In the No Time To Die Countdown, Jake Tropila takes a look back at every Bond film – official and unofficial – in anticipation of the release of the latest entry.
As the James Bond franchise flourishes, there is a certain tendency to label each successive film with a vaguely reductive signifier (e.g., “the one with the invisible car”). Following this trend, You Only Live Twice can be summed up thusly: “James Bond goes to Japan.” There is a bit more to it than that, of course, but no other film in the canon is as inextricably linked to its central location as this one.
And what a big one this is! You Only Live Twice is a stratospheric Bond film, often literally so, as it stands as a monumental achievement in production design and a masterclass in spectacle. Dust sprinkled on a suitcase handle? A hair planted on a closet door? A shoe concealing a poison-tipped dagger? Who needs ’em?! This film has an aerial battle, a secret volcanic lair, a pool of flesh-eating piranhas, and a helicopter lifting a motherfucking car with a giant magnet and dropping it in the sea.
That epicness comes with a price, though: this film is the blueprint for many of the parodies to follow – Austin Powers especially owes its livelihood to this film. A scarred villain, goofy disguises, a grandiose and intricately decorated stronghold – all elements are in play and can be traced back to this film as the culprit for inspiring total dreck. C’est la vie.
And then there’s Sean Connery at the center of it all, who has finally reached the point of exhaustion with the role that turned him into a megastar. Having been fed up with the producers and the harassing public (his irritation does occasionally peek through on-screen), Connery would go on to call it quits after this film, leaving the future of Bond in possible jeopardy. Without further ado, let’s take a look back at the film that broke the man himself. It’s 1967, and we are all cleared for takeoff.
ONCE WHEN YOU ARE BORN
You Only Live Twice’s pre-title sequence is to die for. An American space vessel, the Jupiter 16, is orbiting earth when it is suddenly “swallowed” by another larger, more ominous vessel (this sequence is notable for its remarkable optical effects and irrational fear of being cut adrift in the vacuum of space, both of which predate 2001: A Space Odyssey by a single year). As the U.K. mediates the growing tension between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., Bond is called in to investigate. But before he can even accept his mission, the seemingly invincible 007 is swiftly gunned down in Murphy’s bed following a dalliance with a Chinese girl. Cue Nancy Sinatra.
Bond dead? Say it ain’t so. The franchise has toyed with the idea of killing its hero in the pre-title sequence once before, in From Russia with Love. But while that was a mere training exercise used to underscore the threat of SPECTRE, it’s made explicitly clear here that this is our man going out in a blaze of glory. It’s an enticing hook and one that blew my young mind when I saw this film for the first time in my youth. Could James Bond actually be dead?
Following the bombastic heights of Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, You Only Live Twice walks things back with a lovely, melodious offering from Nancy Sinatra. Playing over Maurice Binder’s motifs of volcanic eruptions, the song is a fantastically serene ode to the character of Bond. It’s an unusual shift for the producers – especially considering the film it exists in – but it works completely, and Sinatra is matched well by John Barry’s score, who finds many moments to shine throughout the film (more on that later). And if you’re the only Bond theme to be used in an episode of Mad Men forty-five years later, you know you’ve done something right. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.
Alas, Bond is not dead after all. 007’s death was all a ruse to shake SPECTRE off his tail, and we rejoin the agent, alive and well, in a British submarine following a staged burial at sea. Customary interactions with M and Miss Moneypenny ensue, but one of my personal favorite series trademarks is established here: anytime Bond meets M out in the field, M has a full office modeled to resemble that respective environment, complete with an adjoining room for Moneypenny. While certainly not the most practical of solutions, I can’t help but get a kick out of it all the same.
Off to Japan! Bond attends a sumo match, has a rendezvous with SIS agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), and is taken to meet MI6 contact Henderson, played by Charles Gray. The Henderson scene offers some exposition on the missing aircraft (and even lobs a sly joke at Bond – he’s offered a drink that has been “stirred, not shaken”) before anything else can be revealed, the contact is abruptly dispatched by a surreptitious knife in the back. Fortunately, Bond dispatches the assailant, assumes his identity, and is escorted to Osato Chemicals.
Once inside the Osato building, a spectacularly destructive fight sequence occurs between Bond and professional Samoan wrestler Peter Maivia. While not quite on par with the Red Grant clash, this scene is pretty damn strong in its own right, if only for the clever use of weaponry – at one point, Bond wields a full couch against his opponent. Bond prevails, as he must, and the sleuthing continues.
Bond’s ally in this picture is the indomitable Tiger Tanaka, played with much gusto by Tetsuro Tamba. Cut from the same cloth as Ali Kerim Bey, Tanaka is a wonderfully gregarious character, reliable in the field, and eager to coach Bond on the finer points of the Japanese lifestyle, namely good sake and luxurious bathing (complete with scantily-clad attendants). I always enjoy a good interlude where Bond gets to relax and take his mind off the mission at hand.
Speaking of the mission: Osato Chemicals turns out to be a front for SPECTRE, which is handling the shipping and receiving of rocket fuel, something that would not seem out of place had a rocket not gone missing recently. Bond infiates the building under the guise of an appointment and meets Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) and Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), both of whom are SPECTRE agents and both of whom discover Bond is now who he says he is (curse those X-ray desks!). Before they can properly snuff him out he gets his bacon saved by Aki, and the pursuers in the car get the old tossed-into-the-sea-via-giant-magnet treatment. Happy endings for all.
