For the love of entertainment
Bond mania was reaching fever pitch when production on this fifth installment began, but not everyone was comfortable with the attention. Sean Connery and his wife were repeatedly mobbed by overeager fans and journalists during filming, causing Connery’s patience with the series to wear fatally thin. An alleged photo of Connery on a toilet ran in a Tokyo newspaper, but a quick Google search is unable to confirm this. 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. He would not 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 (and Thunderball remake) Never Say Never Again. So fear not, everyone. This isn’t goodbye, just tata for now.
You Only Live Twice is special for several reasons. First, it’s the first Bond film I remember watching. Second, it contains a great deal of the elements most frequently parodied in the Bond world (Austin Powers mined a lot of jokes from this material). And third, no less than Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay. Yes, the childrens book author who gave us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, among others.
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. You see, an American spacecraft was mysteriously hijacked and an American astronaut left to die in space. Americans believe the Soviets are responsible, but MI6 isn’t sure. The spacecraft was last tracked over the sea in Japanese territory, so 007 is dispatched in this, his second life, to uncover what’s going on before World War III breaks out. His investigation leads him to Osato Chemicals, which is operating as a front for SPECTRE. But all that is just a teaser for 007’s first cinematic showdown with his big nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (see “Villain” section for more on him).
YOLT is one of those movies where you have to check your brain at the door. For one thing, it’s never clear why it was necessary to fake 007’s death in order for him to go on this mission to Japan (other than to give us a title, of course). There doesn’t seem to be much care taken to hide him, after all. Besides, in 97% of Bond films he just goes about his business without much care for a cover (or even an assumed name), so … yeah. He’s the least secret secret agent in history. It also doesn’t make sense that no one seems concerned that Tiger Tanaka’s compound is repeatedly compromised, with deadly consequences. And apparently Bond can’t visit a little seaside village in Japan unless he’s been fake-married to a local because reasons.
There’s also the casual racism. There’s a grand history of dubbing in the early Bond films, but Tanaka’s dubbing is so over-the-top he might as well be in a kung-fu movie. Asian people are treated like exotic oddities. “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” Bond wonders in the pre-title sequence. No wonder the girl he said that to tried 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 almost literally treated like objects. More on that in the “Bond Girl” section.
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.
Notable Event: Charles Gray makes a very brief appearance as 007’s doomed ally Henderson, MI6’s man in Japan. He’ll make a grand return to the series in Diamonds Are Forever, with a rather huge 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.
Gadget: Bond explores Japan in search of Blofeld’s hidden lair with the aid of Little Nellie, a super-portable personal helicopter. It’s more practical than the jetpack he used in Thunderball, and it can defeat a squad of combat pilots, but it feels like a step backward. Once you’ve flown around in a jetpack it’s probably best to try a different direction. Bond also gets his hand on a cigarette rocket thanks to his Japanese comrades.
Ally: Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) is 007’s guide to Japan: ostensibly providing him shelter, pimping services, Japanese gadgets, 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 to any intruders. Seriously, the compound is infiltrated three times and everyone just shrugs about it. 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 of their ninja skills (opting for guns instead of samurai swords. So modern).
Bond Girl: It’s actually difficult to pick which girl gets this spot because there are two girls who get it on different lists. I based my decision on which has more screentime, which one is pictured on the Blu-Ray disc itself, and the fact that only one of them has a name that is actually used in the movie. That would be Tanaka’s right hand, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). She toys with 007 for a hot minute, acting all mysterious and coy, until she abruptly decides to sneak into his massage session and give him a happy ending. Nothing stereotypical about that, right? Guys? Anyway, the movie tries to set her up as demure yet capable, but she basically gets reduced to acting as 007’s getaway driver and sex toy. It doesn’t help that in terms of personality she actually manages to out-bland Tatiana Romanova (From Russia With Love) and her paper-thin personality and ooey-gooey adoration for James. That says quite a lot. She works with spies, but 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 about 70% 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 when he tried to kill Bond.
Supporting Bond Girl: Once Aki has been dispatched, Tanaka fakes a marriage between Bond and local island girl Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). She fits the Bond girl mold better than Aki in terms of character, but I’ve already outlined why I chose Aki instead. Again, it’s unclear why they can’t just sneak 007 onto the island in costume. In fact, you would think that bringing him in as a husband might bring more attention to him. Wouldn’t locals want to meet the new husband? But I digress. Ultimately, Kissy doesn’t get a whole lot more respect than Aki. I mean, she fake marries James Bond and no one ever says her name at any point during the movie. If it didn’t appear in the credits, we’d have no idea that we should call her Kissy Suzuki. You would think they’d have wanted to mention that little play on words in the script. Still, she’s more spirited than they gave Aki credit for. And she’s not as easy. Yes, she ultimately sleeps with James, but when they first get back to her island hut she makes him sleep in the corner. He has to earn it with Kissy. But basically, 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. I’ve never been to Japan, and I would certainly never presume to know enough about the culture to comment, but I like to think Japanese women would roll their eyes at this portrayal. 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 series regular Nikki Van der Zyl, who had previously dubbed Honey Ryder and Domino. Another interesting fact about these Japanese actresses is that Wakabayashi could not drive, so a stuntman wearing a wig had to double for her in all her driving scenes; while Mie Hama could not swim, which meant Sean Connery’s wife had to put on a black wig and stand in for her. Producers must have been really keen on hiring these girls to put up with all these problems.
In other national news, Bond beds Chinese Ling (Tsai Chin) in the pre-titles sequence, but she’s only there for about a minute before trapping 007 in her hide-a-bed and having gunmen shoot him with a machine gun. You read that correctly. And no, I have no idea how he is supposed to have survived that. Another interesting fact: 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.
Continuing 007’s international women Bingo game, we have a treacherous German named Helga Brandt to contend with. More on this fiery-haired vixen in the “Henchman” section below.
The Villain category is where YOLT truly excels. Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld is by far the most iconic portrayal of the Bond series’ most iconic character (other than 007 himself, of course). First of all, the look: that gruesome scar running down his face (partially obscuring one eye). The voice: calm and measured but absolutely 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 a badass, and so is his seriously unhinged turn as Blofeld. Dude doesn’t even blink. The only mark against him is that his screen time is decidedly on the short side. He doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, then he’s only visible from the neck down, just like his appearances in the early movies. He doesn’t make a full appearance until the final battle is about to get underway. But what an impression he makes. It’s a dead heat between this incarnation of Blofeld and Goldfinger for best Bond baddie in my book, and I may have to give the edge to Goldfinger strictly because of the screentime issue. Damn. What a tough choice.
Henchman: Forget Osato (Teru Shimada), who owns the chemical company acting as a front for SPECTRE’s misdeeds. 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 carefully 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 making drinks, diabolical menace threatening to surgically torture 007 but sleeping with him instead, assassin with a plane who fails to get the job done, and finally: piranha bait. Admittedly, that’s on par with a lot of villainous female roles in 007’s world. Make of that what you will.
Theme Song: Producers, perhaps wisely, 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 casual voice is a perfect compliment, although to be honest I prefer the version that was produced for radio compared to the one that actually plays during the credits. It just 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 sonic 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.
Iconic Moment: 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. Man knocks it out of the park and makes it look easy. 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: 4/5; Bond Girl: 2/5; Villain: 5/5; Henchman: 4/5; Theme Song: 5/5
Bonus Pinterest-able photos: