You Only Live Twice (1967)

Posted: May 21, 2019 in James Bond
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“You can watch it all on TV, every Bank Holiday Monday.”

So here we are with the penultimate (official) Connery Bond film. It’s been two years since Thunderball, and SPECTRE have graduated from stealing nuclear bombs to stealing entire spaceships as they plot to create war between the USA and the Soviet Union. Luckily the British believe someone else is to blame, and suspect that someone is in Japan. After faking 007’s death to give him room to manoeuvre, Bond’s despatched to Japan, a country where men come first, and a film Mike Myers got far too many jokes out of…

There was a time when, if asked about my favourite Connery film, I might actually have said this one. In hindsight I can see why; hollowed out volcanos, a great Blofeld, Little Nellie, spaceships! It’s just that watching it now its flaws are all too clear. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable Bond film, it just means it’s one you’re better off not thinking about in too much detail.

Really it’s the plotting that lets it down. Let’s set aside for a moment the notion that somehow war between America and the Soviets would leave China and the rest of the world untouched, set aside how rockets can take off without anyone noticing, especially given that Bond seems to be in the vicinity around the time of one launch. The big question is, why go to the trouble of building a spaceship that eats other spaceships, why not just blow the other craft up? It’s not like anyone is going up there to search for clues.

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There are other annoyances, why for instance does Helga Brandt, who let’s not forget has Bond tied up and at her mercy, release him, just so they can then get in a plane that she can bail out of to leave him to die? It makes zero sense. It isn’t like they’re that worried about linking Bond with Osato Industries. I mean, a car full of goons tries to perforate 007 immediately after he walks out of the company’s headquarters. Couldn’t they at least wait for him to walk around the corner?

It feels almost blasphemous to say this, but the blame must surely lie with the screenwriter, the late, great Roald Dahl.

nellieGaping plot holes wider than the mouth of a volcano aside, there are some great set pieces here. Bond’s ‘death’ and funeral are great, as is his meeting with M aboard the submarine. It’s great to see Bond in navel uniform (and special mention to how gorgeous Lois Maxwell looks in uniform too). Bond’s fight atop the buildings of Kobe docks is wonderfully staged, and shot, especially the aerial filming. It does seem like following on from Thunderball being the film with all the scuba divers, You Only Live Twice is the film with all the helicopters! From Tanaka’s magnet carrying chopper (mad but fun) to Little Nellie and Bond’s dogfight with four bigshots, and then there’s the helicopter heading in and out of the volcano. Throw in the aerial filming and the producers must have got a job lot!

Let’s talk more about the dogfight. Little Nellie is wonderful, and it’s nice to see Bond return a vehicle in one piece (mostly) for once. By modern standards it might be a bit static, but I still love it.

And no discussion of set pieces would be complete without mention of Tanaka’s ninja attack! The modern Bond films seem to have dispensed with the small war finale, which is a shame, and this one is a doozy, made all the better by the set Ken Adam and his team put together. No CGI back then so that’s a hell of a set!

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Cast wise You Only Live Twice does well in some departments, and poorly in others. Pleasence is wonderful as Blofeld (and for me still the definitive Ernst Stavro) but his reveal is late on in the film, shame we didn’t get more of him. Still it is delicious when he tells the Chinese agent who accuses him is extortion that “Extortion is my business.” I mean seriously guys, it’s the E in the organisation’s name! As an aside on SPECTRE working practices, yet again people don’t get much of a warning, straight to the piranha tank for you, Miss Brandt!

As Tiger, Tetsurō Tamba is great, recalling Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love.

176On the Bond girl front things aren’t so strong. Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki is good (and I love the way she refers to Bond as Zero-Zero) aside from the fact that she curiously throws herself at Bond with no preamble, it’s like we were missing some scenes that suggested more of a connection between them. Still, she’s capable and her acting isn’t bad. Shame she gets murdered. Double shame that Connery can’t be arsed to get that cut up about it. I’m so glad he isn’t around for the next film.

Aki’s replacement as Bond girl is Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki (yes that’s her name!) who’s something of a wet fish if you ask me, not that she’s given much to work with. That leaves Karin Dor as Brandt. It’s clear what the producers were going for; if a villainous European redhead had proven so successful last time out, why reinvent the wheel. Oh dear. Dor does her best, but sadly Brandt isn’t a patch on Fiona Volpe.

And then there’s Connery. You can tell he’s fed up by now, he just doesn’t seem to be putting the effort in, though he isn’t helped by the script. Expressing practically no emotion at the death of Aki is unforgivable though. I’m not suggesting he break down in floods of tears, but he barely waits a minute before talking to Tiger about his upcoming wedding!

Ah the wedding, which brings us (not so) neatly onto a discussion of sexism and racism. Women don’t get treated especially well here, and did Tiger really just refer to a woman as sexiful? On the plus side Bond doesn’t lie on top of anyone till she gives in or blackmails anyone into sex so maybe that’s an improvement.

Culturally in many ways the film isn’t as bad as you might imagine. The wedding, and Sumo scenes are both treated with some semblance of respect, and on the whole Japan isn’t viewed as being backward and Tiger and his people are portrayed as smart and competent. It’s just shame that we then get Bond’s transformation into a Japanese man, which is about as convincing as Gary Johnston’s transformation into an Arab in Team America. Bond looks less like a Japanese fisherman than a guy off to infiltrate the Romulan Empire, he just needs pointed ears.

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John Barry’s score is great, mixing western and eastern themes, though Nancy Sinatra’s title track is a tad forgettable. The space effects are nicely done and still hold up today, and kudos for perhaps one of the grisliest deaths in the franchise as an astronaut is left to die alone in orbit; shudder. Talking of astronauts, I wonder what did happen to those two cosmonauts and the other American astronaut? Also what was Bond going to do if he had been able to get into the rocket? You get the feeling he hadn’t thought this through. Oh well, guess some other 007 will have to be the first (and only) Bond in space!

On the ‘not them again front’, Burt Kwok is back, and spot Ed Straker and Scott Tracy (Ed Bishop and the recently departed Shane Rimmer, both of whom turned up in multiple Bond films) and if you look closely one of the Russian mission control guys is a certain German Colonel from Allo Allo.

Perhaps the best WTF is this though. Remember the girl who promises Bond a very special duck in the pre title sequence, well the actress, Tsai Chin, is one of the poker players in Casino Royale!

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There’s a lot to enjoy in YOLT, but more care should have been taken with the story. YOLT seems a curious book to try and adapt given it follows on directly from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (apparently OHMSS was planed to be the next film after Thunderball but they had trouble finding a snowy setting so decided to squeeze another one in first. As I’ve already said, I’m glad about this because I firmly believe a Connery version of OHMSS would have been nowhere near as affecting as the one we’ve got.)

Still, Bond in uniform, Little Nellie, the focus on Japan, Blofeld’s reveal, space rockets, and did I mention a fricken hollowed out volcano? This is fun, it’s just not a great film in the Bond pantheon.

Anyway James Bond will return, but he might look a trifle different…

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