka, and a number of his ninjas emerge from the erupting volcano victorious and are soon picked up by a submarine, and Bond’s mission would subsequently switch to tracking down and eliminating Blofeld.

The Summary:
When I was a kid and first getting into the James Bond franchise, You Only Live Twice was an elusive film for me; all of the Bond movies were shown on television as part of a huge marathon and, somehow, I missed this one and had to pick it up on VHS later down the line. I always felt like it must be one of the best Bond films because of how often the volcano lair and Blofeld’s design and mannerisms have been parodied, and it does stand out as one of the more visually impressive and iconic of Connery’s time as the character. As much as I respect the standard he set, I’ve never been a massive fan of his films, which tend to be a bit slower and suffer from not aging too well, but You Only Live Twice is one of his that I do rate quite highly. Obviously, it’s probably the most culturally insensitive of all the Bond films; even arguing that it’s a product of its time doesn’t quite excuse Bond’s awful “transformation” into a humble Japanese fisherman, but the film has plenty of highlights that make up for this. First, there’s Little Nelly, then Blofeld’s incredible volcano lair, and finally the reveal and long-awaited confrontation between Blofeld and Bond. Their meeting is one more of tension and mutual respect and hatred rather than a massive fist fight but it’s not hard to see why the villain and his lair have become so iconic and synonymous with the franchise. Sadly, subsequent Bond films kind of made a mess on capitalising on the rivalry between the two and legal issues meant that Blofeld and SPECTRE were all but erased for nearly fifty years but that doesn’t take away from how impactful both were at the time and they really help to add an extra level of spice to an otherwise mundane Bond adventure.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Are you a fan of You Only Live Twice? Where does it rank against the other James Bond films for you? What did you think to the long-awaited reveal of Blofeld? Do you find the cultural insensitivities of the film awkward and what did you think to Bond’s transformation into a Japanese man? Are you as awestruck by the volcano lair as I and many others or did you find that making bigger and more elaborate sets dragged the series down a rabbit hole of ridiculousness? Which Bond actor, film, story, villain, or moment is your favourite? How are you celebrating Global James Bond Day today? Whatever you think about You Only Live Twice, or James Bond in general, feel free to leave a comment on my social media and sign up and drop your thoughts down below.

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