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You Only Live Twice Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 14, 2012 at 12:24 AM

    You Only Live Twice Review

    Bond and on and on and on …

    But this time … He’s turning Japanese, I think He’s turning Japanese, I really think so!

    And which outrageous entry are we taking a look at today, then?

    Well … it’s got a massive villain stronghold inside a volcano! It’s got Blofeld stoking his pussy whilst feeding his piranhas – or is it the other way around? It’s got Bond moonlighting as a ninja! It’s got Little Nellie!

    Which means that it’s just got to be … You Only Live Twice!!!

    By now, Sean Connery’s feet were itchier than his trigger finger. The fun and frivolity of his third glorious and golden-coated outing as 007 had gone on to become excessive overkill with Thunderball, in which everything had threatened to spiral out of control. The endless production schedules and the infuriating press junket that followed him everywhere he went were driving him mad, and he was now disillusioned with the character of James Bond. The star was eager to move on from the role that had made him a household name.

    But, despite Connery’s reservations about a character that was glued to almost every facet of his life, Bond number 5 was possibly the movie that incorporated all the elements that had made the franchise so successful and then added some of the most splendid conceits yet mounted – and these were the type of over-the-top ingredients that would be the most memorable. Thunderball had been huge, an absolute juggernaut of logistics and technical challenges, but the hard work had paid off and the film had been a monster success for Cubby Broccoli. He saw the secret of this success as being the expansion of the gadgets, the flair for design and the evocative setting. All things that he sought to maximise even more for this next adventure. Bigger and better was the order of the day and celebrated author Roald Dahl was commissioned to write the screenplay … which certainly accounts for the film’s lighter approach and more fanciful air. Dahl was a fabulist, and even for a Bond picture, his recruitment possibly seemed a little off-kilter. But then he had also written suspenseful dramas for television episodes of Danger, Way Out and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so he certainly had a grasp of the edgier and the more desperate.

    To his credit, he came up with what certainly seemed like a fanboy’s wish-list of Bondian ingredients. For a kick-off, we now meet SPECTRE chief executive Ernst Stavro Blofeld properly for the first time, and he didn’t disappoint. Dahl, of course, loved eccentric and surreal characters, so the fleshing-out of MI6’s arch-nemesis in such a wacky and way-out fashion was right up his street. We had gadget overdose with underground spy-trains, ninja weaponry, exploding dart-equipped cigarettes, space rockets and the lethal Meccano kit of Little Nellie. There was a bloody big battle at the end, furnished with legions of extras and dozens of explosions. And we had the most exciting and imaginative villain’s den of the entire series – the inside guts of a dormant volcano.

    There was also a new director to the series in Lewis Gilbert, who had the unique combination of Alfie, about Michael Caine’s roguish cockney womaniser, and Sink The Bismark, a tale of wartime Naval heroism and noble determination, to help attune him to the bed-hopping Commander Bond’s particular brand of patriotism. Gilbert possibly fitted too easily into the Broccoli/Saltzman fold because his first Bond film still feels quite subdued and all very trademarked despite all of these thrilling incidents and far-out devices. His taste for the more overtly over-the-top 007 missions would, however, continue with even greater style and much more excess in the splendid duo of Moore outings, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. He keeps things fairly zippy and comic-book here, but the Japanese wedding section always slows things down too much, I feel. Plus, he doesn’t exploit certain traditional attributes as much as he could have done – as we shall see.

    The intention had been to film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service next, which would have given Bond the impetus for hunting down Blofeld for the murder of his wife, Tracey, and then this would lead, quite rightly following Fleming’s path, into Bond’s savage slaying of the SPECTRE No.1 which should have closed out You Only Live Twice, making a far neater run in the series. But the practicality of shooting in the snow proved too daunting for the production at this time, and the decision was made to go with YOLT first – which runs into problems with continuity when OHMSS seems to make clear that Blofeld and Bond have not met before. But, hey, this is classic James Bond, and each film can, and does, pretty much exist within its own bubble of high fantasy.

    “James Bond, allow me to introduce myself. I am Ernst Stavro Blofeld. They told me you were assassinated in Hong Kong.”

    “Yes. This is my second life.”

    “You only live twice, Mr. Bond.”

    After MI6 stages his “death” (in a stunt that must have made Connery sick with envy), we get a virtual rehearsal for the filmed version of The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond must work with foreign agents, notably a beautiful female one (or two), to investigate the sinister theft of US and Russian spaceships whilst in orbit around the Earth by some mysterious technological power that seems hell-bent on starting World War Three. Images of these capsules getting swallowed-up by a strange bullet-shaped vessel that unfurls like the petals of a giant steel flower are acutely recalled by Stromberg’s supertanker engulfing nuclear subs in Spy. Bond must then lead an army into the heart of Blofeld’s huge base of operations to thwart the onset of impending conflict between the two suspicious super-powers. He will free captured service personnel and turn them upon their captors. Both villains have a sadistic penchant for feeding women who have failed them to their voracious sea-life pets – sharks for Stromberg and piranhas, here, for Blofeld. And, the biggest connection of all? Of course …yes it’s London-based American ex-pat Shane Rimmer cropping up in both movies! He plays nothing more than a humble radar-tracking technician in this, and would be seen in a very similar role in Diamonds Are Forever, but his dedication to Eon would see that he gained a much bigger role in Spy when he was promoted to a US commander of one of the stolen submarines.

    Gilbert’s film opened in 1967, with the declaration that it would be Connery’s final appointment as 007. However this worrying concern would not be reflected at the box office. You Only Live Twice raked in over $111 million, a considerable profit if still less than its predecessor, and went on become one of the fondest recalled of Bond’s classic tenure, with its playful attitude to the threat of global destruction and its Far Eastern flavour providing a scintillating diversion from the paranoia of the Cold War and the burgeoning issues of America’s doomed involvement in Vietnam. The cynical, counter-culture revolution that was permeating other genres had not penetrated Bond, and audiences still savoured his larger-than-life victories, even if his adventure in Japan was a sort of reminder that there were still corners of the world in which the British Empire had failed to find a foothold. In fact, in a great many ways, YOLT was like a celluloid allegiance between England and Japan. Their technology – check out the Sony product placement at work even in this early yarn – and their sophistication with regards to their own Secret Service are not belittled or bettered by Bond and MI6. Our boy even dutifully goes native and becomes one of them. Fleming loved the nation and their customs, so Gilbert’s film adheres to this sense of commitment to the original prose but also extends a slightly schoolboyish affiliation to this emergent super-power. Crafty stuff that seems designed to get the Land of the Rising Sun on-side.

    Going hand-in-hand with this veiled supplication, we see that Bond is not so self-assured this time around. Although he manages to land an errant, booby-trapped Cessna and get away before it explodes, and to take out several assassins, he still finds himself having to be rescued by a girl. And on a couple of occasions, too … and by the same girl, no less, Japanese Secret Service agent Aki, played by the adorable Akiko Wakabayashi. Mind you, I do love the fight scene with the big henchman in the plushly futuristic office suite of Blofeld’s wealthy operative, Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada). Bond picks up a long leather couch and uses it as a battering ram against the thick-set wall of besuited animosity coming at him like a human freight train. Like Oddjob in Goldfinger this guy’s bulk should not be mistaken for clumsy flab, and he is a formidable and fast opponent, with one of those horrible semi-grins of pure sadism. Bond’s despatching of one hit-man via a rugby tackle and a chokehold is a nifty little manoeuvre too, and one that continues to reveal Bond’s ruthless nature when it comes to taking care of business at the sharp end of espionage.

    “I must say I am disappointed with the ease with which I could pull you in. The one thing my honourable mother taught me long ago was never to get into a car with a strange girl. But you, I'm afraid, will get into anything. With any girl.”

    As M’s veritable opposite number in Japan Tetsuro Tamba is excellent as the ninja-schooled head of the country’s Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka. He has far more in common with 007, though, as his love of the finer things in life and the copious attentions of the ladies goes to prove. In some ways, Tiger is like a better equipped, better trained and more resourceful Felix Leiter. Bond certainly couldn’t succeed in his mission without his capable assistance.

    Along the way to grounding Blofeld’s devious schemes amid much violence and flames, a villainous limo full of gunmen is hauled from the road by a huge magnet hanging from the belly of a helicopter and dropped, very unceremoniously, into the sea. More things plunge from the sky when 007 goes for a sight-seeing tour over the mysterious volcanic island chain in Q’s spectacularly cute (and decidedly deadly) micro-copter, Little Nellie, when he is engaged in a stunning aerial battle with a quartet of “bigshots” who “make improper advances towards” his little sputtering bird. Rockets, cluster-bombs, air-to-air missiles, machineguns and a flamethrower all come into effect to defend Little Nellie’s honour in a tour de force of aerial choreography and a cascade of burning miniatures. Cameraman Johnny Jordan lost part of his leg whilst lensing this showstopping sequence, when an updraft drew him into the rotor-blades of another helicopter! Back on the ground Bond crashes through a course in Japanese lifestyles and customs, getting his wild chest foliage shaved, and even taking an oriental wife, the scrumptious Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki, to help him gain access to the provincial fishing village on the banks of Blofeld’s mountain-topped islet. I’m not quite sure why such a seasoned secret agent as 007 actually needs to learn the ways of the ninja, though. But, man, he learns them quick!

    The film scores big-time with its chaotic finale. The image of the big ninja assault upon Blofeld’s base, with Tiger’s elite unit of rappelling commandos streaming down ropes to the launch-pad was something that George Lucas paid homage to when had his Clones attacking General Grievous’ vast chasm-set warren in Revenge of the Sith. These are real people though, and not CG effigies, and the set-piece is thunderous and exciting, Gilbert ratcheting up the tension with a great countdown to doomsday that must be averted by Bond. It is funny how the captured astronauts suddenly develop fighting skills and can overpower the armed guards though. But the film certainly delivers enough hurtling bodies and machinegun slaughter to satisfy. Bond even gets to tackle another big henchman, in Ronald Rich’s imposing Nazi-like bodyguard, Hans, and it is a good, solid skirmish, but you can’t help wishing that we’d met this big Aryan thug before. He just seems to come out of nowhere for the sole purpose of giving 007 an extra obstacle to overcome. What is wryly amusing is that the good guys always seem to be saving one another’s lives. Bond has been saved by Aki already, but Tiger also flings a throwing star just in the nick of time to end the British end up, and Kissy actually saves Tiger from a sneaky attacker coming up behind him. So there’s definitely a salute to teamwork going on here.

    “I shall look forward, personally, to exterminating you, Mr. Bond.”

    When Czech actor Jan Werich fell ill after commencing the shoot, Donald Pleasance stepped in to the breach to portray Bond’s most tenacious adversary and, for many, his is the most memorable interpretation of Blofeld. Both Telly Savalas and Charles Grey – who also appears here as Bond’s refined but doomed ex-pat contact, Dicko Henderson – would go on to play the archfiend and, for my money, Savalas was the most believable and dangerous. But Pleasance is certainly the most sinister and undeniably the most iconic. He could with a little more screentime, I reckon, but it is presence that counts … and this is something that he has in abundance.

