Bond fever was still raging through the 60s, but not everyone was happy about the success. Sean Connery grew so disillusioned with the series that he quit after filming was complete. But this isn’t goodbye–he was convinced to come back for one last official turn after his replacement, George Lazenby, proved to be a one-hit wonder.
You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film I remember watching, so it will always hold a special place in my heart, but revisiting it is… problematic. This movie also contains a lot of the elements most frequently parodied (Austin Powers mined a lot of material). And it has a screenplay by Roald Dahl. Yes, the author who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (who had his own connections to the spy world).
Anyway, who’s ready for casual racism and outrageous gender exploitation??
007 is dead! Well, not really, but the action-packed pre-title sequence would have you believe that he is when Bond is seemingly shot full of holes during a night of romance in China, then buried at sea. Of course, it’s all just a ruse so James can go undercover in Japan to prevent the Cold War from going nuclear thanks to some manipulation by SPECTRE. But all that is just a teaser for 007’s first cinematic showdown with his big nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
You see, upon arrival in Japan 007’s contact, Henderson, is promptly murdered. Bond tracks the killers to Osato Chemicals, which is naturally acting as a front for SPECTRE. Following the clues draws 007 to Blofeld’s secret volcano lair for
a final their first faceoff.
Check your brain at the door for this one. For one thing, the business of faking 007’s death so he can go on a mission to Japan makes no sense–especially since he does nothing to disguise himself or his identity. He’s the least secret secret agent in history. It also doesn’t make sense that no one seems concerned that MI6 safe spaces are repeatedly compromised with deadly consequences. This is the first Bond movie that uses plot as filler between action sequences–and unfortunately, this will become the predominant modus operandi of the series going forward.
There’s also the racism. Asian people are treated like exotic oddities. Bond literally asks “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” Do we blame the girl he said that to for trying to have him killed? Oh, and the Japanese makeup they put Bond in is laughable. They might as well put him in black-face and call it a day. Even more than that, women in a Bond film have never had it worse. The ladies he encounters in YOLT are treated like objects.
If you can put these troublesome elements behind you, YOLT will be a fun romp in the 007 world. It’s like your drunk uncle at Christmas: he entertains you even as you’re horrified by what he’s saying. For me, it’s just a mess.
The Man Playing Bond
Churning out five 007 movies in five years had Sean Connery disgruntled. Making things worse, Bond-mania was at fever pitch when production began and Japan offered no respite. Sean Connery and his wife were repeatedly mobbed by overeager fans and journalists during filming. Connery’s patience with the series wore fatally thin. Given the problems he and his wife had, it isn’t really surprising that filming had not yet been completed before Connery backed out of his 007 contract, refusing to return in the next Bond film (although he would be persuaded to return one more time after the Lazenby fiasco). He would also return in the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again. So fear not, everyone. This isn’t goodbye, just tata for now.
Charles Gray makes a very brief appearance as 007’s doomed man-in-Japan, Henderson. He’ll return to the series in Diamonds Are Forever with a promotion to portraying Bond’s nemesis Blofeld. This is also the first Bond film to feature portable offices for M and Moneypenny, a comedic gimmick that would be reused A LOT in subsequent films. In other news, Bond beds Tsai Chin in the pre-titles sequence. Nearly forty years later Tsai Chin would return to the Bond series with a small role as one of the poker players in Le Chiffre’s game in Casino Royale.
Bond explores Japan with the aid of Little Nellie, a super-portable personal helicopter. Bond also gets his hand on a cigarette rocket thanks to his Japanese comrades.
Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) is 007’s guide to Japan: ostensibly providing him shelter, pimping services, and a squad of ninja warriors. Except that assassins routinely break into Tanaka’s compound and kill people–and that squad of ninja warriors is completely oblivious. So basically, all Tanaka succeeds at is supplying 007 with women to sleep with. To be fair, the ninja warriors do come in handy in the final showdown, even if they use absolutely zero ninja skills (opting for guns instead of samurai swords. So modern).
There isn’t actually consensus as to which Bond Girl is the lead, so I based my decision on screentime and the fact that only one of them has a name used in the movie. That’s Tanaka’s right hand, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). For a hot minute she acts mysterious and coy, then she abruptly sneaks into 007’s massage to give him a happy ending (*cough*RACIST*cough*). The movie tries to set her up as demure yet capable, but she’s basically reduced to being 007’s getaway driver and sex toy. It doesn’t help that she has a paper-thin personality, and her adoration for James doesn’t do wonders for her dignity. Apparently, all she wants is a husband to spend every waking hour catering to. Coming on the heels of Domino (who managed to be a mistress who was also her own woman) and Pussy Galore (a Bond girl so independent she had a squad of her own Bond Girls), this is especially disappointing. How inconsequential is this Bond Girl? They kill her off 2/3 of the way through the movie, causing Tanaka and 007 to … shrug at the shame of it, then go about their business. The assassin might as well have broken a tea kettle.
Supporting Bond Girl
Once Aki has been dispatched, Tanaka fakes a marriage between Bond and local island girl Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). It’s unclear why a fake marriage is required. Ultimately, Kissy doesn’t get a lot more respect than Aki. She fake marries James Bond yet no one says her name once. If it didn’t appear in the credits, we’d have no idea what to call her. Still, she’s more spirited than Aki. And she’s not as easy. He has to earn it with Kissy. When you get down to it, if you had never met a Japanese woman before you would think that their only roles in society are as objects or wives.
Interesting bit of trivia for you: Hama was originally cast as Aki, but did not progress in her English lessons as well as Wakabayashi, so the two switched parts (Kissy having significantly less dialogue). Even so, Hama was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who previously dubbed Honey Ryder and Domino. Other interesting facts: Wakabayashi could not drive, so a stuntman wearing a wig had to double for her; while Mie Hama could not swim, which meant Sean Connery’s wife had to put on a black wig and stand in for her.
Continuing 007’s international women Bingo game, we have a treacherous German named Helga Brandt to contend with. More on this fiery-haired vixen/henchman later.
This is where YOLT excels. Donald Pleasance’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld is by far the most iconic portrayal of the Bond villain. First of all, the look: that gruesome scar running down his face (partially obscuring one eye). The voice: calm and measured but dripping with maniacal intent. How implacable is Donald Pleasance in this role? During the climactic battle, when explosions and gunshot effects are going off everywhere, his signature white cat is clearly freaking the fuck out. You would never know it looking at Pleasance, though. He just clamps a hand securely on the back of the kitty’s neck to keep it from running loose, ignoring the claws that are visibly digging into his forearm. That man is badass, and so is his seriously unhinged turn as Blofeld. Dude doesn’t even blink. The only mark against him is his short screen time. He doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the movie, then he’s only visible from the neck down, just like his earlier appearances. He doesn’t make a full appearance until the final battle is about to get underway. But what an impression he makes.
As a counterpoint, Pleasance is incredibly over the top to the point he makes it easy for Blofeld to be parodied. It’s hard to take his Blofeld seriously as a villain.
Forget Osato (Teru Shimada), who owns the chemical company acting as a front for SPECTRE. He might as well not be here. His secretary, the diabolical Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) makes a much bigger impression. She’s a likely heiress to Thunderball‘s Fiona Volpe in that she’s a violent, maniacal redhead. I mean, this woman is the kind of bitch who will try to kill you with a plane after applying salmon-colored lipstick with an applicator that doubles as a smoke bomb. But her badassery is limited. I can sum up her progression thusly: secretary, diabolical menace, sex toy, assassin who fails to get the job done, piranha bait. All happening so quickly that she barely has any presence in the film.
Perhaps wisely, producers decided to dial down the camp after Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones both ran full-speed in that direction. “You Only Live Twice” opts instead for a low-key, entrancing melody sung by Nancy Sinatra. I first saw this movie roughly twenty years ago, and I still occasionally catch myself humming the hook (a much more casual nod to the film’s Asian setting than the racist overtures of the film itself). Sinatra’s voice compliments it well, although to be honest, I prefer the version that was produced for radio compared to the one that actually plays during the credits. It sounds more polished. The reason I think it was a smart decision to go a different route with the theme is this: as much as I adore “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” for their camp, they sound a touch similar. By going in another direction, producers opened the door for a more complex collection of distinct Bond themes. Not all will be good, but there is something to be said for the eclectic sounds produced. With three excellent Bond themes in a row, we are officially on a hot streak.
First, we go to space, where an orbiting shuttle is mysteriously stolen by another vessel–leaving an astronaut to float away to his death. Then to a UN meeting that looks like it’s being held in Epcot Center for some reason, where the US and the USSR are ready to go to war over accusations around who is responsible. The British delegate informs them that his agents have tracked the mysterious vessel to Japanese waters and says MI6 already has a man on his way. Cut to James Bond, in bed with a Chinese woman in Hong Kong that he passive aggressively insults right before she invites gunmen in to seemingly kill him. 007 is pronounced dead.
I’m going to have to go with the first moment we actually see Blofeld’s face. Donald Pleasance clearly knows that this is a big moment in the series, and he knew just what to do with it. Small wonder countless parodies have looked here for inspiration. I also have to give up for a personal favorite moment in the Bond series: the iconic dispatching of Helga Brandt in a pool of piranha after she displeased Blofeld.
Grades: Movie: 2/5; Bond Girl: 2/5; Villain: 5/5; Henchman: 3/5; Theme Song: 5/5