The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
In this week’s The 007 Collective, I look back at the fifth entry in the Bond franchise – the one in which Bond finally faces his arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and pathetically goes undercover as a Japanese fisherman – YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.
Mission Title: You Only Live Twice
James Bond: Sean Connery
Release Date: June 13, 1967
Source Material: Loosely based on the novel “You Only Live Twice” by Ian Fleming
Tagline: You Only Live Twice…and “TWICE” is the only way to live!
When a mysterious spacecraft captures manned American and Soviet space capsules orbiting the Earth, tensions between the two countries hit an all time high. While the two countries are quick to point fingers at each other, England isn’t too sure – having tracked the spacecraft’s activity to the Sea of Japan. After faking his death to throw his enemies off, James Bond is sent to Japan to investigate the whereabouts of the mysterious spacecraft. His mission eventually leads him to SPECTRE, its leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and a plot to initiate World War III.
Turning Japanese I think he’s turning Japanese I really think so. Oh God, No!
You Only Live Twice is a pivotal film in the Bond franchise for a number of reasons. It was the first of the epic Bond movies that took the franchise from espionage to the realm of extravagant silliness. It was the one in which Sean Connery shocked the world by announcing that he was retiring from the role. But most importantly, it was the one Bond movie that made the biggest impact on me as a teenager. I mean, how couldn’t it? It had Bond going to Japan and fighting a bald scarred villain in a secret lair inside a volcano. It had ninjas! It had Little Nellie! It had rockets and space ships! It was a teenager’s action fantasy! It also helped that it was the main Bond movie that the Austin Powers franchise parodied. And in the late 90s, no comedy franchise was more popular than Austin Powers.
But first, some historical perspective…
Thunderball was a success that exceeded even Cubby Broccoli’s wildest expectations. It was the most profitable movie of 1966 (it opened in December 1965) by a wide margin. Coupled with the grand success of Goldfinger two years earlier, it firmly established the franchise as the most successful one of all time until then. With Bond mania at its peak, Broccoli and fellow producer Harry Saltzman wanted to adapt On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the second novel in Ian Fleming’s “Blofeld trilogy” after Thunderball. But with the snow-covered Alps locales of that novel proving difficult to scout, they instead turned their eyes to You Only Live Twice, the third and final book in the trilogy. With Bond having already crushed a megalomaniac with aspirations of world domination in Goldfinger, and having thwarted SPECTRE’s extortion scheme involving nuclear weapons in Thunderball, there was a conscious decision by the producers to make a film that would, once again, be the biggest Bond of all. With a then humongous $10 million budget (with $1 million being earmarked for the production of Blofeld’s iconic volcano lair alone), a plot that weaved in the space race, the country of Japan, a plethora of gadgets, SPECTRE and a potential World War III, You Only Live Twice more than lived up to the producers ambition to be Bond’s most larger-than-life adventure to date.
Since screenwriter Richard Maibaum, a Bond regular, was unavailable to write the screenplay, the producers turned to novelist Roald Dahl who was then best known for penning children’s fiction. It’s a bizarre choice, even when you take into account Dahl’s background in British intelligence and his friendship with Ian Fleming. Dahl’s first order of duty was to jettison much of the source material, which he deemed “Fleming’s worst book,” and saving only two major elements – the Japanese setting and the conflict between Bond and Blofeld. This choice meant that this would be the first Bond movie that significantly strayed from its source novel.
For directing duties, the producers hired Lewis Gilbert, best known for directing the Academy Award-nominated Alfie. Although Gilbert was initially reluctant to direct the film, considering he had only made small-scale dramas up to that point, Broccoli’s sheer will convinced him to sign on. Gilbert would eventually return to the franchise to direct two equally grandiose adventures – the scintillating The Spy Who Loved Me (which was an updated remake of this movie) and the outlandish Moonraker. Some Bond fans would eventually dub Gilbert’s three films as the “monorail trilogy” in reference to the high-tech lairs seen in them.
Among the other major returning crew members were composer John Barry, production designer Ken Adam, title designer Maurice Binder and film editor Peter Hunt, who accepted the gig after making a deal with the producers to direct the next film. To give You Only Live Twice its epic scope, the producers replaced cinematographer Ted Moore with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia). Young’s cinematography certainly gives the film the epic scope the producers were looking for. This is most evident in his framing of Japanese millionaire (and SPECTRE agent) Osaka’s modern offices, the long aerial tracking shot of Bond fighting a host of goons on a rooftop at the Kobe docks, and especially during the spectacular finale in which ninjas attack Blofeld’s volcano lair – a masterpiece of production design. Ken Adam’s design of this lair isn’t just the most iconic of the franchise but also one of the most famous movie sets ever built. Yes, it’s outrageous but completely in line with the out-of-this-world nature of this film. His gorgeous production work also extended to Osaka’s lavish office building and Tiger Tanaka’s secret underground headquarters beneath a subway station. Check out those rad TV screens.
