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Published on October 20th, 2015 | by Michael

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You Only Live Twice: It Was A Different Time?

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The Story

Believed dead by his enemies, James Bond has the space and time needed to investigate a series of mysterious happenings affecting the space programmes of both the US and the Russian governments. Bond’s investigations take him to Japan where he forms an alliance with Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), the head of the Japanese secret service. Bond forms quite a camaraderie with Tanaka, which is unusual between Bond and his male allies, perhaps because even as an intelligence chief, Tanaka is not above getting his hands dirty and going out into the field.

Bond also teams up with female agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), though she is murdered in an attempt on Bond’s life. When the source of the rockets is traced to an island off the coast of Japan, Bond must marry a local to properly infiltrate the community – fortunately Tanaka has an agent already in place, Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Less fortunately, Bond must be made up to look Japanese, a scene that provokes cringing in any modern audience.

You Only Live Twice Japanese

Bond and friends eventually discover the villain’s secret lair –a hollowed out volcano. Together with a hundred of Tanaka’s best ninjas (!), Bond must storm the base and thwart the villains to avert a nuclear war! This agreeable nonsense was written by children’s author Roald Dahl, on what I always assume was some sort of bizarre job swap with Ian Fleming (who of course wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Band). It’s the first Bond film that deviates wildly from the source novel – Dahl didn’t reckon much to the book, calling it a ‘travelogue’ and so discarded most of it. The film script does follow the template set out by previous Bond films though, most notably Dr No, which it mirrors very closely. In both films, Bond investigates mysterious events in a single foreign country (first Jamaica, then Japan), dodging attempts on his life as he gets closer to the truth, before facing off with a mostly unseen villain in a spectacular, unconventional base (undersea, in a volcano), preventing the villain from stoking Cold War tensions by sabotaging rocket launches.

Title Sequence & Bond Theme

Despite being one of the more action packed Bond films, You Only Live Twice has a strangely low key opening. Unlike Goldfinger, which has a thrilling cold opening unconnected from the rest of the plot, You Only Live Twice’s pre credit scene sets up the villain’s plan, when a mysterious rocket approaches an American spaceship and swallows it whole, killing the unfortunate astronaut who was out on a spacewalk at the time. The whole thing unravels very slowly, in the manner of a Gerry Anderson puppet show, and the effects look very dated to modern eyes.

The scene then moves to China, where James Bond is relaxing with a lady. Alas, Bond’s taste in ladies is even more suspect in pre title scenes than it is the rest of the time, as she traps him in a fold out bed so he can be machine-gunned to death. Bad luck, James.

The Nancy Sinatra sung theme is one of the series’ most well-known, and best. (People don’t like to admit this, but Bond themes are, in the main, terrible). Regular composer John Barry supplied the tune, Leslie Bricusse the lyrics. Bricusse worked primarily as a lyricist for musicals and theme tunes, and his most famous and enduring work is probably ‘Candy Man’ from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. In all honesty, ‘You Only Live Twice’ is probably not his best work, but then nobody does their best work on a Bond theme. Sinatra’s vocals are brilliant, and the song became one of her signatures. What really makes ‘You Only Live Twice’ stand out though is the fantastic opening, which was famously re-recorded for the Robbie Williams hit ‘Millenium’. The whole effect produces a very haunting theme tune, which is apropos because Bond is about to rise from the dead.

The titles themselves are much of a muchness, at this point. Shapes a cross between spoked wheels and spider’s webs appear on screen, as do shots of erupting volcanoes (thanks, Freddy Forshadowing) and the now obligatory silhouettes of women, as well the occasional impassive face to gaze balefully at the viewer.

The Villain & Their Plan

Would you believe it, SPECTRE is back! Throughout most of this film, SPECTRE chief Blofeld remains a largely unseen director of operations in his secret lair, letting his agents take their futile pot shots at Bond. Blofeld’s chief agents on mainland Japan are industrialist Mr Osato (Teru Shimada) and his deadly secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), known as Number 11 for her position within SPECTRE. Brandt attempts to kill Bond by trapping him in a crashing plane (as opposed to say, shooting him) having pretended to have been seduced by the British spy. When Bond survives the attempt, Brandt is fed to Blofeld’s piranhas. Bad luck, Helga.

When Bond infiltrates the base (and is captured, due to insufficiently impersonating an astronaut), he, and the audience, finally gets a look at Blofeld! Played by local favourite Donald Pleasence, Blofeld has all the trappings of a supervillain that Austin Powers would parody so mercilessly – a scar across the eye, a grey Nehru suit and of course a white cat. Pleasence brings a very calm menace to the role; it’s no surprise that it is the chief himself who spots that Bond was incorrectly carrying his equipment when attempting to pass for an astronaut.

