You Only Live Twice

Another day, another Bond #YOLT.

You Only Live Twice (1967)


You Only Live Twice was the first Bond film to be dramatically different from the source novel. The original book was all about Bond dealing with the death of his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the culture shock of adapting to Japanese life. Obviously, OHMSS hadn’t been filmed yet, and previous screenwriter Richard Maibaum was unavailable, so the studio hired Roald Dahl (there aren’t too many people named “Roald”, but yes, the BFG fella) to pull several loose ideas into a single cohesive narrative. Where the novel was quite dark and brooding, the film is more frothy fun than anything else and divides opinion amongst Bond fans as to whether it’s great or a crusty old tossrag.

“As you can see, I am about to inaugurate a little war. In a matter of hours after America and Russia have annihilated each other. We shall see a new power dominating the world.”

After both Russian and American spacecraft go missing, each country does what came naturally during the Cold War: blame each other. With World War III looking extremely likely, the British government suspect foul play and send 007 (Sean Connery) to Japan to investigate. It soon becomes apparent that head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) is behind it all, conducting his nefarious scheme from inside a hollowed-out volcano. With the world on the brink of war, it’s up to Bond and an army of ninjas (fuck yes) to stop him. Frothy and light-hearted it may be, but at least it pops along at a decent pace and is actually consistently enjoyable unlike Thunderball. Dahl’s screenplay is decent enough with the “outside aggressor trying to trick countries into warring” angle used in quite a few subsequent Bond flicks. Connery is fine, having had the whole Bond thing down two films ago. Bond has two significant love interests, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), both of whom are great. I was disappointed when Aki buys the farm about halfway through, but Kissy has her charms too. Donald Pleasence gives an oft-parodied performance as the disfigured Blofeld. My favourite character has to be “Tiger” Tanaka, the Japanese equivalent of M. Played by Tetsuro Tamba, the guy’s a pleasure to watch. I smile every time he calls 007 “Bond-san”.

One of my goals when starting this foolhardy Bond review-a-thon was to pinpoint what traditions began where and I’m happy to say that the whole “Bond theme playing when Bond does cool shit” thing started with this one, during the highly inventive and unusual “Little Nellie” sequence where Bond takes on enemy helicopters in an armed-to-the-teeth autogyro of his own. I think this sequence sums up the film nicely. If you can’t get on board with the idea of 007 flying round killin’ dudes in something that looks like he picked it up from the Early Learning Centre, then the film’s silly charms will be wasted on you. If you like your Bond serious, look elsewhere.  The action is a marked improvement too, with a properly epic third act where Bond and a hundred ninjas rappel into the volcano lair. It’s old school action, with people having the tendency to fall of gangwalks or to be thrown into dramatic acrobatics by grenade blasts.

Despite this Bond being lighter in tone than previous entries, that doesn’t mean that the filmmaking process was taken any less seriously. A lot of people have commented that the film belongs to production designer Ken Adam, who created some astounding sets for the film, most famous of all being Blofeld’s volcano lair which is magnificent. The guy’s a genius. The cinematography is beautiful too, especially during the wedding sequence. Coupled with John Barry’s gorgeous score, it’s truly memorable and gets you square in the feels. It’s just a shame Robbie Williams lamed it up with his song “Millennium”, the smug bellend.

The film ain’t 100% brilliant though. There are a couple of characters and events that don’t really work. For instance, I understand faking Bond’s death, but did MI6 really have to go through the rigmarole of staging it as well? Couldn’t they have just passed along an obituary to the papers? I realise this would have made the pre-credits sequence duller than a thousand Thunderballs, but whatever. Also, I don’t really understand the point of the Helga Brandt character. She’s aptly played by Karin Dor, but she seems like a pale facsimile of Fiona Volpe from the previous film. There’s also a scene where she has Bond helpless and tied to a chair. Her orders were to kill him, but instead she frees him, sleeps with him (naturally) and feigns running away with him, leaving it up to the point where they’re flying home to betray him and parachute safely out of a nosediving plane. Doesn’t make a lick of sense. Having said that, this is a film where we’re meant to buy that a 6’2 Scotsman can be disguised as an Asian using a wig, a body wax and some eye prosthetics. I suppose you can’t examine these things too closely.

“I shall look forward personally to exterminating you, Mr. Bond.”

When I owned all the Bonds on VHS, You Only Live Twice was my most watched of the Connery era. I can see why. It’s escapist fun, pure and simple. It won’t be for everyone and there are better Bonds in the series, but I feel it’s been unfairly maligned.

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