From Japan with Love: Revisiting You Only Live Twice

Sean Connery’s 007 goes East for a “final” adventure. Dylan gives it another go. 

You would think it unwise to start a James Bond article with what a movie in the series actually contains. You simply need to say his name and concepts will pop into your head, so engrained in pop-culture is this international man of mystery. Yet it’s not as easy as it sounds. Whilst we might think of car chases, fights and gadgets, how realistic should they be? Are the films humorous or violent? Should the baddies be charismatic or psychopathic?

You Only Live Twice, prominently billed as Connery’s last Bond during production, is one that fuels this debate. For some, this is Bond at its most epic, learning from past adventures and mistakes to make the most exciting one of its time. For others, it’s where the series started to lose their way towards too many gadgets and pantomime villains. For me, it is certainly the former, although it is a very close call. I sincerely believe it strikes a good balance between fun and action without sinking into self-parody.

The plot follows Bond as he attempts to stop the theft of spaceships turning into nuclear war between the US and Russia, as his old enemy SPECTRE rears its head again. His quest leads him to Japan and an old enemy, with all the usual modifications and hijinks along the way.

I should mention at this point that this was a screenplay written by Roald Dahl. Yes, the Dahl that gave us James and the Giant Peach. I don’t think it is a particularly Dahl-esque script, in the way that Bond would have been had Tarantino directed one. However, he managed to rein in some of the more ridiculous elements of the series, and make fun out of the preposterous situations. It is a little convoluted in places, but for me, this is because he created a break for the series which would become very significant. For the first time, the plot of the book it was based on was abandoned – we see the series move away from Ian Fleming’s novels to become its own franchise.

In terms of the movie itself, the beginning provides an excellent place to start. You Only Live Twice has a really surprising opening; what seems like a standard Bond moment is turned on its head. The titles that follow are a lovely mix of the traditional colour schematic whilst revealing some nice features of the plot. The theme is also my favourite of any Bond. Of course, that is personal choice, but the title makes it easy to straddle that middle-ground between pop song and Bond theme. At the very least, it kept Robbie Williams in good stead.

The Japanese setting works so well, and provides a lovely flavour for the film to make it memorable. It’s milked for a rich detail, and flies from sumo rings to sake temperatures at speed. Whilst, like a lot of Bond, it is rather picturesque and stereotyped, we have a lot of fun in Japan, and it’s a culture that Bond plays into well, feeling both sophisticated and exotic. Ironically, the location also fed into the rising temperatures behind the scenes, with Connery suffering the consequences of being world-famous in a country full of overenthusiastic journalists (they even tried snapping him while he was taking a 002). This only exacerbated Connery’s rising conflict with producer Harry Saltzman, who he felt was exploiting him for his own ends. On top of all this much-discussed ballyhoo, we have the final hideout. Essentially, it’s a volcano-come-rocket-base-come-country-house. It’s a wonderful Bond villain location, and perhaps the most famous element of the movie. To see picture frames on cavern walls and luxury sodas on rock floors is great design, although once again, it is completely unbelievable. It has become a huge part of Bond in pop-culture, parodied in Austin Powers and The Simpsons to name but two.

However, at this point I must bring up one massive howler. In one scene, Bond disguises himself as a Japanese man, and it is genuinely one of the worst make-up effects in mainstream cinema. Have a look at the photo below – it is a dreadful piece of work, and one that should never have been included. This bleeds into the action scenes, which use the location well, and remain both gritty and exotic. A good example is when Bond fights Hans. It’s exciting but ends with him landing in a piranha pool.

A quick mention must go to Nellie, the highly-armed gyrocopter that pinwheels on the edge of silliness, before coming back. But it always works. Despite its epic nature (a trait of director Lewis Gilbert), You Only Live Twice remains a realistic Bond. Some think it goes too far, but for me, the series would get much, much sillier than this. Except for that damn Japanese make-up, of course…

Whilst Blofeld has appeared in others, You Only Live Twice contains perhaps his most infamous incarnation. His physical characteristics change dramatically between movies, and yet here, with his bald head and duelling scar, is the one that has gone down in history and parodied often. Indeed, just a look at Dr. Evil’s appearance will reveal it’s pretty much the same make-up exaggerated. It is like thinking of The Doctor with curly hair and a big scarf – Blofeld is the archetypal Bond villain. To have an actor as fine as Donald Pleasance playing him certainly doesn’t hurt. His subvillians are not quite up to the standard of a Jaws or Oddjob, but still provide zest throughout.

Despite the rifts that led to his dramatic departure – at least for the time being – Connery is in his absolute element as Bond, and manages to pull off some rather cheesy one-liners without losing face. I can see why this might not be everyone’s favourite Bond in the never-ending series. For many, it slips into parody and the preposterous, and the fact many of its elements are found in comedic spoofs is strong evidence of this. But for me, it all just about works, providing the best mix of the madness and grittiness of the character without pushing either too far.  You may love it or hate it, but it’s a must-watch for fans of the series, if only to join in on the eternal debate: Was this a better send-off for Connery than Diamonds Are Forever (1971) or Never Say Never Again (1983)?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • In the novel, Ian Fleming describes Blofeld’s hide-out as being a castle on the coast. Production designer Ken Adam discovered that this could never be. The Japanese never built their castles directly on the coast for fear of typhoons. Hence the creation of the elaborate volcano set.
  • The primary reason for converting the Toyota 2000GT coupes into convertibles was Sean Connery’s height; he was simply too tall to fit into the GT which was notoriously too small for anyone over 5’8″. Connery’s height was 6’2″.
  • Little Nellie is based on the real-life Wallis Autogyro. Its inventor, Wing Commander K.H. Wallis, actually flew Little Nellie in the film. The machine was incorporated into the plot after Ken Adam heard Wallis in a radio interview discussing his invention. Wallis had to log 85 flights in total to film the sequence. It was all filmed outside of Japan because Japanese Law forbade the firing of rockets in the air.
  • Bond participates in a Japanese wedding ceremony in the film. Mercifully, he uses a false name, otherwise this would mean he would have been still married under Japanese law when he wed Tracy di Vincenzo in the next film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
  • Tsai Chin, who played Bond’s playmate in the opening pre-credit sequence, returned to the Bond series nearly forty years later when she played one of the players in Le Chiffre’s big poker match in Casino Royale.
  • James Bond does not drive a car in this film. This is the only EON Productions James Bond film to date in which James Bond does not drive a vehicle.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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