As with many Bond productions before and after it, You Only Live Twice had its share of set-backs. The most notable being Sean Connery’s escalating dissatisfaction with playing Bond. Although he had already expressed some discontent during the press rounds for Thunderball, the demanding publicity tours and the fear of being typecast only escalated to the point of frustration during the production of this film. Unlike Saltzman and Broccoli, who kept renegotiating their deals with MGM, Connery was stuck in a contract that he felt was grossly unsatisfactory. Considering that Connery was THE face of the franchise, this was an understandable concern. When his demands for a salary increase were rejected, his relationship with the producers deteriorated to the point where he would stop work if Saltzman showed up on set! This, coupled with the embarrassing behavior of the Japanese media, who would invade his personal space everywhere he went, including when he was in the bathroom, led Connery to announce midway through production that this would be last Bond movie.
Perhaps because he knew this was his last movie or because of his difficult on-set experience, Connery’s performance suffered as a result – especially when compared to his work in the two previous films Goldfinger and Thunderball. The actor looks tired, and a bit bored. That brutality and killer edge that had come to define his iteration of the character seems to have evaporated during the filming of this one. Worse, his reaction in a key scene to the death of a major character is one of pathetic nonchalance – a tell-tale sign of an actor wanting out. Even his chemistry with the two Bond girls – Aki and Kissy – lacks the spark of his relationships with Honey Rider, Pussy Galore, Tatiana or Domino. Outside his performance, he appears a bit out of shape and paunchy too. His toupee, which had made an appearance in Thunderball, becomes distractingly obvious here. Based on his performance, it was a sound decision to leave the role behind. It really is too bad that he returned again for Diamonds Are Forever – a movie that would have been much better suited for Roger Moore’s Bond.
Connery’s subpar performance has a bearing on the quality of the rest of the movie too – which, save for a few highlights, is a rather middling affair. This was a bit surprising and disappointing considering how much I loved the movie as a teen. While I certainly wasn’t bored or annoyed with it the way I’ve reacted to some of the other movies, it was far from the thrilling adventure I remember it to be. Although Gilbert’s direction ensures that the film is never less than entertaining, the problems arise with Dahl’s screenplay which lacks the wit, bite and the brisk pacing of the previous four movies. Part of the issue stems from Blofeld remaining within the shadows for the majority of the picture. The two Bond movies that preceded it both featured scenes in which Bond outwits or gets outwitted by the main villain or at least a henchman earlier in the film. In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld is confined to the shadows for the most part, leaving it up to his henchmen to take on Bond. Alas, neither of them – Osaka or Helga Brandt (a cheap imitation of Fiona Volpe from Thunderball) – come remotely close to making an impact. There’s also the issue of Pleasence’s now iconic take on the character. Although I like his performance, it amounts to little more than a cameo, meaning for the first time in the franchise, Bond fails to kill the main villain. The result is a film that feels like it’s missing something. Like Connery, it feels defanged; a Bond adventure tale more concerned with delivering grandiose action sequences and appeasing the tourism board of Japan than establishing characters and a story.
Speaking of Japan… since the majority of the picture is set in the country, the production put in a lot of effort into portraying the culture in a positive light. With Japan’s economy booming at the time, the country was quickly becoming one of the world’s most exotic tourist destinations – something the producers were keen on capitalizing on. As such, we’re saddled with numerous expository scenes explaining various aspects of Japanese culture and customs. These include sumo wrestling, drinking Saki at the right temperature, life in Japanese fishing villages, ninjas, as well as a full traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. Most of these scenes, which are inessential to the plot, play like Japan 101 for western audiences. Aside from playing like an extended commercial for the Visit Japan bureau, they only serve to bog down the pace of a film that is already thin on plot. The wedding sequence in particular is dull as dishwater. It’s fine for a travelogue, questionable for a James Bond thriller.
