You only Live Twice (1967), directed by Lewis Gilbert, is the fifth film in the James Bond film Franchise, with Sean Connery playing MI6 agent, James Bond created by novelist Ian Fleming. Though the film is the silliest Sean Connery Bond film, with an emphasis on fantastical sets and over-the-top action set-pieces over plot & characterization, it has since become one of the most iconic, thanks mainly to its insouciant, cartoonish tone that was later adopted by the very successful Roger Moore Bond films, and Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” films that has endlessly parodied it.
“The Hands that strokes the Persian Cat”; that’s what SPECTRE No.1 Ernst Stavro Blofeld, has been in the the first four Bond films; or at least in the ones he was present. We never saw his face, only heard his voice, ordering around his minions to cause maximum destruction in the world as he lovingly petted the cat in his arms. We finally got to see his face in the Fifth James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice”; and for that at least this is a special Bond film. Blofeld’s first full-bodied embodied on screen is in the form of actor Donald Pleasance, who’s actually quite a diminutive guy and the last person one would imagine to be strong enough to run an organization specializing in Terrorism, Revenge & Extortion. But he has been given a sinister scar that runs all the way down his face starting from his eyes. The rest of Blofeld’s menace is taken care of by Pleasance voice and acting. Though most of his scenes look very close to being spoofy or self-parody. This is interesting because Mike Myers build his whole “Austin Powers” franchise parodying James Bond films, especially “You Only Live Twice” and Pleasance’s Blofeld- recreated spectacularly in the form of “Dr. Evil” by Myers himself. “Austin Powers” is this film’s greatest legacy; in turn, Myer’s spoof franchise has made this film and Pleasance’s Blofeld the most iconic among Bond films. That’s quite ironic because this film is not the best of the series by any measure; one could actually make a case for this being the weakest Connery Bond film; and Connery’s Bond films are considered the greatest and the most paradigmatic of all Bond films. Then why this film became so iconized?. The answer lies in the fact that this film, more than any other, represented the style, insouciance and excess of the swinging sixties. It’s also brimming (and mostly\only concerned) with trademark Bondisms from beginning to the end; this may not exactly be the film in the franchise that jumped the shark – I think this is technically one of the Best Bond films , but this is definitely the most outlandish, fantastical and Cartoonish\comic-Booky of all ’60s Bonds; and the one that set the template for several underwhelming (and a couple of overwhelming) Roger Moore Bonds.
The outlandish nature of the film starts with its plot that goes something like this: It’s the mid 1960s, and the ‘space race’ between the two nuclear superpowers, USA and USSR, is at it speak. The cold-war is on, and each country is watching the other’s attempt to conquer space with intense, suspicious eyes. Any failure or success is measured in relation to the other, and naturally, one’s failure is not only other’s success, but the failure is often suspected to be due to the other’s foul play. So, it’s natural that in this paranoid, volatile atmosphere when a mysterious unmarked spacecraft engulfs an American space capsule, the Americans would blame Soviet Union. But, thankfully, the coolheaded British gentlemen are determined to play peacemaker between these two hotheaded superpowers who are itching to start WWIII; the Brits have tracked the mysterious craft to the Sea of Japan, and they send their best MI6 agent, 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) to Tokyo to investigate. Before Bond could leave on his mission, he has to first fake his own death; Bond is quite a famous international spy by now, and if the investigation has to bear fruit, the enemies must be convinced that Bond is out of the way. Bond orchestrates his own death in Honk Kong; he’s buried in the sea, befitting a Naval Commander; and is then brought back to life, dressed in full Naval regalia, and into the presence of ‘M’ from whom he receives his mission.
After reaching Tokyo, Bond contacts SIS Head of Station, Henderson (Charles Gray). Unfortunately, Henderson is murdered before he can pass on any useful information. Bond kills Henderson’s assassin and, substituting himself for the assassin in the escape car, is taken to a building owned by Osato Electrical and Engineering Company. He finds there an order form for liquid oxygen – a key component of rocket fuel, and a photograph, which directs him to a ship named the Ling Po. While Bond investigates the Osato Company more fully there are several attempts on his life, culminating in his kidnap by Osato. In space, the situation escalates when a Soviet space capsule is also engulfed by the same unmarked craft. Bond escapes from Osato Co. and, together with Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) – an agent working for M’s Japanese equivalent, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) – investigates the Japanese island where the Ling Po has been seen stopping and unloading. He and Kissy discover that the dormant volcano at the heart of the island is actually a secret base occupied by SPECTRE and its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). SPECTRE is being paid by someone (implied to be China) to start a war between America and the Soviet Union. To accomplish this, they have been stealing space capsules and hoping each side will blame the other. Bond breaks into the base and averts the taking of a second American craft; a situation that would certainly have resulted in the USA taking military action against the Soviet Union; Soon, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka’s Ninja troops arrive and mount an all out attack on the base, and destroys it. In the confusion, Blofeld escapes- to fight another day. Bond and Kissy kiss, bringing to a happy conclusion another one of James bond’s globe-trotting adventures.
That more or less sums up the plot of “You only Live Twice (1967)” that had Sean Connery making his fifth back-to-back appearance as James Bond- the most popular character in movie history, which Connery had created, and, in turn, had made him an international superstar. As it is obvious, the plot is very thin, and compared to “From Russia with Love” or even “Goldfinger” it’s almost non-existent; and whatever is there is just too silly and ridiculous. Though “Goldfinger” is often credited as the film that set the template – fast girls, fast cars, gadgets, sex, spectacle & silliness – for the future Bond films, the film still had a well-defined plot and characters. Even “Thunderball” that came after it, which had escalated the ‘fun’ & spectacle quotient of “Goldfinger,” had enough plot and interesting characters ( it at least had two terrific Bond girls). “You only Live Twice” is the first film that did away with conventional plot mechanics and character definitions to create a sort of postmodernist narrative that’s sort of self-referential\self-winking, and depends purely on pleasuring\overwhelming the audience from moment to moment. The film is basically a series of sequences (interrelated or not), and depends on elaborately staged set-pieces (or items) that may (or may not) have any direct bearing on moving the story forward, but is designed to keep the audiences entertained at all times. It’s also trendsetting in the sense that it was the first film that combines a real world setting of cold-war, space-race & international espionage with truly fantastical Sci-fi elements like a space station underneath a dormant volcano, and a terrorist organization so technically advanced that it’s capable of designing gigantic spaceships that can swallow capsules sent up by the superpowers. This means that the film is, narratively, one of the most disjointed and episodic (or itemized); but the film is also one of the most good looking and visually stunning of all Bond films. Sean Connery may be the official star of the film, but the real stars of the film are Production Designer, Ken Adam, Cinematographer, Freddie Young, and editor\Second Unit director, Peter R. Hunt.
I look at Ken Adam as a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright of film production designing. His angular, modernist set designs with its glistening surfaces and glossy décor were a big departure from the sets that were designed for movies up until that time. He was also capable of delivering great work on a very tight budget- as evidenced in the case of Dr. No, which was made for just one million Dollars. His exquisite work was crucial in elevating “Goldfinger” into perhaps the greatest Bond film ever made. In “You Only Live Twice” Adam outdid everything he had done up to that time by designing some of the most fabulous sets of all time; most importantly the set of the space station inside a dormant volcano, which cost as much as what whole of “Dr. No” cost. The set, with a monorail system, computer terminal, Blofeld’s lair. and a rocket launching site, is truly a sight to behold. All through the film, we can feel Adam progressively upping the ante with his baroque set designs, starting with the scenes in space to Henderson’s house, Tanaka’s lair, then the office of Osato Co. ; all culminating in that spectacular volcano set. The sets provide the film with an astounding scale and scope that manages to overcome all implausibility in the plot. The film is also full of inventive gadgets, like the helicopter with an electro-magnet that picks up a car full of goons and deposit them in the ocean. But the most famous gadget from the film – a gyrocopter named “Little Nellie” that Bond uses to inspect the volcano site and battle with SPECTRE agents – was actually a real prop designed by RAF Wing Commander Ken Wallis.
Though the first four Bond films were photographed by Ted Moore, this film is photographed by the great Freddie Young, who had won three Oscars for his epic collaborations with director David Lean- “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Ryan’s Daughter.” Young’s widescreen photography of Japan’s beautiful outdoor locations as well as Adam’s sets impart the film with an epic grandeur. Though Bond films started using the widescreen process only with “Thunderball,” this is the film that used the widescreen to maximum affect, not just the outdoors, but especially in the photographing of Tanaka’s lair and the climactic volcano set. Little Nellie’s battle with helicopters was photographed by aerial photographer, John Jordan, who, unfortunately, had an accident while filming the scene, resulting in the amputation of his foot. Editor, Peter R. Hunt, who was instrumental in creating the fast-paced style of the first four Bond films, was not originally part of this film’s production. The producers had promised him an opportunity to direct the next Bond film after “Thunderball”; and when he was not chosen to direct this film, he went into a sulk and refused to edit the picture. He was later cajoled back, after a three hour cut of the film by another editor was deemed disastrous. Hunt made sure that the film maintains a terrific pace throughout and keep the audience interested, despite the fact that not much of importance happens for long stretches of the film. Hunt was also instrumental in shooting a lot of the film’s second unit action sequences as well. One fight sequence, where Bond takes on almost two dozen of Osato’s goons on a dock, is a true franchise highlight, with the camera that starts close on the fight gradually moves up for a spectacular aerial shot. The climax scene, where Tanaka and his army of Ninjas descends into the Volcanic space station via ropes and engages Blofeld’s army in a spectacular firefight is also one of the best action scenes in the franchise. Some of the special effects scenes, involving spacecrafts and volcanic explosions look pretty dated by today’s standards, but overall, the film’s visuals still hold up. The film was given a lavish budget of Ten million Dollars, and every dollar is right up there on screen.
