Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
You Only Live Twice is not generally considered one of the best of the Bonds. Among the Sean Connerys it usually takes last place, with the jokey Diamonds are Forever having a slight edge over it. It has always been one of Savant's favorites, even though it was a big disappointment when new, as were most of the Bonds post- Goldfinger.
James Bond's death is faked in Hong Kong so that he can better help spymaster Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) find out whether or not the mystery spaceship that is kidnapping U.S. and Russian capsules from orbit is really coming from the Japanese islands. Agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) helps him infiltrate the Osato Corporation, which turns out to be a front for Spectre. Osato operative number 11 Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) tries to both seduce and assassinate Bond. A ninja killer succeeds in dispatching Aki right in Bond's bed, making room for 007's next conquest, the delicate Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). She poses as Bond's bride in a marriage ceremony to ferret him onto an island hiding the suspected rocket base. Bond sneaks into a secret launch pad hidden within a volcano but is captured by the megalomaniac in charge, his old nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). Fortunately, Tiger attacks with his invincible ninja army of great magnitude, and a battle ensues before Blofeld can start World War 3.
You Only Live Twice was the first movie Savant felt had been spoiled by over-promotion, in the way that almost every new film is spoiled in today's entertainment culture. Besides the usual ad campaigns 1
the ABC network showed a highly-promoted television special for Twice that gave away practically every
set piece in the film: The car dropped into Tokyo bay, the fights, the trap doors and the piranha pool.
By sneaking a look at an issue of Playboy Savant learned that writer Roald Dahl had assembled his script for Twice by formula, and claimed that he never took any of it seriously. Goldfinger successfully stretched credibility in the interest of style and defined the cinematic appeal of 007. Thunderball continued to keep things outrageous, yet not too far from reality. In fact, one of the drawbacks of Thunderball was its literal-mindedness; how the bomb is stolen and transported underwater received far more attention than did the characters. Twice was the first Bond which was utterly fantastic at its root, a Science Fiction movie where
Bond became an unlikely Buck Rogers.
Dahl said he reused the 'Bond Women' formula from the two previous adventures and created a trio of heroines for Bond to bed: A 'knowing' good girl to be killed, a villainous bad girl to be killed and a second good girl to survive for a kiss at the fadeout. All are basically disposable; the bigger-than-life, extravagant Bond craze had outgrown the intimate plotting and characterizations of something like From Russia With Love. There Bond's survival had actually been at risk, and his feelings for his leading lady had at least an element of human concern.
But this fifth movie was carried away by the designs of Ken Adam, so to speak. Since the Bond franchise at this point represented England's pride and cultural prominence, the only way to go was bigger. Many critics felt that they were reviewing the gigantic sets. For grandeur and spectacle, Twice gets an A+. John Barry's great score is also a big asset 2 and Freddie Young's cinematography uniformly pretty.
Now to address the strange awkwardness that runs through the whole show.
On the level of story construction, You Only Live Twice continues the problem of Thunderball by making James Bond fairly irrelevant to the workings of the plot. Bond's role through Twice is that of a tourist who strolls through a travelogue format and gets into a couple of scrapes on the way to a tidy finish. The producers went for spectacle and humor but the idea of our being involved in a story was no longer a necessity. The major military battle at the end of Goldfinger had retained Bond at its center, but once the underwater conclusion of
Thunderball got rolling Bond became just another wet-suited scuba diver in a screen full of bubbles. Where's Waldo? Bond looks even more out of place here.
The credibility of Twice is on the level of an episode of TV's Thunderbirds. Getting technical is pointless because the makers would say the irrationalities on view don't matter, but at least Emilio Largo's atomic extortion scheme made sense. Detecting and dealing with orbital missiles being fired into and returning from space, even from a 'remote' area of Japan, would be a job for the Air Force, not James Bond. After Goldfinger's brilliant idea of irradiating Fort Knox to effect a rise in the value of his own bullion, this cartoonish space story isn't very impressive. And sub-par special effects don't help either. The space scenes in Twice are doubly embarrassing when one realizes that 2001 was in production at the same time in the same country. Finally, all credibility goes out the window whenever the plot has Bond disguised as a Japanese. There are definitely large Japanese but burly Scot Connery looks ridiculous in his bridegroom get-up. As James Thurber would point out, even Goldilocks would not be fooled for a moment.
The Bond producers first began repeating themselves in Thunderball, feeling obligated to uphold a formula rather than surprise us. Many episodes in Twice have a been-there, done-that feeling. Two confrontations with the Osato baddies end identically, with Aki lamely rescuing Bond out of the blue in her convertible sports car. The producer's wife seems to have suggested the gag of using an electromagnet to pick up an automobile ... what's powering that magnet, anyway? The aerial battle between Connery in his 'Little Nellie' gyrocopter is a monotonous episode that adds 'air ace' to Bond's various skills. It's annoying mostly because Bond just looks silly flying the thing - burly Connery is basically slapped into a flying tricycle. Helga Brandt could just kill Bond but naturally takes him up in an airplane, from which he will obviously escape. Anyone familiar with Austin Powers will see the laziness here, the anything-will-do attitude.