    Pleasance had a way of snarling lines that was quite unusual and troll-like. If you listen to his Dr. Sam Loomis urging Jamie Lee Curtis to “Get out now!” in Halloween II, or his spiteful shout of fully-auto empowered revenge as he blasts Isaac Hays’ Duke to bits in Escape From New York“You’re the Duke! You’re the Duke!!!” – you know what I’m talking about. He’s a little man with a strange gnome’s head, so when he suddenly hisses-out, it is genuinely unsettling. As Blofeld, his slowly, quietly dealt murmuring of almost robotic threat runs against the maniacally cackling frivolity that you expect his premier nutjob to unleash. But there is one terrifically jolting cry that he issues that just creases me up every time. After proving how he deals with failure, his little voice roars out an abrupt and scratchy yell of “Kill Bond! Now!!!!”that really spikes the blood with venom. His archetypal appearance – the bald head and scar, the tight-fitting suit – were custom-built for parody, with Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil in Austin Powers being the most brilliantly affectionate of all. Watching the film now, it is horribly apparent how conveniently he scuttles away from Bond’s grasp, and this only makes you wish that he had reappeared, in this incarnation, for another escapade.

    “You made a mistake, my friend. No astronaut would enter the capsule carrying his air conditioner.”

    “Oh, sorry. My mistake. I thought you’d said “hair” conditioner!”

    In an already rich heritage of Bond scores even at this relatively early juncture, John Barry’s lush and romantic music for YOLT is a remarkable achievement. The main title song, vocalised with the sweet honey-dripping voice of a very nervous Nancy Sinatra, was written by Barry with sweeping, romantic lyrics by Leslie Bricusse that eloquently spoke of the duality of life and obsession. Famously riffed-on by Robbie Williams (who adopted an appropriately Bondian look to go alongside it), this conjures up the Far East with its slow junk-boat sloshing rhythm and exotic background instruments of marimba and mandolin. Elsewhere, Barry demonstrated tense, celestial suspense and dread with his cues for the space-set sequences of capsule-kidnapping, shimmering strings and mysterious flute gradually assimilated by a growing wave of approaching brass and percussion.

    As I have often said, my favourite piece of Bond music – in fact, my favourite cue of all-time – is Barry’s exciting mission-in-progress statement of 007. It is only heard in five of the films, with this being its third appearance. When a disgruntled Q (Desmond Llewellyn) arrives with a contingent of helpers in khaki safari shorts and socks to provide Bond with Little Nellie, Barry’s ebullient cue scores the playfully edited montage of the mini-copter’s construction. Though, the subsequent battle with Blofeld’s squadron of gunships is scored with a rousing arrangement of the more famous James Bond Theme. Thus, once again, Gilbert’s film seems totally committed upon delivering precisely what fans want. Incidentally, the final battle to take Blofeld’s volcano stronghold is scored with an irresistible, and pulse-pounding variation of the 007 theme, furious syncopated rhythms for xylophone and brass.

    There is a relaxed quality to his scoring that works in-tandem with a film that often feels leisurely and, dare I say it, quite smug. By now the production family pretty much knew that they had a winner on their hands each time they commenced a Bond film. The only doubts came from the direction of Connery, but they also knew that, come the hour, the man would still deliver the goods. And then some. But this languid pace is actually a wonderful touch in a series of films that had been getting faster and faster, bolder and bolder and yet more jam-packed with action and incident. Thunderball had roared out of the gates and hardly come up for air. This was an opportunity to slow things down a touch and revel in a genuinely sensual and mellow atmosphere before amping things up with oodles of death and destruction. The most obvious reference point for this blissful combination of filming confidence and the desire to take more time and enjoy the surroundings a bit more comes when Bond has his running battle with the goons at the Kobe Dock. In a series that has more standout sequences and personal faves than you can count on the fingers of a battalion of Scots Guards, this elaborately relaxed action set-piece always sticks in my mind. With a beautiful variation on the main theme playing as a majestic helicopter shot surveys Bond battling his way through streams of baddies on the rooftop.

    “As you can see, I am about to inaugurate a little war. In a matter of hours after America and Russia have annihilated each other. We shall see a new power dominating the world.”

    Roald Dahl’s absconding from Fleming’s novel – which culminates in a quite brilliant set-piece of Bond running the gauntlet of Blofeld’s Garden of Death and then getting to wring the scurvy bugger’s neck in a vengeful show of absolute bloodlust– allows the film to take in the now requisite SF elements that lift 007’s missions way out of the traditional spy-game. I have no problem at all with that. The film even makes plenty of room for the comments and observations upon Japanese culture that Fleming was so concerned with in his chapters on etiquette and style and custom, which is nice. But the screenplay, itself, is actually rather silly, even if it does ladle on the gadgets and the action to keep you distracted from its shortcomings.

    The whole “death of Bond” thing is pretty poor. He gets wiped out and publicly buried at sea in a big display of MI6 sleight of hand, ostensibly to throw his many off the scent, but then reappears looking exactly the same and prowling through a very similar neighbourhood to the one in which we saw him getting supposedly offed. Well, okay, that was Hong Kong, and he resurfaces in Japan … but this guy has foes everywhere that are going to spot this “ghost” cropping up. I mean he is hardly clinging to the shadows when he goes to meet his new contact at the sumo wrestling championships, is he?

    Tiger’s CCTV that seems to be keyed-in to Freddie Young’s own camera – just how would a security camera be able to move and track like that, and be so tightly edited? When Q quickly briefs Bond on crafty additions that he has made to Little Nellie, Bond has need of them all almost immediately after take-off. The immaculate meadows and rolling countryside beneath the crashing plane that Bond has been trapped inside by Osato’s scheming associate, the redheaded Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), is most definitely not part of the Japanese landscape. And it really is asking a bit too much to think that a henchman will fall for Bond simply putting on the jacket and smog-mask disguise of his own eliminated accomplice, lying down and groaning in bogus pain on the backseat of the car. This bumbling, poor-sighted baddie even picks up the doppelganger and carries him all the way to his boss’s place before thinking to check that he’s got the right guy.

    Dahl doesn’t handle the innuendo and sexual banter with any of the usual aplomb either. The film has ample opportunity for Connery to raise an eyebrow and issue a verbally dressed ogle … yet Dahl’s script and the direction from Gilbert seems to let them go by with only the most minimal of lip service paid. Take for instance, the immensely obvious moment when Helga Brandt explains to him that “Mr. Osato believes in a healthy chest” when she leans her own bountiful evidence of such a thing right in 007’s face. Come on, Commander Jimmy! England expects! But all he comes up with is a pathetic, “Really?” WHAT? IS THAT IT? I can imagine the blokes in the audience at the time sitting there with big expectant grins on their faces, just hoping for another Bondian quip that they could gleefully quote in a put-on Scottish brogue to the local barmaid, or to the girl down in the typing pool in the office the next day, and then just feeling horribly deflated at such a lousy letdown of a line. The scene when Brandt has him tied to a chair, his cover blown, and she threatens-cum-seduces him with torture is another such example of huge libido-goading potential, and yet there is next to nothing memorable about the encounter. The film seems to squander too many of these classic moments, allowing them to wither into stale reflections of the type of jingoistic smut we’d heard in the previous productions.

    Some critics claim that Connery looks “disinterested” in the whole affair and, to an extent, I would have to agree. There isn’t that same spark that existed in his earlier performances, and he seems to meander from one set-piece to the next without any genuine vigour. The zest has dissipated, the one-liners – which aren’t all that imaginative in the first place – tend to fall flat. A baddie gobbled up by piranha … and all Bond can think of to say is, “Bon appetite!”

    Poor show, Jimmy.

    Even Maurice Binder’s opening titles seem a bit humdrum and uninspired this time out. The exotic dancing girls are nice enough, but the volcanic imagery could really have been used more imaginatively … especially in conjunction with those aforementioned dancing girls. Orgasmic expulsions of lava against these nubile and gyrating bodies were the sort of thing that was required.

    Although I have to say that this doesn’t reflect upon a film that is one of the most visually impressive in the entire franchise. For sure, Freddie Young’s camera makes the exotic location work in and around Tokyo and Kobe, the Himeji castle, and the volcano on Kyushu look truly enticing and nothing short of beatific. And Ken Adams’ production design simply excels. From the secret underground train of Tiger Tanaka’s SIS base to the sumptuous office lounge of Mr. Osato, and from the wonderfully ornate ninja training school to the awesome volcano-pit launch-pad and baddie enclave that really takes the breath away, his artistic flair has never been so bold, nor so expansive. Blofeld’s base was biggest set built at Pinewood, and is still one of the largest constructed at the studio. The monorail and rocket gantry, the trick-lake sliding roof, and those mighty cave walls are momentous visual embellishments in a movie whose very DNA has been engineered to constantly wow, and even the miniature version that we see getting blown to smithereens has some great little touches, such as the tiny bodies bouncing around as each explosion rocks the joint.

    So I always have a good time with the film – it is certainly much more amusing and exciting than the dour and glum Diamonds Are Forever that would actually make us all realise that Connery was right to have ditched the character at this point. The rot has set in, but it is so beautifully glossed-over with oodles of the good stuff that you don’t really notice until afterwards. The score, the action and the exotic, fanciful atmosphere, coupled with some of the most gorgeous cinematography in the series, ensure that Bond’s Japanese odyssey is never less than entertaining, and often tremendous fun.

    But however much I love this movie, what with all its stupidity and contrivances, I find one specific element utterly ridiculous and quite annoying.

    Bond is on a mission to thwart Blofeld’s space-capsule-robbing antics. Okay. He’s in Japan, because that’s where his arch enemy is hiding away. Yep. He’s going to have to fall back on the use of specially trained ninjas. Aye, I’m with you. Tiger insists that Bond pay them respect by adopting some Japanese customs. Yes, that’s only fair. BUT WHY, OH WHY DOES THIS MEAN THAT 007 HAS TO TURN JAPANESE AND THEN GET MARRIED? I mean, he’s going to infiltrate the island anyway … so what difference does brushing his hair forward and bushing-up his already bushy eyebrows and taking a Japanese wife make? And besides, he ends up looking more Vulcan than Samurai!

    It seems churlish to pick holes in a Bond film. Any Bond film. But this entire narrative thread is just one big gimmick that goes absolutely nowhere. Once on the island, our boy just goes off and does his own thing anyway. It’s not like the saboteurs in The Guns of Navarone pretending to be local fishermen so that they can wander about under the Germans’ noses. He just doesn’t need to do any of this under-cover stuff to achieve his goal. It is, as I say, a glass raised to Fleming and massive handshake to Japan. A sell-out, the more cynical amongst you could say.

    And, boy, does he look goofy in this disguise!

    You Only Live Twicewas one of the titles that I was most looking forward to with this box set. It has always been one of the Bond films that I remember most fondly … and yet every time I actually return to it, I am somewhat disappointed. But this does not mean that Lewis Gilbert’s colourful and flamboyant movie doesn’t still provide cracking entertainment from start to finish. Cubby would make the boldest move with the next film in the series, of course, by giving an unknown a shot at the title, taking to the snowy mountains and killing the new Mrs. James Bond. Like Evil Dead II, it could be argued that OHMSS would almost seek to overwrite the existence of You Only Live Twice and, for me, it still remains the greatest Bond film of the lot. But even though these two appear in reverse order and muck about with continuity, leaving Diamonds Are Forever to incorporate Blofeld by way of compensation, the SPECTRE-smiting quest is a bravura chapter in the history of 007.

    You Only Live Twice gets its second shot at life on Blu-ray with this hugely impressive box set, and another classic Bond film gets the treatment it deserves.