Monday, April 30, 2012

You Only Live Twice

Ah, You Only Live Twice.  This is one of the more landmark titles in the James Bond catalog for a few reasons.  The novel (the twelfth book in the series) was the last published during Ian Fleming's lifetime.  The book took place immediately after On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which meant that YOLT essentially followed Bond as he hunted down Blofeld to avenge his dead wife.  In many ways, this was part of a decade-long evolution for the character.  The film, though, was only the fifth Bond made, and I think we can agree that character evolution is definitely not a high priority in the film franchise.  This one actually came out before OHMSS, too, so...if Bond hasn't been married yet in the film series, then what is he supposed to be doing in this movie?

After the underwater ridiculousness of Thunderball, it is not that surprising that You Only Live Twice opens with a sequence set in another unlikely location: space.  When the Americans send some astronauts into orbit in a pellet-sized spacecraft, everything goes off without a hitch.  Once it is in orbit, though, another significantly larger spacecraft sneaks up behind it and pulls a Pac-Man.
"It's like my worst nightmare for my penis.  What?!?" - Actual quote from me, 10 years ago
The Pac-Man ship then returns to Earth, but the Americans are unable to track or communicate with their shuttle, much less the enormous stealth ship.  Who could do such a thing and why?  While "space pirates" may be the logical conclusion to draw, the Americans conclude that it is the Russians that are up to no good.  The year was 1967, though, and "Russians up to no good" was the step before "mutually assured destruction" on the American government's foreign policy flow chart.  Luckily, the British also paid attention to the space launch, and they tracked the mystery craft's landing to the Sea of Japan.  But who will they send to investigate?
Ninjas, obviously.  It is Japan, you know.

Normally, you would assume the answer to be James Bond (Sean Connery).  Sadly, he was murdered about five minutes into the film and given a funeral at sea.  I guess that's what happens when entire international terrorist organizations know who you are; when the "secret" in "secret agent" goes away, you are basically a walking target.  Bond was such a terrible secret agent that his death was even front page news!  Thankfully, the audience is saved from a film where Q (Desmond Llewelyn) uses his gadgets to infiltrate/seduce his way through an island fortress.  James Bond isn't actually dead, silly!  It was all a ruse to convince SPECTRE, the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, of Bond's death.  With that one man, who they were presumably tracking constantly, out of the way, they can go about their evil plans with less secrecy and/or care.  That means they can launch Pac-Man spaceships from their secret volcano base whenever they want, especially if their next target is a Russian spacecraft; with the Americans and Russians missing ships it will be obvious that they are facing a common foe they will obviously declare war on each other!  But since Bond is really alive, he will be able to try and foil those dastardly plans.  Since he is so infamous among SPECTRE agents, though, Bond will obviously have to disguise himself as a Japanese man to make it all work.
"You have got to be bullshitting me"  Nope.

I've been thinking a bit about SPECTRE's acronym lately.  Sure, you've got to love any group of admitted terrorists and extortionists that also include revenge as a key value --- organizations that take personal interests in their henchmen are the most successful kind --- but I don't know how much I like the "SP."  Did they just come up with "SPECTRE" and then try to find words to fit the acronym, but they couldn't think of any nasty words that begin with "P"?  Or did they just add the "P" because they thought that "SECTRE" sounded too ridiculous?  Personally, I would have been happy with rearranging the acronym to spell "STREEC"; the monologues would have been great: "And we will STREEC our vengeance across the baseball field of capitalism, until security apprehends, wait..."
Although STREEC would imply why so many of their agents get naked

You Only Live Twice was Sean Connery's final Bond movie, until he made two more.  While he is certainly not as charming or bad-ass as he had been in the last few films, Connery still turned in an okay performance.  His toupee (he wore one in every Bond pic) was a bit more noticeable to me this time, though, and the script required him to look fairly incompetent as a secret agent --- him getting shown up by Aki so easily was painful to watch --- but Connery managed to not look embarrassed by the film's stupidity, at least.  The villain du jour was SPECTRE Number One, Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) himself.  This was the first time audiences got to see the villain's face, and he was suitably memorable.  While Blofeld isn't terribly impressive here --- he commits the sin of not killing Bond in a timely fashion --- he is suitably ruthless and ridiculous in equal parts.  Pleasence is fine, though his role requires him to keep a monotonous vocal cadence and an effeminate walk.
Blofeld chokes out an incompetent underling
The rest of the supporting cast is less stellar.  Tetsurô Tanba was mediocre as the Japanese equivalent of Felix Leiter; he would have been more likable if his plans weren't completely idiotic.  Speaking of idiotic characters, Karin Dor played the entendre-free Helga Brandt, who captured Bond, has sex with Bond, drugs Bond, then puts him in a small plane, which she pilots until he wakes up, at which point she parachutes to safety.  JUST SHOOT HIM, LADY!  Dor isn't that bad of an actress here, but it's impossible to make a character like that look good.  The other Bond girl in this picture is Mie Hama, who played the traditionally named (by Bond movie standards) Kissy Suzuki.  Hama was fairly worthless, essentially spending her time on camera just running from one place to another in a bikini.  That was far less irritating than Helga Brandt's stupidity, so Hama's lack of acting skills or quality dialogue is easily overlooked.  It is amusing to note that the Japanese Hama's dialogue was dubbed over by frequent Bond-girl-voiceover artist (and German national) Nikki Van der Zyl.
L-R: Hama acting, Connery bored
Aside from that, we have the usual suspects making brief appearances.  Desmond Llewelyn reprised his role as Q, although it is worth noting that Bond requested the more ridiculous gadgets this time around.  Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee also returned as Moneypenny and M, respectively; none of these three did anything special this time around, but in a cast of hundreds it can be nice to see some familiar faces.

You Only Live Twice was the first Bond film to be directed by Lewis Gilbert.  The result was...okay, I guess.  This movie feels like a more ridiculous version of Dr. No in many ways (which mediocre screenwriter/excellent author Roald Dahl freely admitted), and the plot elements that differentiate it from other Bond movies --- Japan, basically --- aren't handled very well.  To be fair, it is easy to laugh at the low-rent ninjas in this movie, but this film was made before any awesome kung-fu movies had success in the West.  Gilbert inherited quite a mess when he signed up for this movie --- he had a first-time screenwriter, a star openly planning to leave the franchise, they had to recast Blofeld after filming started, the screenplay essentially omits the entire book, and the Japanese actresses had to switch roles because Mie Hama's English was so bad --- so I suppose it is a miracle that You Only Live Twice is as good as it is.  Still, the only truly iconic moment this entry in the series has is the appearance of Blofeld.  Aside from that, Gilbert oversaw a lot of ridiculousness.

What sets You Only Live Twice apart from the films that came before it is just how hilariously stupid entire chunks of the plot are.  Now, I own (and have read) the novel that the film takes its title from, and I can attest that the book --- which spends a lot of time just describing Japanese things --- would have made for a difficult direct adaptation.  Roald Dahl's screenplay (the first Bond screenplay to deviate significantly from the source material) is not much of an improvement. I liked that the filmmakers attempted to address Bond's failure as a secret agent, but everything past that was just goofy.  There are suspiciously placed trap doors, villains who allegedly recognize everything about Bond (including his gun!) but fail to recognize him in a face-to-face (and, in one case, junk-to-junk) interaction, and the action highlight is Bond in a weaponized mini-copter.
I think my favorite scene in the film has Bond being driven away from some SPECTRE thugs, who are pursuing in a car.  Bond's Japanese contact then radios for help, requesting "the usual reception."  A helicopter then arrives (that was fast) with a powerful magnet dangling underneath it; the chopper then drops the magnet on the villains' car and lifts the car off the road and drops it in a lake/ocean nearby. 
And that is the "usual" reception
That naturally leads viewers to a few conclusions.  First, Japanese bodies of water are filled with automobiles and dead terrorists.  Second, there is another, more outlandish way that Japanese secret agents get rid of unwanted followers; what the "unusual" reception would be staggers the imagination.  My best guess involves Godzilla.  Of course, the biggest bit of silliness in this movie is the part where James Bond is given a Japanese makeover to make him look like an average Japanese fisherman.  This involves a bad wig, learning a few things about Japanese culture, and (I swear) altering his eyes slightly. 
The result: a stereotypical Japanese man
Surprisingly, this movie isn't nearly as offensively racist as that might sound.  Still, it comes close more than a few times.  There's a lot more that is wrong with this movie (Why did Bond get married?  Unarmed astronauts > armed henchmen?), but I actually don't mind all the moronic moments.  It certainly isn't one of the best Bonds, but if you embrace the ridiculousness, this can be a lot of fun.  What You Only Live Twice lacks in style and utter awesomeness it more than makes up for with a brazen dedication to a truly silly plot.  When you add that to a still-young Connery in the lead role and a memorable villain, you have a solid (though definitely not great) entry in the Bond series.


