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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1967) Part 2

5. You Only Live Twice

Here are three things that were relevant in 1967. The Space Race was reaching a fevered pitch, with America and the Soviets working extra hard to get men into outer space and onto the moon. Meanwhile, Japanese pop culture exports were gaining popular all over the world. Whether it be Akira Kurosawa, Godzilla, or Astro Boy, the cinema of Japan was rapidly gaining exposure. James Bond, of course, was still hugely popular, especially in Japan. Take all these elements, the expected Bond action, a script from Roald Dahl, shake but don’t stir them, and you’ve got “You Only Live Twice.” Though not always well regarded by Bond fans today, the film introduced some widely recognized and important aspects to the series’ mythology.

An American space shuttle is snatched out of the sky by a mysterious ship. The capsule lands somewhere in the Japanese sea. The Americans blame the Russians. When the same thing happens to a Russian shuttle, they blame the Americans. With the world on the brink of nuclear war, MI6 gets involved. James Bond fakes his own death and is then sent to Japan. With assistance from the Japanese secret service’s top agents, Bond uncovers a secret volcano base. SPECTRE is behind the theft of the space shuttles causing Bond to come face to face with the organization’s nefarious leader, the villainous Blofeld.

With “Thunderball,” Maurice Binder created the ultimate James Bond credits sequence. “You Only Live Twice” steps back from that sequence a bit, though it does maintain the silhouettes of beautiful women. Mostly, the credits feature women in kimonos, stock footage of an erupting volcano, and a visual motif inspired by traditional Japanese parasols. More inspired is the accompanying song. In comparison to the over-the-top brass of the previous two songs, Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice’ is beguiling, quiet, and sensual. Instead of being about Bond or the villain, it’s the first of many theme songs told from the perspective of a Bond girl. Sinatra coos the lyrics about love reinvigorating a tired life, backed up by John Barry’s beautiful instrumentation. It’s a far more quiet Bond theme then we’re use to but I like it a lot. Smartly, the film’s score reprises the song’s main melody many times throughout.

Unlike most other entries in the series, Bond does not spend a lot of time traveling between countries. Instead, “You Only Live Twice” is set mostly within Japan. When the spy first enters the country, he is greeted with a flashing neon sign that says “Welcome to Tokyo!” The scene is welcoming the audience too. The film makes the most of its setting. Bond watches a Sumo wrestling match, drinks sake, eats with chopsticks, experiences a Japanese bath, and beds several beautiful Japanese women. The first half is set primarily around Tokyo, giving Bond a good look at the city. The second half, meanwhile, takes place in a small fishing village on a tiny island. Obviously, there’s more to Japan then that but those are certainly the two environments most of us think of when we think of the country. The film immerses itself in the country, granting the film a unique tone unlike any other Bond movie.

When Bond travels to America, he teams up with Felix Leiter, the American secret agent nearly as cool as he is. When Bond heads to Japan, he teams up with his Japanese counterpart. That would be Tiger Tanaka. Tanaka hangs out in an underground lair assessable only by secret tunnel. He travels the city in a underground train, sipping sake and generally not letting his vocation get in the way of his taste for fine things. When bad guys are on Bond’s trail, he orders a helicopter to pick the car up with a fucking giant magnet and drop them in the friggin’ sea. When working, he hangs out at a covert location where men train to be samurai and ninjas, flinging shurikens and practicing with katanas. Tetsuro Tamba is fantastically entertaining in the part. He’s not Bond’s sidekick but his equal. I’d honestly watch a whole movie about the guy.

“You Only Live Twice” was produced with assistance from the famous Toho Studios. As part of the deal, they insisted local actresses be cast as the film’s Bond Girls. Thus Akiko Wakabayashi, last seen as the seductive lady gangster in “Dogora,” and Mie Hama, last seen as the wicked Madame X in “King Kong Escapes,” play major roles here. (Not coincidentally, both of those Toho monster movies feel a bit like Bond-lite.) Wakabayashi plays Aki, Bond’s main squeeze throughout. Wakabayashi is immediately charming and has great chemistry with Connery. She’s a stunning Japanese flower while also being cool enough to zip around in a sports car. Unfortunately, Aki exits the film about half way through. Afterwards, her part is taken up by Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuka. Hama is gorgeous and spends most of her screen time in a white two-piece bathing suit. However, she lacks Wakabayashi’s charm and never gets much character development. (That’s more then can be said for Karin Dor’s Helga Brandt who, with her indistinct personality and silly accent, is a poor man’s Fiona Volpe.) Other then the requirement that Bond have multiple lovers, I’m not sure why Aki gets the axe halfway through.

I generally like “You Only Live Twice’s” focus on Japanese culture. However, that fascination curdles into the movie’s most regrettable moment. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous yellowface sequence. In order to go undercover at the local fishing village, Bond is transformed into a Japanese man. The make-up amounts to slanted eyebrows, a deep tan, and a more embarrassing toupee for Connery. It’s a laughable and highly uncomfortable sequence. The wedding scene also throws in Connery sneering at some homely Japanese women, which is even more uncomfortable. The worst thing about this entire debacle? It contributes almost nothing to the plot. Excising the whole ordeal would change very little about the movie.

The most important thing “You Only Live Twice” does is finally put a face to SPECTRE’s mysterious Number One. Previously identified only by a hand stroking his white cat, the film sticks with that motif for most of its run time. Once Bond enters the secret lair inside the volcano, Number One introduces himself as Ernst Stravo Blofeld. Donald Pleasence, forever associated in my mind with “Halloween’s” Dr. Loomis, originates the part. That Blofled is usually represented by his cat is fitting. His manner is cat-like, distant and smugly superior but with a keen, predatory intellect. The camera frequently focuses on the famous white cat’s big eyes. Similarly, Pleasence seemingly never blinks. This, along with the frequently parodied facial scar and Nehru jump suit, makes Blofeld appear almost alien. Pleasence speaks in a staccato voice, making every word choice very specific, packing each with as much coldly threatening energy as possible. Blofled has been played by as nearly as many actors as Bond. Yet Pleasence casts the biggest shadow.

“You Only Live Twice” is not abnormally focused on Bond’s gadgetry. He has a nifty device for cracking a vault. His most useful trick isn’t even provided by Q. Instead, Tanaka gives Bond the cigarettes that double as a tiny rocket launcher, which gets his ass out of deep trouble. Q, however, does stop by to provide the coolest bit of machinery in the movie. That would be the tiny gyrocopter, nicknamed Little Nellie. Nellie is assembled out of four suitcases, which is a neat touch. Bond uses the aircraft in one of the movie’s most memorable action scenes. Flying over the volcanic caldera, Bond is pursued by four enemy helicopters. Using Little Nellie’s arsenal of nifty weapons, he takes them all down. The effects in this scene are a little cheesy. Connery is obviously not actually in the air. However, it’s an exciting, fun sequence.

Exciting, fun action is actually one of things “You Only Live Twice” does best. A stand-out action beat occurs when Bond first breaks into the corrupt businessman’s building. He’s confronted by a burly thug. The guy flings coaches at James, swinging a katana at him, and tossing the agent into walls. Bond overwhelms the guy eventually, of course, smashing a statue over his head, but it’s a brutal, tense fight. Another fun moment has Bond and Aki running through a factory, the agent blasting bad guys with his Walter PPK and running across a rooftop. Like the previous two films, this one climaxes with two armies fighting in an opulent location. Tanaka’s ninja-trained commandos climb into Blofeld’s volcano lair, tossing grenades, slicing baddies with sword, and generally blowing the crap out of the place. Blofeld gets away but Bond gets a climatic tussle with the main henchman, the burly Hans. The way that plays out, with the villain tossed into the piranha pit, is incredibly satisfying.

Like all Bond movies, “You Only Live Twice” features some fantastic production design. Mr. Osato’s office features a fantastic fold-out bar, a secret X-ray panel, and some distinct Oriental symbols on the wall. The SPECTRE lair is most impressive. The steel platforms on the red rock are a memorable image. The structures are usually vaguely round, giving the location a modern, but sterile, feel. The best of this is the little getaway cart Blofeld rides to safety in.

The film is often criticized as the first of Sean Connery’s Bond films where it’s apparent he wasn’t trying anymore. Connery had publicly expressed his exhaustion with the part by this point. At the time, Connery insisted this would be his last time playing Bond. Only a bloated paycheck brought him back. For what it’s worth, I think Connery does well in the part, remaining nicely physical and still having fun with the one liners. The weakest element of the film to me, aside from the uncomfortable yellowface stuff, are the space sequences. The models are not exactly convincing. The looming threat of World War III is supposed to provide tension to the movie. However, that conflicts with the typical Bond model of light and breezy. We never really feel the world is truly in threat of global annihilation.

Is “You Only Live Twice” as good as the previous four Bond films? No. It’s not as exhilarating as “Goldfinger” or as immensely satisfying as “Thunderball.” It lacks the freshness of “Dr. No” and the romantic candor of “From Russia with Love.” However, I think the movie is a little better then its reputation implies. The film is still very entertaining, features plenty of fun action, a great supporting cast, and has Bond up against his most famous adversary. Being not quite as good as its predecessors is not much of a sin, in my opinion. [Grade: B]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[] Wears a Tux

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

This is certainly one of the craziest Bond flicks. There's lots of action and everything's done on a grand scale. Highlights are Bond's dogfight using "Little Nellie"; a helicopter assembled from four suitcases and Blofeld's spectacular hollowed-out volcano lair; set design courtesy of Ken Adam.(7/10)