Although the sequences are mostly respectful of Japanese culture, two scenes serve to undermine all the work put into the others. A scene set in a bathhouse in which Bond and his Japanese contact, Tiger Tanaka, are bathed by a bevy of subservient Japanese women, is a shocking example of casual misogyny and racism – exemplified by Tanaka’s statement, “In Japan, men come first. Women come second,” and when Bond uses a Japanese proverb to make a point about western men being superior to Japanese men because they have hair on their chests. This sequence is one-upped by the film’s most egregious scene in which Bond undergoes surgery to go look like a Japanese fisherman. The surgery, which involves shaving his hair, applying yellow makeup, slanting his eyes, and getting a bowler hair cut is flat-out offensive and inexcusable. Worse, nothing is made of it because as soon as Bond gets to the island, he goes back to looking exactly how he used to. This begs the question – Why bother in the first place?
Despite some questionable decisions, a screenplay that falters more than it succeeds, and a star that sleep walked through his performance, You Only Live Twice gets by on the strength of Gilbert’s spirited direction and control over the other craft aspects of the film. This includes Freddie Young’s gorgeous cinematography, Ken Adam’s meticulous sets, John Barry’s oriental-tinged score – which includes the magnificent title track sung by Nancy Sinatra, and four huge action set-pieces: Bond battling what looks like 50 goons on a rooftop, a car chase that culminates with a helicopter grabbing a car with a giant magnet, Bond taking on four enemy helicopters with Little Nellie, and the epic battle in Blofeld’s lair. Broccoli and Saltzman may have succeeded in making the biggest Bond to date but they also began the worrying trend of taking the movies into the realm of ridiculousness. Although On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a return to the back-to-basics of Dr. No and From Russia with Love, its failure at the box office meant that the series would always return to the “Bigger is Better” mantra when all else failed.
After two cold opens that were not at all directly related to the films that followed them, the cold open of You Only Live Twice goes back to setting up the pieces of the film. Like the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, a movie that liberally borrows its plot from this movie, the cold opening of You Only Live Twice comprises of three scenes. In the first – we see an American space capsule – in the middle of a mission – being brutally captured by an unidentified flying object that approaches the shuttle, opens its “mouth,” and swallows the capsule completely, leaving one astronaut stranded and left to die painfully in space. It then cuts to an emergency committee of world superpowers, the USA, the Soviet Union and England among them, arguing about the disaster. The U.S. blames the Soviets while the Soviets hilariously counter in a deadpan tone that they are a peace-loving people. The Englishmen meanwhile isn’t so sure it’s the Russians – stating that their intelligence has the UFO landing in the Sea of Japan, and they have their best man on it. Cut to Bond in bed making out with a Chinese woman before uttering the cringe-worthy line, “Why do Chinese girls taste different from other girls?” Before Bond can take his dalliance any further, the woman traps him in his Murphy bed, allowing two goons to riddle the bed with bullets. When the Hong Kong police arrive, we see Bond dead on the bed. Cut to Nancy Sinatra’s iconic title song. It’s an intriguing opening that must have surprised audiences back in 1967 although I’m certain no one really thought Bond to be dead – especially with the film’s title. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting opening sequence that nicely sets the stage for what is to come.
Title Designer: Maurice Binder
Title Song: “You Only Live Twice” performed by Nancy Sinatra
Famous Quote: “You only live twice or so it seems//One life for yourself and one for your dreams”
The Sean Connery movies had the best hit rate of Bond title songs with four out of his six movies featuring terrific title songs – Shirley Bassey’s twofer of “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds are Forever,” Tom Jones’ “Thunderball” and this iconic masterpiece, which was written by John Barry and performed by Nancy Sinatra. A hypnotic and melancholy track that beautifully incorporates Eastern instruments, the song is widely recognized today for its mysterious and grand opening notes. While it wasn’t a huge hit on release in 1967, it did become one of Sinatra’s most popular songs and continues to this day to endure. Covers of the song include everyone from Coldplay to Bjork to Soft Cell to Robbie Williams who superbly sampled it in his Bond tribute track “Millennium.” The song also received healthy coverage when it was brilliantly used in the final scene of Mad Men’s fifth season finale.
Although Maurice Bender’s credits sequence isn’t one of his best, it is far superior to most of his work in the 70s and 80s. It splendidly incorporates the Japanese setting of the film highlighting Japanese geishas, a volcano, Japanese umbrellas, and a rising sun.
