In the days leading up to the American release of Skyfall, the Shattered Lens has been taking a look at the previous films in the James Bond franchise. Today, we take a look at the 5th official James Bond film, 1967’s You Only Live Twice.
Released two years after the critically derided but financially succesful Thunderball, You Only Live Twice was a step in a new direction for the Bond series. As Sinclair McKay explains in his brilliant book on the Bond films, The Man With The Golden Touch, both the world and the movies changed a lot between 1965 and 1967 and You Only Live Twice reflected that change. Director Lewis Gilbert and screenwriter Roald Dahl were newcomers to the Bond series and the film they created would serve as a prototype for the flamboyant, big budget espionage fantasies that would come to epitomize many of the later entries in the franchise.
You Only Live Twice begins with one the Bond franchise’s more elaborate precredit sequences. During these first few minutes, the film rather boldly announces that You Only Live Twice is going to be a bit of a departure from the previous Bond films. The film begins not with Bond but with two anonymous American astronauts orbiting the Earth in a small capsule. The two astronauts are blandly chatting with mission control on Earth when, suddenly, another spacecraft approaches and literally swallows the American capsule whole. One of the astronauts is hurled into space as a result and, as his body spins away, it’s obvious that Bond’s not going to be dealing with something bigger than just another guy looking to hold up Fort Knox.
The Americans blame the Russians while the Russians claim that they’re being framed by Americans and the entire world appears to be on the verge of war. But as always happens in the Bond films, the British are there to keep everyone from overreacting. A British diplomat is seen calming down the belligerent super powers and assuring them that MI6’s “best man” is already on the case.
(One of the undeniably charming things about the Connery and Roger Moore Bond films is the way that the United Kingdom is portrayed as being the world’s unofficial third superpower.)
Cut to Hong Kong, where James Bond is lying in bed and asking his latest conquest, “Why do Chinese girls taste different?” And, at this point, I think it’s fair to say that Bond is really lucky that he looks like a young Sean Connery. Suddenly, gunmen storm the bedroom and open fire, apparently killing 007.
Oh no! I guess the world is doomed, right? We’re left to consider this sad reality as we watch the opening credits and listen to Nancy Sinatra sing the film’s excellent theme song.
Well, of course, James Bond isn’t really dead. He faked his death so that he can safely go to Tokyo and investigate who was behind the attack on the space craft. You Only Live Twice was filmed almost entirely on location in Japan and a good deal of the film’s first half is devoted to scenes of Bond simply observing Japanese culture. It’s a bit like Lost In Translation with an espionage subplot.
After fighting a few random henchmen, Bond meets Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), the head of the Japanese secret service. Tanaka seems to spend the majority of his time getting massages from the dozen or so young women who wait on him hand-and-foot. “In Japan,” he tells Bond, “men come first, women come second.” “I might just retire here,” Bond replies. Uhmmm…okay. Thank you, 1967.
In order to continue the ruse that Bond’s dead, Tanaka arranges for Bond to take on an assumed identity. After being trained on all aspects of Japanese culture and on how to fight like a ninja, Bond is heavily disguised to look like a Japanese fisherman. Tanaka arranges for Bond to fake marry a local girl named Kissy (Mie Hama). Kissy is probably one of the least interesting Bond girls in the history of the franchise. Beyond walking around in a bikini while wearing high heels, Kissy just doesn’t have much of a personality.
Bond and Tanaka’s investigation lead them to a shady industrialist named Osato and his secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor). Helga is about as close as You Only Live Twice comes to featuring a strong female character. Not only is she an assassin who has no problem with killing a man who she’s just had sex with but she’s also a redhead, just like me!
Anyway, it’s not until very late in the film that we finally meet Helga’s boss. If for no other reason, You Only Live Twice will always be remembered for featuring one of the great Bond villains. After being seen in the previous Bond films as just a hand stroking a white cat, Ernest Stavros Blofeld makes his first on-screen appearance here and fortunately, he’s played by Donald Pleasence.
Looking at Pleasence’s performance today, the natural tendency is to compare his Blofeld to the iconic character that he inspired, Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil. However, one reason that Dr. Evil became such a popular character is because Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld is one of the great film bad guys. As delivered by Pleasence in his casually off-center way, every line of Blofeld’s dialogue drips with the promise of perversion and hints of the neurosis that fuels his every action. Blofeld spends most of the movie hiding out in a secret base that’s hidden inside a hollow volcano. He strokes that ever-present white cat and uses a pool of piranhas to punish failure. It is a credit to Pleasence’s performance that you never, for a second, doubt that Blofeld could very well be living in a hollow volcano.
I have to admit that You Only Live Twice is not my favorite James Bond film, though there are plenty of things that I do like about it. Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn all make welcome appearances and there is a genuinely exciting scene where Bond flies around in a toy helicopter. Working on his first and only Bond film, Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Young captured some beautiful images of Japan and Blofeld’s volcano lair is one of the franchise’s best locations.
That said, You Only Live Twice often moves a bit too slowly for its own good and, with the exception of Blofeld and occasionally Helga Brandt, none of the film’s supporting characters are all that interesting. Charles Gray, who later took over the role of Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, has a nice cameo as a decadent retired intelligence agent but he’s killed off before he can make too much of an impression. Perhaps worst of all, Connery spends most of this film looking like he’d rather be doing anything other than play James Bond for the fifth time. By his own account, Connery eventually grew bored with the role and that’s certainly obvious in You Only Live Twice.
Connery’s boredom can perhaps explain why, during the shooting of You Only Live Twice, it was announced that he would not be returning to play the role in the 6th Bond film. The Bond franchise would continue with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but it appeared that Connery would no longer be a part of it.
We’ll be taking a look at that film tomorrow.