You Only Live Twice Blofeld

Pleasence may exude competence as the supervillain, but his plan is nuts. I praised Auric Goldfinger’s plan for its simplicity, but Blofeld’s is ludicrously convoluted. In the pre-title sequence, SPECTRE send up a ship that swallows up an American space craft, killing one astronaut and capturing the rest. The US naturally believes that the Soviet Union is behind it, ratcheting up the Cold War. Then, when the Russians send up a ship, the same thing happens to them. They blame the US and the world inches that little bit closer to nuclear war. But here’s the thing. The US knows they were not behind the attack on the Russian ship, just as the Russians know they did not capture the Americans. So why would the US continue to believe that the Russians were responsible for the first incident when it is clear that they themselves have been framed for the second? It makes little sense, even accounting for Cold War paranoia. In the event, Bond must race against time to prevent a second US operation being attacked in a similar way and thus prevent a thermonuclear exchange. This would be beneficial to Blofeld by the way, as demonstrated by the following flow diagram

Attack Space Programmes

|

Provoke Nuclear War

|

?

|

Profit

 

So other than the fact that the plan requires a ridiculous amount of technical expertise to work in the first place, and relies of boneheaded stupidity of all parties at a government level, and doesn’t really stand to gain SPECTRE anything, it’s perfect.

The Locations

Japan. Come for the sights, stay for the racial insensitivity! Like Dr No, You Only Live Twice picks one country and sticks with it. That said, the scenery is still spectacular, from the gardens at Tanaka’s fortress, to the islands Bond must infiltrate and the volcano that forms Blofeld’s lair. Internally, the volcano base was a Pinewood set which cost around $1M and included a working monorail and heliport. It still stands up as one of the most spectacular lairs scene in films and is the standard go-to when parodying the series, such as in Austin Powers or the classic Simpsons ‘You Only Move Twice’, also known as ‘the Scorpio episode’.

The genuine Japanese countryside gets a get showcase from the various airborne scenes, of which more later. When Bond and Kissy discover the volcano base, they must swim there from fishing boats, which provides more great shots of the coast. In the script Blofeld was held up in a castle, but this was changed by director Lewis Gilbert and his team after it was discovered that the Japanese do not build castles by the sea. Other than that change, Dahl was very impressed with Gilbert, who he said ‘filmed it as written’. Dahl was taken with the trust Gilbert had in his script.

You Only Live Twice Base

The Gadgets

Q provides just the one gadget in this film, but it’s a doozy. Bond requests that M16 send him ‘Little Nellie’ along with her ‘father’ Q. Little Nellie, it turns out, is a kit autogyro, equipped with all manner of weaponry. Little Nellie was added when production genius Ken Adams heard a radio interview with RAF Wing Commander Ken Wallis, who invented Little Nellie. Wallis was a fascinating figure, a man who flew missions in WWII despite being blind in one eye and retired from the RAF to invent autogyros. He got himself into the Guinness Book of World Records for 34 separate records, eight of which still stand today. He also got to play James Bond, as he sat in for Bond in the Little Nellie sequence of the film. You never learn about a Bond gadget without it being used and sure enough the machine guns, missiles, rockets, smoke and landmines are all used to defeat a squadron of fighting helicopters. The pilots, presumably, died of embarrassment.

You Only Live Twice Little Nellie

Tiger Tanaka also equips Bond with a vital gadget, a cigarette that launches a missile, which Bond uses to effect an escape after Blofeld allows him one last smoke. Like several gadgets and vehicles in Bond films down the year, this was actually a real weapon that the manufactures allowed the film to use as it provided publicity. They hoped it would become standard issue but proved to be unreliable and inaccurate and was eventually scrapped. Not to mention that once it became common place, armed forces were unlikely to be continually fooled by it!

Most Inappropriate/Politically Incorrect Moment

It has to be the ‘Japanese’ make-up Bond has applied to make him pass for a local. The scene is staggeringly ill-conceived and the execution is even worse. The scene was of course parodied without mercy in the wonderful Team America: World Police.

You Only Live Twice Team America

Weirdest Moment

I’d be tempted to go for the dogfight between Little Nellie and the helicopters but nothing can top the three word summation of the climactic battle ‘ninjas in a volcano’. As another contributor to this site commented, that represents peak Bond.

Best One Liner

The film is not a classic in that regard. In a not especially crowded field, first place probably goes to Blofeld, acquiescing to Bond’s request for a cigarette. ‘It won’t be the nicotine that kills you, Mr Bond’.

How Good Is It Really?

You Only Live Twice represents both the giddy, ridiculous peak of the James Bond series and some of its most regrettable excesses. Set against the gritty rebooted Daniel Craig Bonds, the film looks very silly indeed. However as a kid this was the Bond that thrilled me the most, a series of fun stunts leading to a glorious pitched battle that, at the risk of belabouring the point, features one hundred ninjas in a volcano. As with so many early Bond films, the attitudes in You Only Live Twice don’t bear up to scrutiny. Goldfinger had the scene in the barn, You Only Live Twice has Sean Connery turning Japanese.

Sean Connery had at the time become a little bored of the role and you can see it in his performance, which seems a little flat. This is possibly part of the reason that it’s so difficult to pick out any classic one liners as none of Bond’s really stick. Still, Tiger Tanaka proves a great foil to Bond and it’s something of a surprise that he didn’t reappear in any later films. Donald Pleasence makes for the most memorable and probably still the best Blofeld thus far. Interestingly, Charles Gray who appears in this film as Bond’s ally Henderson would later take up the arch-villain role in Diamonds Are Forever as a far less otherworldly Blofeld that Pleasence here.

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then you are unlikely to find a Bond film as widely praised as You Only Live Twice. Sure, it’s campy and ridiculous but those very elements are the ones that have survived in parodies down the years. And all that aside, the battle at the end is genuinely very thrilling. It’s not as good now as when I was a kid but You Only Live Twice is as fun as any film in the series.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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