Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bond Is Forever: “You Only Live Twice”

A U.S. space shuttle is in orbit when a carrier of unknown origin skyjacks the shuttle and communication is lost. The American government believes that, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union is responsible, but the UK has received intelligence which suggests that the culprit is Japan. MI6 turns to its best agent, James Bond (Sean Connery), who has recently manufactured his own death while on assignment in Hong Kong. With the help of Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and Japanese SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), 007 infiltrates the offices of Osato (Teru Shimada), who is most likely compiling the ingredients for rocket fuel. Bond and another agent, Kissy (Mie Hama), track the villains’ possible rocket launch to a small island and soon learn that the person behind the conspiracy is SPECTRE head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), with aspirations to incite a war between the U.S. and Russia and to establish a new world power.

You Only Live Twice (1967) was the first 007 movie directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would direct later films in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). It was partly filmed on location in Japan, with the famed Toho Company, Ltd., supplying sound stages and cast/crew. Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name, the final Bond novel published in the author’s lifetime, shares few similarities with the film version (character names and the Japan setting two minor components that survived the transfer to screen).

You Only Live Twice can be split into two distinctive parts (which seems appropriate, considering the title). The movie begins with 007’s mock murder in Hong Kong, followed by his burial at sea. His “body” is taken aboard a submarine, where he is greeted by Miss Moneypenny (the always engaging Lois Maxwell) and meets with M (Bernard Lee) in an office that looks much like MI6 headquarters. This breezy, vivacious approach is a welcome trek through coventional 007 terrain and is even maintained during Bond’s time in Japan as he works with Aki and Tanaka. Upon Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) arrival, Bond receives one of the few gadgets of the film, “Little Nellie” (an autogyro), and flies over an island associated with a cargo ship, the Ning-Po, and, by extension, Osato.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film is little more than 007 training, in preparation of traveling to the island and locating Blofeld and the probable spacecraft. Bond “poses” as a Japanese man, with his hair dyed black and his eyebrows teased. (Despite telling Moneypenny that he’s studied “Oriental” language, the extent of 007’s knowledge of Japanese discourse seems limited to thanking people -- though to be fair, English is the movie’s primary language, even in Japan.) As Bond hones his skills in the Japanese martial arts, there are a couple of assassination attempts, one of which results in an agent being killed. Frustratingly, 007 expresses fleeting concern over the deceased person (who is, essentially, dead because of an affiliation with Bond) and focuses most of his energy ensuring that the woman pretending to be his wife is particularly attractive. Kissy is to the agent’s liking, based on his visible reaction, and it comes to no surprise that he tries to seduce her almost as soon as they reach the island.

A Bond with minimal gadgetry is not a flaw. Such an approach works to great effect in films like Dr. No (1962), For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Casino Royale (2006). However, these movies contained additional attributes, such as suspenseful scenes of investigation (Dr. No and Casino Royale) or action (For Your Eyes Only). Regrettably, Bond sans gadgets has nothing to lend support in You Only Live Twice. By the film’s second half, all Bond truly has left to accomplish is to unearth Blofeld’s base of operations, and, sadly, it takes an inordinate amount of time for the agent to make it there. Once inside, the movie still plods along until finally reaching an explosive action sequence, which is admittedly quite sensational, even if it arrives a bit late.

Wakabayashi and Hama appeared in a series of Japanese spy films in the 60s, Kokusai himitsu keisatsu (aka International Secret Police). The fourth in the series, Kagi no kagi (1965/aka Key of Keys), which starred both actresses, was reedited, redubbed and re-scored, forming the bulk of Woody Allen’s 1966 What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (some of the third entry, 1964’s Kayaku no taru -- which translates to “a keg of powder” -- was also edited into Allen’s movie). The character of Aki was originally named Suki, but, purportedly at Wakabayashi’s recommendation, it was changed, as the actress’ name in What’s Up, Tiger Lily? was Suki Yaki.

Screenwriter Roald Dahl is perhaps better known for his children’s stories, including James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. You Only Live Twice was Dahl’s first produced screenplay. He co-wrote another adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in 1968. The film was produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and featured the celebrated villain, the Child Catcher (portrayed by Robert Helpmann), a Roald Dahl creation.

The title song was written by composer John Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse and sung by Nancy Sinatra. “You Only Live Twice” is one of my favorite Bond songs, a beautiful, moody piece with haunting vocals from Sinatra, and Barry retains the title’s elegance throughout the film’s score. Popular British singer Robbie Williams sampled “You Only Live Twice” for his 1998 hit “Millennium.” His song helped him achieve some success in the States, and his James Bond-inspired music video garnered an MTV Music Video Award nomination for “Best Male Video.”

During filming of You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery announced that he would be leaving the role of 007. George Lazenby took over the lead in the subsequent Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but Connery returned for 1971’s Diamonds are Forever. Though Blofeld was a character in previous Bond outings, You Only Live Twice was the first time that his face is shown. The film is also the first of the “Blofeld Trilogy,” and the last of the novels’ Trilogy, following Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and discounting The Spy Who Loved Me between those two). Interestingly, Charles Gray, who plays Henderson, Bond’s contact in Japan in You Only Live Twice, would portray Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever.

As was typical for Bond films, You Only Live Twice was one of the top ten grossing U.S. films in 1967. While it’s not my least favorite of the series, I place it at the bottom of my list for the 007 movies starring Sean Connery. It has its moments, but there simply are not enough for the near two-hour duration, and much of the film is lethargically paced. But with capable allies (Aki in particular), Pleasence as a first-rate Blofeld (he’s my personal favorite of the actors who portray the villain), and a wonderful title song, there is always something to relish.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with Licence to Kill (1989).


  1. Sark, your assessment of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE is right on target. It's also my least favorite of Sean's 007 outings, but, like you, there are parts that appeal. As you said, Donald Pleasance is the series' best Blofeld and it's a shame he's not in more of the movie. Ken Adams' sets for the 007 films are always impressive, but the volcano fortress is among his best. And I echo you again in praising the song, which is atypical in structure (i.e., it's missing the punched up beats of some of Barry's Bond themes). On the down side, Connery and Mie Hama have zero chemistry and the film is poorly paced (which is odd, because director Gilbert does such a fine job with the later SPY WHO LOVED ME). In the end, I think YOU ONLY LIVES TWICE comes across as a filler to bridge the series between the exotic THUNDERBALL and the unique OHMSS (which would have been Sean's best 007 film if he would have stuck around for it). As you know, your Bond series is one of my favorite Cafe features.

  2. This remains my favorite of the Bond films. It was so over the top Bond, I find it the most fun to watch. What more over the top but typical "Bond" gadget is there than "Little Nellie"? If you were to pick one action scene to show the uniqueness of Bond is there a better one than YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE's battle in the volcano? And Pleasence as Blofeld with his cat is almost the icon for Bond villains.

    Yes, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is a better spy movie and GOLDFINGER is the best example of why Connery's Bond is so popular even today, but none were more mindless fun as YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.

    As a film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE has all the flaws you site and more. The parts of the movie are much better than the movie as a whole. If I was in a serious mood I would pick another Bond to watch. But if I am wanting to watch a fun celebration of what made Bond different from the other spies, this is the movie I would choose.

  3. Yeah, not the best Bond movie. I still like it. Interesting to learn more about the Japanese cast. Woody's movie is pretty funny.

  4. Sark, I really like this Bond movie. It is slow in places like you pointed out and a little thin in plot. However, there are many things I like about it. I loved the setting in Japan which is beautiful and the Japanese culture. Donald Pleasance is great as Blofeld. I loved the volcano fortress and thought it was clever. It also has a beautiful Japanese woman named Aki who helps 007. She is so cool, has a stunning name, and I loved the white Toyota she drove in the movie. I wanted a car just like hers so badly but alas, my parents nixed that idea. You made an excellent point about how Blofeld's face is never shown in the other Bond films. I had never thought about that until you mentioned it. The title song is one of my favorite of the Bond films. Needless to say I have it on my iPod!! A nicely written review, Sark, and I enjoyed it.

  5. Probably my least favorite Connery 007 too, but I still like the story's epic quality. Connery seems bored with the whole thing though, and the fun in his eye is missing.

    While the Ken Adams rocket base set is awesome, the film also contains some of the worst special effects in the series. The scenes at the end of the volcano exploding are shockingly bad.

    The volcano in Japan that doubled for Blofeld's lair, Mount Shinmoe, I think it is called, was in the news in February when it erupted several times. No evidence was found that a bald man seeking world domination while stroking a white pussy cat was behind it all.

  6. Sark, I always look forward to your fabulous Bond series feature! I think I had forgotten that Toho had a hand in "You Only Live Twice." Just for a moment, can you imagine what the film might have been like had Godzilla been incorporated into the story? It would help Bond take his martini shaken, not stirred. Godzilla has died more than once, I think. Flying in an autogyro might help in a battle with a large mythical creature. And Godzilla can blow smoke on Blofeld.

    Couldn't resist, Sark. Loved your most excellent and informative post!

  7. I'm so late commenting, Sark -- mea culpa! I was kidding with Rick a while back about never being in step with the Cafe poll results. Well, here I am again -- I love You Only Live Twice. I can't argue with your points, because your assessment is correct. But I still love it! I react very strongly to the music and settings in movies, and this one was one of the best in those aspects. From the gorgeous opening violin strains to that wonderful song, and all through the movie -- especially the haunting music played during the space sequences -- this really captured me. I liked Tanaka and his beautiful agent, was so upset at her fate, and agree with you that Donald Pleasance was just wonderful as Blofeld. He should have had more presence in the movie. Loved the pirhana pool under the bridge, too.

    You know me, I'm such a purist about Fleming's novels, but I just plain like this movie anyway. I'm with Rick -- your Bond reviews are a high point for the Cafe, and this was another winner!

  8. Thanks so much to all who commented. It is much appreciated! So many Bond films have fans split down the middle. Those are my favorite ones to write about!

  9. Oh, Sark, now I think I know where Mike Meyers got his inspiration for Dr. Evil--Blofeld? Loved reading your review...add Kissy to the long line of great female character names.