The fight at Kobe docks makes a claim for one of the series’ best set-pieces. Bond tracks the Osato shipping vessel to a dockyard, but is almost immediately discovered and chased on foot. What follows is a ballsy, audacious, and incredible helicopter tracking shot, charting Bond’s progress on the rooftops as he’s surrounded by thugs, all while the horn section in Barry’s score swells on the soundtrack. It’s a fantastic, go-for-broke bit of bigness that fits the film exceptionally well. Bond may get captured in the end, but the visually dazzling journey is more than worth it enduring the potential torture from Helga Brandt.
ONCE WHEN YOU LOOK DEATH IN THE FACE
You Only Live Twice was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would later direct The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. These films are all gargantuan entries, but there is a sameness to them in terms of plot: a vessel gets swallowed by another vessel, Bond investigates missing vessel, uncovers plot to destroy the world, ends up saving the world. What’s truly weird and inspired here is that Roald Dahl is You Only Live Twice’s screenwriter, having been close friends with Ian Fleming (Dahl would later write the film adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, based on Fleming’s novel).
But if you ask me, the real star of the show is production designer Ken Adam. Having previously done excellent work on Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball, Adam goes above and beyond the call of duty here, offering a grand volcano set that remains the biggest and best feat in all of James Bond evil villain lair-dom. Worth noting: the entire set cost one million dollars to bring to life, which is equal to the entire budget of Dr. No.
Another shining sequence follows Kobe docks: the flight of Little Nellie, the one-man attack gyrocopter. Bond obtains Little Nellie in the field, thanks to a personal delivery from Q, who saw it fit to arm the aircraft with machine guns, aerial mines, rockets, heat-seeking missiles, and a flamethrower. Bond takes off, and we almost get immediate gratification of seeing him use said machine guns, aerial mines, rockets, heat-seeking missiles, and a flamethrower on some airborne hostiles. Another glorious moment in a film full of them.
To properly investigate the illicit shipping, fishing, and deliveries to the disguised volcano embedded in the side of the mountain, the action slows down as Bond must undergo Tanaka’s ninja school and learn the ways of his people. This includes a staged marriage to Aki and a full Japanese makeover. Aki makes for a great co-lead with Bond, but she’s quickly dispatched by an assassin (albeit memorably – poison dripped down a thread into her mouth while she sleeps) and is replaced with Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Kissy is solid as well, but she fails to leave the same impression Aki does, and her name isn’t even mentioned out loud in the film.
As much as I love this film, I cannot bring myself to defend Bond’s Asian makeover though. Made up with shoddy eye makeup and a bad wig, Bond’s disguise as a Japanese fisherman does not take up as much runtime as I remembered, but it is still an egregious plot point. While certainly a product of its time, it still stands out as possibly the first “truly bad” moment in the Bond franchise (Casino Royale 1967 notwithstanding). Swing and a miss, James.
Matters do perk up again once Bond infiates the volcano. We also get our first proper reveal of the previously unseen Big Bad of the series. As Bond is captured (yet again!), he comes face to face with one Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played here by Donald Pleasance. Bald, sporting a grotesque facial scar, and perpetually stroking a white Persian cat, this iteration of Blofeld is the creepiest of the bunch, offering cold stares and speaking in a chillingly mannered pattern of speech. It’s a memorable performance, but truth be told, while Blofeld is painted as Bond’s number one nemesis, I would never consider him to be my favorite villain – hell, Blofeld’s identity has had three previous films to establish him, and Auric Goldfinger easily mops the floor with him in terms of memorability after appearing in just one film.
Blofeld’s plot is ingeniously diabolical: hijack a pair of U.S. and Soviet spaceships so that the two powers will go to war and annihilate each other in the process, and China will take over as the lone superpower of the world. This plan involves a legion of henchmen in color-coded uniforms and the aforementioned pool of deadly piranhas, where Helga Brandt and Hans (the first of many hulking, blonde, Red Grant knock-offs) meet their grisly fates.
Before Bond can meet his fate, Tiger Tanaka and his band of ninjas arrive to save the day. A chaotic army vs. army battle commences, resulting in many explosions and casualties on both sides (watch closely for Blofeld’s cat, who is absolutely freaking out from the sound of the explosions in a clearly unscripted moment). After Blofeld escapes – a villain first! – the space shuttles self-destruct and the volcano within the lair erupts. Bond and Kissy escape and enjoy a sea-side rescue via submarine.
In many ways, You Only Live Twice is a major improvement on Thunderball (which is still a film I quite like). It’s a bolder, more adventurous, and more briskly paced adventure, helped by the fact that it runs about twenty minutes shorter. While far from perfect, the film stands as a series crowning achievement of spectacle, soaring Bond to literal new heights and proving that sometimes bigger is better. It’s a shame Connery made the decision to bow out after this one, but we’ll come to find that his decision will be relatively short-lived.
Coming up next: we get a brand-new Bond! With its leading man gone, what’s a franchise to do? The No Time to Die countdown will return with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
What do you think? Does You Only Live Twice offer the best spectacle in the series?
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