  1. Do you think that contemporary audiences bought the Japanese transformation of Bond? I have always wondered that.

    From a pure entertainment stand-point, this is one of the best Bond flicks. It just throws so much shit at you and (as you mentioned) the commitment to its unabashed zaniness makes it work.

    1. There is so much silliness in this movie that I can't imagine the transformation was taken seriously by anyone.

      I do know that Bond was HUGE in Japan at the time, and that might have contributed to the fact that this is nowhere near as racist as most Western portrayals of Asians were at this point. Still. Japanese Connery? I can't believe that made it past the idea stage.

  2. Fun and well-written post! My Japanese wife loves James Bond movies and Sean Connery (naturally). She didn't find the "transformation" Connery goes through in this film offensive at all...just hilarious. He doesn't change at all, really -- he just looks a little hairier, if such a thing is possible.

    I quite enjoy's easily the least of the first 6 Bond films, but it's still hugely enjoyable to me. The only real let-down for me is Connery's rather tired performance. He's still fine, but the spark has gone out of his 007 here. You can tell he's got short-timer's disease. In fact, it was the Japanese fans' crazed attention, dogging his and then-wife Diane Cilento's every footstep off camera, that really soured him on Bond.

    I agree that Karin Dor isn't much to write home about as the bad Bond girl in this, but think you're being too harsh on Mie Hama and Tetsuro Tanba. And a silly as it is, the big all-out ninja attack at the end of the film is one for the record books.

    Fleming's book is pretty wonderful, but virtually unfilmable, I agree. I thin EON and Roald Dahl did pretty well with it, all things considered.

    1. Thanks for the insight! And it is ALWAYS possible for Sean Connery to look hairier.

      Dahl's screenplay managed to make a movie where a direct adaptation could not have worked, I'll agree with that. But when you consider how free they were to make this into anything else, it makes you wonder how they settled on the story that this wound up being.

      Tanba wasn't bad, but all of his plans (the ridiculous trap door, the Asian-ing of Bond, etc.) were damned silly. As for Mie Hama, I completely understand why she was cast and I respectfully suggest that it wasn't for her acting skills. She may not have been the best actress in the film, but she was the prettiest.

    2. Oh, yes...Mie Hama might well have been a fine actress (she's rather respected here in Japan for her other work), but certainly her thespic qualities were not required in YOLT. But then, since when have they ever been, for a Bond girl in these movies? Isn't that's all that's required, to show up and look great? Even Diana Rigg isn't exactly taxed by her role in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

      That said, I do think Karin Dor is pretty bad, worse than the usual standard for a bond femme fatale anyway (said standard set by the stunning Luciana Paluzzi in THUNDERBALL). Dor looks more like a drag queen in YOLT, frankly.

      To be fair, I think the Asian-ing of Bond was in the book, too...but Fleming made it seem more believable, somehow.

      No disagreement from me about YOLT being is, no doubt. But along with MOONRAKER (perhaps the silliest of all 007 films), it's such a hoot, I just can't get too upset about it.