The Big Bad: Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), the egomaniacal leader and founder of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) and the most dangerous terrorist mind on the planet. Extremely intelligent, with a vast pool of seemingly unlimited resources at his disposal, Blofeld is a criminal mastermind in lust with power and world domination. The arch-nemesis of James Bond. After two movies of hiding in the shadows (From Russia with Love, Thunderball) and his face obscured, Blofeld finally makes his big entrance in this installment. British actor Donald Pleasence’s turn as the scar-faced, Nehru suit-wearing villain was instantly iconic and ripe for parody the moment the film was released. Dr. Evil anyone? He may not have been as physically intimidating as Telly Savalas’ far superior portrayal but this is the one iteration of the character that remains ingrained most in the public’s consciousness.
After the memorable Fiona Volpe in Thunderball, the three henchmen we get in this film are a severe letdown as the three of them combined are less memorable than Volpe. The most significant of the three is Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), a cheap imitation of Volpe, down to the red hair. She attempts to kill Bond by first seducing him and then trying to kill him by trapping him in an airplane. The other primary henchman is millionaire Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) who doesn’t pose a physical threat to Bond. He simply carries out order to have goons and ninjas try and kill Bond – always failing, much to Blofeld’s annoyance. The last henchman of note is Hans (Ronald Rich), Blofeld’s 6’2” blond-haired muscle and bodyguard who, like Helga, meets a gruesome end at the hand of piranhas.
Organization: SPECTRE, China
World Domination Plan: Hired by the Chinese to instigate a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, SPECTRE captures an American and a Soviet space capsule with the aim of making each country think it was the other who captured their vessel – thus causing the world to go on the brink of World War III.
Primary: Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama)
Probably one of the most forgettable Bond girls in the franchise’s 53-year history, Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) is such a forgettable character that even Roald Dahl forgot to mention her character by name in the movie. The only reason we know that her name is Kissy is because she’s listed that way in the credits. Her last name is learned because of its appearance in Ian Fleming’s novel. Although this is hardly Hama’s fault, her subpar performance doesn’t really help matters. The fact that she spends the bulk of her performance running about in a bikini, even during a military attack, says everything.
Others: More impressive and memorable is Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), the smooth-talking and feisty Japanese intelligence agent who Bond meets on his arrival in Tokyo while watching a sumo wrestling match. She introduces him to Dikko Henderson and saves Bond when he’s on the run from some of Mr. Osako’s goons. She displays her driving skills during a car chase and also aids Bond during his ninja training. Her tragic death from poisoning at the hands of a SPECTRE agent is the film’s saddest moment. Too bad it’s undone by Connery’s rather poor handling of the scene.
Ling (Tsai Chin) – the Chinese woman who kisses Bond at the beginning of the film. Chin would reappear in Casino Royale 39 years as one of the card players at Le Chiffre’s high stakes poker game.
Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba): I’ve come to realize that every time one of Bond’s assignments takes him to a foreign country, he gets a foreign MI6 contact to introduce and help him assimilate into that country’s culture. In Dr No, Goldfinger and Thunderball, it was Felix Leiter; in From Russia with Love, it’s Kerim Bey; in Octopussy, it’s Vijay; in The Man with the Golden Gun, it’s Lieutenant Hip; in GoldenEye, it’s Jack Wade; in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s Draco; and in A View to a Kill, it’s Chuck Lee. Tiger Tanaka is cut from the same cloth as those guys. His purpose is to introduce Bond to Japanese culture and their way of life – whether it’s the women, the alcohol or the martial arts. He proves extremely valuable to Bond and plays a major part in the destruction of SPECTRE’s scheme.
Dikko Henderson (Charles Gray): Henderson is the MI6 contact in Tokyo who survives for only one scene. Gray would later reappear in Diamonds Are Forever as Blofeld. Whether or not Blofeld used Henderson likeness as a basis for his look in that film is never addressed by Bond or Blofeld.
M (Bernard Lee): M briefs Bond on board the submarine after the latter’s resurrection. He sends Bond to Japan to meet up with Henderson.
Q (Desmond Llewelyn): Q meets Bond in the field to set-up Little Nellie and explain the autogyro’s list of gadgets to Bond.
Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). Another nothing role for poor Miss Moneypenny.
Body wrap breather: Which Bond uses to breathe comfortably while pretending he’s dead during his “funeral” in the post-credits sequence.
Automatic safe-combination cracker/decoding device: Bond uses this device to open Mr. Osako’s safe in his offices.
Little Nellie: One of Bond’s most famous gadgets. The autogyro Little Nellie is based on the actual military plane Wallis WA-116. Its weapons include machine guns, rockets, heat-seeking missiles, mines that were deployed with mini-parachutes, and a camera, attached to the pilot’s helmet that allowed team members to view footage from the ground.
Cigarette Gun: Used by Bond to kill an unsuspecting worker who was holding the controls to opening and closing of the main hatch to Blofeld’s lair.
Suction Cups: Bond uses these, attached to his arms and knees to climb down into the volcano lair.
ODDS & ENDS
Most Memorable Quote:
[After many close encounters, Blofeld and Bond meet for the first time]
Blofeld: James Bond, allow me to introduce myself. I am Ernst Stavro Blofeld. They told me you were assassinated in Hong Kong.
Bond: This is my second life.
Blofeld: You only live twice, Mr. Bond.
Most Embarrassing Quote:
[Tiger Tanaka takes Bond to his personal bathing house to give Bond a taste of Japanese hospitality]
Tiger Tanaka: Rule number one: never do anything yourself when someone else can do it for you.
James Bond: And rule number two?
Tiger Tanaka: Rule number two: in Japan, men come first, women come second.
James Bond: I just might retire to here.
Most Memorable Moment:
It has to be the first reveal of the interior of Blofeld’s titanic volcano lair – which comes complete with a helipad, a rocket launcher, a monorail system, prison cells, a control room, and Blofeld’s own private quarters with its piranha infested pool. The lair has been spoofed, parodied and copied from everything from Austin Powers to The Simpsons to The Incredibles. It’s quite a sight!
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
The entire Turning Japanese sequence in which Bond is made over to look like a Japanese fisherman! Good Lord!
[After Bond has escaped a narrow death at the ends of Helga Brandt, who he had slept with earlier in the day]
Tiger Tanaka: Chasing girls will be the end of you, Bond-San. I told you that before.
Aki: He didn’t chase her. He did it so I could get away. You wouldn’t touch that horrible woman, would you?
James Bond: Oh heaven forbid.
Most Outrageous Moment:
Again, it’s the scene in which Bond is made to look like a Japanese fisherman. Every now and then, the Bond series comes up with a moment so bone-headed and ill-conceived that it has to be shamed in multiple sections. This is one of them.
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
[A Japanese intelligence helicopter has used a giant magnet to carry a car full of SPECTRE goons from the highway and taken them to the Tokyo Bay]
Tiger Tanaka: How’s that for Japanese efficiency?
James Bond: [watching the goons car being dropped into Tokyo bay] Just a drop in the ocean.
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
Aki: I think I will enjoy very much serving under you.
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
I really wanted to go with the scene in which Little Nellie defends her honor against four hot shots but the finale in which Tiger Tanaka’s ninjas storm SPECTRE’s massive volcano lair is too big a sequence not to highlight somewhere.
Most Dated Reference:
It has to be all the archaic references to Japanese culture, right?
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 5! (once with Ling, twice with Aki, once with Helga Brandt, and once with Kissy)
Number of people Bond kills: 18
Best Kill: Bond’s extended fight with Hans which ends with Bond knocking Hans off into Blofeld’s piranha-infested pool. As the man gets eaten alive, Bond dryly quips, “Bon appétit”
Locations visited (In order of appearance): Hong Kong, Tokyo, Matsu
Misogyny Meter: 8/10
I guess we can begin with the pre-credits sequence in which Bond asks Ling why Chinese girls taste different from other girls. If that isn’t enough, how about the ridiculous bath house sequence in which Tiger Tanaka tells Bond that in Japan, men come first and women come second. All the Japanese female characters are depicted as subservient to the men. If that isn’t misogyny, I don’t know what is. There’s also Tiger’s quip about Kissy having a face of a pig, and Aki telling Bond that she would very much love serving under him. Finally, Kissy is mostly made to run about wearing nothing but a bikini during the finale.
Racism Rating: 9/10
Although the filmmakers went to great lengths to portray Japanese culture in a positive light, it falls apart when Bond is made to go undercover as a Japanese fisherman and has to undergo surgery – which involves him shaving his body, getting a new haircut, and getting his face done up in bizarre ways to make him look Japanese.
Box Office: $43 million ($291 million adjusted for inflation; fourth highest grossing Bond overall).
007 Chronological Listing: 5/24
Running time: 117 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, MGM
The 007 Collective will return in:
LIVE AND LET DIE (1973)
Previous entries in The 007 Collective:
- Goldfinger (1964)
- A View to a Kill (1985)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Octopussy (1983)
- Thunderball (1965)
- GoldenEye (1995)
- The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
- The Living Daylights (1987)
- Skyfall (2012)