You Only Live Twice: Teetering on the Precipice
by Tom Wilcox (@TRWilcox)
“They killed James Bond. They KILLED JAMES BOND! And I just found out who he was!”
I don’t remember how old I was when I first watched You Only Live Twice. Somewhere in the single-digits, seven or eight? We’ll say eight.
The iconic gun barrel opening set the tone. Action! Excitement! Take-no-prisoners surf guitar!
It opens in outer space. Two astronauts maneuvering a capsule, the Jupiter 16. (I could have pulled that out of my memory even if I hadn’t just rewatched the movie. “Jupiter 16” is just one of those things you remember.) Another larger, more menacing ship approaches. It swallows them whole, like a shark, leaving one astronaut to float off to his death. They certainly had my attention. This movie meant business.
Then we are introduced to our hero…in bed. Kissing a pretty lady! I did not usually get to watch movies like this. These people are naked under the sheet! Pretty hot stuff. I feel like I’ve crossed over into adulthood if Dad is going to let me watch this. Bond says something about how Chinese girls taste different from other girls…wow. Good thing Mom’s not here right now or she might make me cover my eyes… Suddenly, bad guys burst in holding machine guns!! (Double exclamation. Hello, I’m eight. I love machine guns!) They cut short the make-out session with a hail of bullets. A trap! Holy crap. They just killed James Bond! What IS this movie? Then the beautiful strings of the title theme cascade down, as Nancy Sinatra’s voice floats over them. Volcanoes and Asian beauties begin to fill the screen… I was hooked. This is something I’d never seen before, and I was going to take in every last second of it. It was the beginning of a lifelong viewing habit.
Of course, Bond wasn’t really dead. I watched the rest, enthralled. My childhood memory tended to cut out any of the boring stuff and remember just the highlights. Bond fights a sumo wrestler! Fights on the docks! Gets tied up by a pretty lady! Crashes a plane! Flies his own personal helicopter! Trains to be a ninja?! By this point, my eight-year-old brain had exploded. Then we hit the secret volcano base and things reached a whole new level.
Watching You Only Live Twice as an adult, I’m now painfully aware of how weak it is in comparison with what came before in the series. After the initial “death” and mission briefing, Bond heads to Japan where, despite location photography that gives an intriguing glimpse at 1960’s Japan, the movie is a bit of a slog at times. There’s a bunch of shenanigans involving Osato Chemical Corporation. There are multiple mentions of mono-sodium glutamate. Indeed, this is the only Bond film to feature MSG in its plot. (THUS FAR!…?)
One problem: Bond doesn’t get many chances to show how clever and awesome he is the way he did in previous movies. During a chase that could have been exciting, he gets bailed out by a deus ex machina helicopter with a giant magnet that hurls the enemy into the ocean. Another potentially exciting scene at the Kobe docks ends with Bond leading everyone onto the rooftop, then jumping off onto a bunch of crates that are obviously stuntman-friendly cushions. Helga Brandt leaves him stranded in an aircraft, which he simply crashes and survives without explanation. (Though to be fair, most of things in this movie happen without explanation…) With sequences like these, there’s a certain, explained partially by Connery’s distancing himself from the role. He’s already checked out as Bond in this movie, and it shows.
The Bond girls also leave something to be desired, both in their roles in the story and how they are portrayed. That is, one level above cardboard cutout. There’s Helga Brandt (Karen Dor), a femme fatale built in the mold of Fiona Volpe from Thunderball. But Luciana Paluzzi she ain’t – what she is, is a husk devoid of personality. Of the two native Japanese Bond girls (played by Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi), one does not even have a name mentioned during the film – this should tell you something. The language barrier couldn’t have helped (neither girl spoke English when they were cast), but then again, neither did Roald Dahl, apparently, when he wrote the script.
Elements of the plot are frequently nonsensical. In fact, there are too many to mention, but one is unavoidable. In what has to be the craziest detour in the history of the 007 movies, Bond must, as “cover,” undergo cosmetic surgery to turn Japanese (I really think so!) and take a fake Japanese wife, complete with elaborate fake marriage ceremony. It is then that we witness the abomination that is Asian Connery, a Frankenstein’s monster of 1967 racial insensitivity. (Apparently, to the makers of You Only Live Twice, all you needed to become Asian were large eyebrows and a bowl haircut.)
Despite all these flaws, it’s still possible for me to maintain the excitement I felt as a child when watching this movie. It starts with Little Nellie, the one-man helicopter assembled from the contents of five giant suitcases. Complete with rocket launchers and machine guns, it was a little boy’s dream. Watching today it still puts me back in that childhood frame of mind. Some things you never grow out of.
Speaking of never growing out of, we come to the finale in Blofeld’s giant volcano lair.
This is THE quintessential set piece of the Bond films, and the set itself has to be considered perhaps production designer Ken Adam’s masterpiece. (All his sets in this movie are impressive, actually, from the U.N. meeting to the Osato Chemical interiors.) It has an actual, physical scale to it that you don’t experience in movies anymore. (According to IMDB, the volcano set cost almost as much as the entire Dr. No movie.) Today, CGI has permanently scrambled our film senses and turned every movie frame into a flat comic strip panel where nothing exists outside of the boundaries of the frame. I’ve always loved filming locations like the volcano lair because it represented a permanent, tangible geography. They occupied impressive amounts of space, and you believed the actors could clearly inhabit and walk around that space… because they actually COULD.
The larger-than-life quality of the set, and the action that occurs in it, is the thing that all the Bond spoofs, and many later installments in the actual Bond series, would come back to: the huge rocket launching pad, the teams of henchmen in color-coordinated jumpsuits running back and forth, the working monorail, the piranha-filled moat, the control room filled with radar screens. These are now Bond (and Bond spoof) cornerstones.
The final battle isn’t perfect, but it still has the power to give me another back-to-childhood thrill. Refreshingly free of modern shaky-cam, we get to see all the action, including the raid by Tanaka’s rappelling ninjas, from a clear, distant perspective. Seeing all those actual extras running around the set with Connery and Pleasance, I’m reminded of the giant action-figure melees we would have in the sandbox as kids.
For good or bad, You Only Live Twice has had a lasting legacy in the history of the Bond franchise. Both of YOLT-director Lewis Gilbert’s other Bond movies, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, are more or less remakes of this movie, as is the Brosnan-era’s Tomorrow Never Dies. You Only Live Twice became the standard template for a massive-scale Bond adventure.
Re-watching the films in order of their original release, it’s impossible to deny that YOLT was, at its time, truly “The Biggest Bond of them All” (sorry Thunderball) given the sheer scale of production and the volcano base sequence in particular. YOLT arrived at a time when the initial “Bondmania” of the sixties had reached its peak. While watching You Only Live Twice, you become simultaneously aware of the series that had reached new highs but was also completely falling apart at the seams. It’s a thrilling perspective.
For Sean Connery’s sake, I kind of wish he hadn’t returned. But he did. And so will I in… Diamond Are Forever…
T.R. Wilcox works in the importer/exporter business. He can be found on Twitter talking about forgotten cultural relics at @TRWilcox.
First #Bond_age_ Live Tweet: Skyfall. (Better late than never.)