The film is also very exotic, in the sense that it takes place completely in Japan, and the film totally immerses itself in the local customs, rituals and iconography – Himeji castle, Ninjas, sumo wrestling etc.; sometimes to the point of becoming absurd: The six foot 2 inch tall Scottish actor Sean Connery’s James Bond is seen undergoing plastic surgery to become Japanese; then he’s seen marrying a local Japanese girl so that he can enter a tight-knit Japanese village undetected. Scotsman Connery passing off as Japanese is the most campy element of the film. The film spends an inordinate time on Bond’s wedding, complete with all the ceremonial rituals, though in the final analysis, Bond becoming Japanese, as well as his marriage to a Japanese girl is totally unnecessary to the overall plot. He needn’t have bothered to go through all that trouble to get into that village, because the marriage takes place in some other village. Even in his Japanese disguise, he is easily spotted by his enemies and has to endure assassination attempts. It’s just as same as Bond faking his death. Except for the cool title, it serves no other purpose because everyone – friend or foe – immediately recognizes him as Bond. This again comes back to what i mentioned about the overall tone of the film: These are merely there for momentary effects, without bothering about the big picture.
The film is directed by Lewis Gilbert; this being his first Bond film; till then he had directed war films like “Sink the Bismarck” and more intimate dramas like “Alfie.” The script for the film is written by (of all people) the famous writer, Roald Dahl, who is most famous for his writings for children like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl jettisoned almost all of Ian Fleming’s novel (the first Bond film to do so) except for the Japanese setting, and created a totally new story based on the Bond & three girls formula suggested by the producers. The tone of this film is set in the beginning at that conference where the superpowers are accusing each other of heating up the Cold War with Brits sitting in the middle. It’s incredible that two superpowers wouldn’t have information on SPECTRE’s involvement in all this, and that Brits would know more about this issue than either of them. But then again there’s this gorgeous set that Ken Adam has designed for this scene, and Gilbert’s child-like staging of it- Brits in the middle sitting like a stern & intelligent headmaster with a batch of quarrelling kids on their either side- that disarms the audiences from asking questions like that. Dahl’s screenplay is both inventive and clichéd at the same time; there are some truly inventive scenes, but other times, there are way too many moments where nothing interesting is going on. The Bond girls suffer the most; none of the three prominent women characters in the film have anything substantial to do, and most of the women characters in the film are drawn in broad (& rather casually sexist) brushstrokes. The Bond Girls in the film are a big comedown from the two fantastic girls in “Thunderball.”
As for Sean Connery, well, this was the film that influenced him to retire from the Bond franchise (the first time around). And his exasperation with the role is reflected in his so-so performance. The two of the biggest pop cultural phenomenon of the 1960s were “The Beatles” and “James Bond”; and since Sean Connery had created Bond on screen, and played him so successfully in film after film, he was (and perhaps still is) James Bond in public imagination. But by 1966, when this film was in production, Sean Connery had become tired of James Bond; he was tired of being James Bond all the time; tired of not able to do other films that expanded his range as an actor; and angry with producers for not paying him what he thought he deserved to be paid. But most importantly, he was tired of being chased around by fans and the paparazzi: in Japan it reached a new high with journalist following him to the toilet and taking a snap of him while taking a dump. Connery just snapped, and announced that “You Only Live Twice” will be his final Bond film (though, eventually, he would return to play the character two more times). Even though this film does not feature Connery’s worst Bond performance- that would be “Diamonds are Forever”, he does look uninvolved, and his performance doesn’t have the fire and style he displayed in “From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger.” By this time, he was he was also battling a receding hairline and an expanding waistline, so he doesn’t look all that great either.. Still, he’s such a magnetic screen presence, and by then he had mastered the role so well that even an uninvolved Connery is still great to watch. I wish he had better lines to work with, and he had a formidable opponent & Bond girl to tangle with – like an Auric Goldfinger or Pussy Galore; that would have made this film even more interesting. All in all, I would say there’s a lot here that could have added up to a really good movie, rather than merely a very entertaining movie. It’s very flawed, but it’s also very enjoyable. Tonally frivolous and lacking in intensity, hence the stakes never get very high, but technically competent and visually dazzling; And there’s always the terrific John Barry score – one of the best in the series – to keep us hooked; and we also have one of the best title songs – sung by Nancy Sinatra. Result: a guilty pleasure for the ages. No wonder, Lewis Gilbert loosely remade this film into two of the most successful Roger Moore Bond films- “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker.”