The gigantic crater set looks a bit foolish on video, even on a 55" monitor, but it was a jaw-dropper on a big screen. The elaborate battle inside is very exciting, with its ninja swordsmen and trampoline-assisted bodies flying every which way. Yet the static direction so stresses sets and scenery over action that it's not half as thrilling as it could be. At one juncture Bond tells Tanaka that they've got to find a way into the control booth, and directs the ninja army to a heavily defended stairway on the other side of the crater. 007 apparently has forgotten the broad pathway that he
walked just a few moments before. It leads from the control room, to Blofeld's private quarters, to the monorail car. It's only a few paces behind him, and undefended.
Aided by some creepy makeup, Donald Pleasence makes an impressive Blofeld, snarling and barking orders: "Kill Bond!" He proves himself a real trooper by hanging onto that panicky cat no matter what happens. Watch the bit where Pleasence reacts to a grenade hit on his shutters and you'll see him holding the cat in a vise-grip, trying to be nonchalant. The cat is so freaked out, it's tearing itself in two trying to escape!
Savant has always been a sucker for the mass Ninja drop. The sight of dozens of fighters zipping down ribbons from the crater roof is simple, basic Coolness. If one wants the real triumph of style over reality, this is genuine serial fantasy gold, like Batman and Robin leaping out of an elephant statue in their first television episode, or Boba Fett lugging around a rocket pack for two movies, just to be Cool when he finally lights it up and flies into action. Audiences always laugh at the final explosions in the set that make all the bodies and wreckage leap into the air, but Savant thinks it still looks great.
The one-on-fights in Twice are excellent knee-bashers, especially the battle royale with the big thug near the beginning. Not so the rest of the action. Director Lewis Gilbert's Alfie is a masterpiece of satiric drama but he seems unsuited to 007 pacing. His aerial blocking of the Kobe rooftop fight scene is dull and most of Bond's non-fight action, especially the gunplay, is simply thrown away in awkwardly edited coverage. 4
By Bad Movie Law, secret hideouts always blow up as everyone runs to escape. Here the surviving heroes swim to the safety of rubber rafts dropped by the 007 Rubber Raft Delivery Company, through caves previously filled with poison gas. Triggered by Blofeld's TNT, the volcano erupts, thus putting You Only Live Twice at the level of kiddie adventures in which volcanoes always erupt when disturbed. Bond's in there somewhere, swimming with the rest, SuperSpy in name only.
MGM's DVD of You Only Live Twice is a beauty. Sharon Braun's animated menus incorporate whirling helicopter blades and one of John Barry's best action cues. The John Cork documentary is good but has no interviews with the Japanese cast and no explanation why the entire production is so condescending to the Japanese culture. For that matter, after saying that accents and English-language proficiency were so crucial to the casting that a cast member considered suicide, the docu doesn't acknowledge that the Japanese nationals were all crudely dubbed into English anyway. The absence of any Japanese input for this very Japanese movie doesn't put the docu in the best light. Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi are familiar from Kaiju movies like King Kong versus Godzilla and Uchudai Dogora and are at least as important as German looker Karin Dor.
A mini-panic erupted on the web over missing subtitles translating Japanese dialog into English on the DVD, but Savant assures readers that there never were any subtitles on American theatrical prints. ABC television aired some copies with the added subs, which were unnecessary. The Japanese dialog was all obvious or repeated in English anyway.
By 1967 the official Bond franchise was up to its armpits in imitations: the Flints, the Helms, the Uncles,
Casino Royale. Most were slavish spoofs without much substance of their own. With all the foolishness buzzing around the Bond phenomenon, it's too bad the real 007 couldn't resist the temptation to imitate its imitators. You Only Live Twice is an entertaining mess that confirms the Bond producers' wrong turn toward self-mockery. They seemed to have intuited this when their next effort On Her Majesty's Secret Service brought Bond back in a reasonably engaging Galahad-type tale. Unfortunately, as we all know, the franchise eventually became comedies starring Roger Moore, leaving the original Bond concept far, far behind. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You Only Live Twice rates:
Supplements: Full MGM Bond Special edition goodie assortment
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 19, 2000
1. Funny, but Savant never saw a Bond trailer in the theater until the Moores came out. And Savant spent a goodly part of the years 1966-74 in theaters.
2. Note, if you will, that John Barry's main theme of You Only Live Twice is very similar to the main theme for his Midnight Cowboy. I'm talking about the descending line of notes that start the melody; in Cowboy they're played on a harmonica.
3. Bond has a cultural, genre-kidding spoofiness built-in. When 007 confronts Doctor No, for instance, the meeting carries a consciousness of everything from Fu Manchu to Chairman Mao. When 007 spoofs ITSELF, it's spoofing nothing, chasing its tail, as it were. The same thing happens in the Raiders of the Lost Ark sequels. When Spielberg and Lucas riff on the Republic serials, it's wonderful. When they try to sell us on the idea of an Indiana Jones 'tradition', we just don't buy it. An homage that tries be a homage to itself, is no longer about anything.
4. I've since been informed that relative chaos reigned during the filming of You Only Live Twice, with filming in Japan made difficult by mobs of onlookers and Sean Connery showing his displeasure with his 007 servitude by being unusually uncooperative. Some of the visual shortcomings may have therefore been out of director Lewis Gilbert's control. In many scenes Connery appears by himself in short cuts not directly connected to the action around him. Perhaps Gilbert was forced to rush through whatever minimal coverage he could on Connery first, before the actor quit for the day. Then the director and his staff would have to invent master reverse angles that don't involve Connery. That's not the best way to make a movie.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson