AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 116 min
REVEIWED BY: DR Lenera, Official HCF Critic
An American NASA rocket is swallowed by an unidentified spacecraft. The U.S. think the Soviets did it, but the British suspect Japanese involvement since the spacecraft landed in the Sea of Japan. M sends James Bond to Tokyo after he fakes his own death in Hong Kong, and is contacted by Aki, assistant to the Japanese secret service leader Tiger Tanaka. Local MI6 operative Dikko Henderson claims to have critical evidence about the rogue craft, but is killed before he can elaborate. The assassin came from Osato Chemicals, where he steals some documents. In Tanaka’s office, they are examined and found to include a photograph of the cargo ship Ning-Po with a microdot message saying the tourist who took the photo was killed as a security precaution….
The first Bond film to, in part, remake an earlier one [it’s basically an elaborate rehash of Dr. No], You Only Live Twice, which generally seems to be regarded as fairly good but, primarily because it’s so unbelievable and over the top, one of the lesser Sean Connery Bonds, was my favourite 007 film for decades, until my last two viewings where, watching it with a more critical eye, some flaws became rather too apparent. So much in it makes little sense and some elements of the story are just not carried out well, but these factors do give the film, which almost seems to go out of its way to avoid any kind of logic, an almost dreamlike feel. The picture is still incredibly entertaining, a highly exotic, action packed fantasy that in my view almost deserves to be regarded as the archetypal [though not necessarily the best] 007 flick as much as Goldfinger and, perhaps even more so than the 1964 film, it should perhaps be the first viewing choice for someone who wants to get an overview of the series and an idea of what a Bond film is; it really does pretty everything – mostly good but maybe the odd less than good one or one that isn’t too well done – you tend to find in most Bond films, or at least which would become cliches and the things people would think of when someone mentioned 007, and was subsequently copied almost as much as Goldfinger was.
Ian Fleming’s very travelogue-style novel of Bond in Japan to avenge his wife’s death at the hands of SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld was adapted into a quite faithful screenplay by Harold Jack Bloom, but aside from certain things like the beginning and end, Roald Dahl [Richard Maibaum was busy] was asked to write a totally new script. He threw out all the book aside from three characters, a piranha pool, ninjas, Bond’s Japanese makeover and an Ama village setting. Lewis Gilbert got the job of director over editor Peter Hunt, who was promised the next one. Gilbert and some of the crew narrowly missed death when they cancelled their flight from Japan to watch a ninja demonstration. The plane crashed and killed everyone on board. Toho Studios provided soundstages, personnel, and the female Japanese stars, who had been in King Kong Vs Godzilla together but who swapped roles here because Mie Hama struggled with English and wanted the role that had fewer lines. Jan Werick was replaced by Donald Pleasance as Blofeld after shooting some scenes. Connery was tiring of Bond and, though persuaded to play him again by increasing his fee, announced his retirement from the role during production, pushed to the brink by obsessive fans and lack of privacy culminating him being photographed on the toilet. Shot in Tokyo, Kagoshima and Kyushu, and, briefly, Hong Kong, Norway and Spain for the gyrocopter battle where cameraman John Jordan had his foot severed by a rota blade, You Only Live Twice originally ran over two and a half hours [details are scarce] and Hunt was asked to cut it down. It got middling reviews and grossed significantly less than Thunderball, partly due to the release of Casino Royale two months before and the spy boom coming to an end, though was still a hit.
While Goldfinger’s and Thunderball’s pre-credits sequences had been mini-movies with no connection to the rest of the films, You Only Live Twice’s sets up the main story with US rocket Jupiter being swallowed by an unidentified object in a highly ominous scene, the Americans and the Soviets debating in a summit presided over by the calm British, then Bond being shot in his bed in Hong Kong with a Chinese girl [“He died on the job, he’d have wanted it this way”]. The titles, geisha girls with large fans over shots of lava from erupting volcanoes, are elegant and the song, sung by Nancy Sinatra, is rather soothing and Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics surprisingly meaningful. Bond is buried at sea but of course isn’t dead and finds M and Miss Moneypenny based in a submarine. Their scenes with Bond, like the later one with Q, are a bit short and lack both the warmth and the edge we have come to expect. Never mind, Bond is soon in Tokyo and for the next hour You Only Live Twice is a series of escapes, fights, chases and clinches. Yes, there’s a plot concerning the chemical company which may just be involved with SPECTRE, but it’s easy to forget it while 007 is dashing here there and everywhere. Bond casually beds Japanese agent Aki and a Fiona Volpe substitute called Helga Brandt who also tries to kill him, fights a heavy whom settees bounce off, has the car pursuing him lifted up by a magnet from a helicopter and dumped in the sea [major gaff here – Bond watches the action, which appears to have been shot by another helicopter, from the TV in his car], and duels with four SPECTRE helicopters in his gadget-laden Little Nellie gyrocopter in a tremendously put together aerial battle, though the latter is not as cool as the moment where the camera pulls back and up to observe Bond knocking down various assailants in a roof top chase. With John Barry’s marvellous music, an action-orientated version of the song theme, blasting out, the scene is 00 Heaven!
You Only Live Twice changes pace a bit after a while to slow down, though the story would have worked better if the fact that a certain volcano is housing Blofeld’s base wasn’t revealed so early, though the producers obviously wanted to show off Ken Adam’s huge set, which was 148 feet high and could be seen from three miles away, as much as they could. At least they keep Blofeld’s full reveal till quite late, mostly showing him by his cat in his early scenes. We get what is positively the most exquisite death in the whole series [and – I keep mentioning the music in this one – again brilliantly scored in its mixture of sadness and suspense], an assassin sneaking into the rafters above the bed Bond and Aki are in and lowering a needle on the end of a thread, then trickling a powerful poison down the thread. There’s also some pleasing immersion in traditional Japanese culture, culminating in Bond having to marry, and isn’t it cool that not only was Masaaki Hatsumi, Japan’s only practicing Ninja master, enlisted to help, but Teru Shimada, one of the Seven Samurai, appears and does some sword fighting! This section is a bit flawed though by Bond getting a makeover to look Japanese – but hardly looking any different from before! At least the climax of loads of ninjas attacking Blofeld’s base remains a spectacle to die for though it isn’t really that much less over the top then the Cowboys and Indians at the end of Casino Royale!
The special effects hold up reasonably well though it’s strange how the plentiful back projection during travelling scenes is quite poor until you get to the Little Nellie scene where it’s pretty good. The script is crammed full of memorable lines [“I may just have to retire to here” says Bond when told women come second in Japan], and even criticises Bond’s smoking habit three times. The tone is a little jokier than before though we’re not quite in Roger Moore land yet. There’s no doubt though that the story is often absurd – for a start, how on earth does nobody know that rockets are secretly being launched from the volcano which is just a few miles away from the nearest fishing village, rockets which in real life can actually be seen with the naked eye for up to 100 miles away? And there really isn’t anything left to parody when Blofeld is about to shoot Bond, shoots Osato instead, takes him into where the battle is raging place, then decides to try and shoot him where Bond can easily be saved. Helga seems awkwardly inserted into the narrative and tries to kill Bond in a way from which he can easily escape, while it’s odd that the girl Bond ends up with it is only introduced into the story three quarters of the way through, and is therefore a character you care little about.
Connery clearly feels overwhelmed by all the action and gadgets and shows signs of his boredom here and there , though is still Bond through and through despite the character having very little edge in this one. He actually pulls off the smaller moments best, like when he seems to genuinely want to marry Aki but reacts coldly to her death, obviously bottling it in. And, though I never noticed it before, this must be the first film where Bond adjusts his tie during or just after a scrape. Akiko Wakabayashi, even though her character dies, is really the main Bond girl of the film and is a hugely likeable presence though doesn’t have much of a character to play. Tetsura Tamba is another memorable Bond ally though it’s distracting that he’s dubbed by Robert Rietty who also dubbed Adolpho Celi in Thunderball. Pleasance is a splendidly sinister Blofeld though of course the character here is very comic booky. Barry’s score is his most fabulous yet, often mingling in a bit of Japanese instrumentation. His main theme really is a gorgeous tune serving well as in various guises, there’s a ‘Japanese’ theme that is almost as lovely, 007 is brought back for the Little Nellie sequence, and Barry introduces his ‘science fiction’ sound with his minimalist Space March and its variations. You Only Live Twice is often ridiculous, and I do think parts of the story could have done with more attention, but the way it constantly teeters on the edge of being totally and utterly insane but never quite falls in is quite awesome. Constantly amusing, exciting and interesting, it may not be Fleming’s Bond, but it is movie Bond through and through and damn fine escapism.