Bond 25 arrives in 2020. Tide yourself over until then with a retrospective of every Bond film. This time, I look at the one where Bond turns Japanese, and Nancy Sinatra seduces us with the theme song. Expect spoilers…
James Bond theme. Gunbarrel shot. And we’re in space. John Barry’s “Capsule in Space” theme stretching out the tension as that capsule is swallowed up above the earth by an unknown craft.
We then see Bond in bed with a woman, which at this point would have been expected in a Bond film, yet suddenly the woman moves away, some goons arrive, the bed is flipped up into the wall and sprayed with machine gun bullets. Officials arrive and reveal Bond – dead. And then we’re into the titles.
Bond, obviously not dead, is assigned a mission to figure out who is stealing spacecraft and engineering tensions between the superpowers. He is assigned to Japan to start his investigations, first to touch base with a local contact, then then to infiltrate a business empire. Along the way he meets a companion, who is later killed, then he gets transformed into “a Japanese”, marries a Japanese woman, has a dogfight with fighter helicopters whilst flying is own tiny Q-Branch helicopter “little Nellie”, before discovering the remote base of the mysterious organisation hidden inside a volcano. The base is run by SPECTRE, and for the first time Bond comes face to face with the evil Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
This film is the first to depart from Ian Fleming’s story, although it retained the title. It is the first which I feel really starts to show Bond Bloat as the spectacle and excesses take over the story. Yet there is also something fascinating about the realisation that you are watching a Bond film by the writers of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!
In this review I’m going to discuss what I consider the highs and lows of the film.
DOUBLE 0 YES
Location shooting is extensive – Hong Kong and extensive shooting in Tokyo (one of the first major “western” movies to do so) and around Japan (ports, fishing villages, remote countryside, and the Himeji Castle). The film really captures this gorgeous scenery through great photography.
There are a few notable shots in the film too, freeing the camera from traditional static shots. There’s a nice tracking shot during the final battle as Bond runs through the fight. And during a chase at the docks there is a great helicopter shot of Bond running across a rooftop, dispatching with his attackers, all from a near bird-eye view.
The film spends useful time introducing audiences to elements of Japanese culture that we are far more aware of today – the sumo wrestling tournament, the costumes and customs, ninjas and violent sword play. The training scenes in the ninja school are fantastic, so much so it’s a shame you don’t really get a lot of that action in the finale.
Characters, Fights and Redheads.
The short scene with Charles Gray as Henderson is a great little scene, with some very interesting uplighting – and his sudden death is a neat little shock moment. Of course, Gray will reappear in two films time as the villain, so that is more than a little distracting.
The fight between Bond and the goon in Osato Chemicals is a nicely staged and edited punch up, with a surprising use of a couch. And there is a crunching one-on-one fight between Bond and the huge silent bodyguard in the villain’s lair before it is destroyed.
Bond follows a lead to the Osato corporation which seems to be dealing with liquid oxygen, used to create rocket fuel – and Osato’s assistant Helga Brandt (they are both revealed to be SPECTRE agents) is well used. Brandt is a cool unreadable criminal who seems to flip over to Bond’s side, before betraying him by leaping out of a plane as he is trapped in the back seat. Brandt is another dangerous red head (if only they hadn’t killed Volpe in Thunderball).
Tiger Tanaka, the head of Japan’s secret service, is another useful character, for he facilitates most of Bond’s progress in the film. Tiger has Bond marry one of his agents “Kissy Suzuki” (now there’s a Bond name – though oddly you learn only her first name from the end credits). Tiger also providing the army of ninjas that are needed for the final assault on the volcano.
Listen to John Barry’s soundtrack album in isolation. I’ve only really mentioned music in passing so far in these retrospectives, but this album is grand scale, lush, exuberant, mystical, delicate, bombastic, and brilliant. The “Capsule in Space” music is very familiar as it is revisited in later Bonds. And of course, the main theme is gorgeous.
OUT OF CONTEXT BOND QUIPS
I’ll leave you to guess what might be happening:
Well, at least he died on the job.
Darling, I give you the very best duck.
Don’t get the soap in my eye, will you?
I’ve had a long and tiring journey… and I am in no mood for your juvenile quips.
DOUBLE 0 NO
Sadly, the film is riddled with strange inconsistencies and lapses in logic.
Bond is turned into a Japanese man – eyelid surgery (!) and a chest wax. When he is revealed, it just looks like a tired Sean Connery who needs to comb his hair.
Charles Gray’s Henderson offers Bond a vodka martini, stirred, not shaken. I’m still confused by this. I might be missing something, but it isn’t played like a suspicious mistake made by Henderson (like Red Grant’s red wine with fish faux pas in From Russia With Love). And Henderson isn’t a villain. So, did he just get it wrong? Was Bond just being polite? Some say Bond seems to wince at this mistake on Henderson’s part. I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m fixating on this line a little too much.
Poor Aki. Killed by mistake with poison poured down a strand of cotton from above. Mourned for around 3 seconds before never being mentioned again. The break down in Ninja School Security isn’t mentioned. Later a goon infiltrates same ninja training compound and fails to attack Bond. Neither Bond nor Tiger seem concerned about this second break down in security, or the implication that the bad guys know that they are training.
When a character tells the hero the plan to attack the baddies is
First, you become a Japanese, Second, you train hard and quickly to become a ninja like us, and third to give you extra special cover, you take a wife.
…that surely has to be a warning sign of a script that needs more work.
Given that only three weeks passes from Bond receiving his mission from M and the launch of the US rockets in the finale, Bond really must have to train HARD in the “two more days training” to achieve his ninja qualification. (Which, when you watch the film, must have been worthless as our hero just Bonds his way around shooting and punching people as usual).
The Little Nellie sequence is enjoyable to watch but completely ridiculous, even for Bond.
Helga Brandt’s departure from the film is what some would call “classic Bond”. Blofeld, unhappy with her failure to kill Bond, activates a switch which opens the floor beneath her, plunging her into a pool of flesh-eating piranhas. Sure, Blofeld used the trap door trick in Thunderball too, but in a post-Austin Powers world, it’s hard to take these villain departures as seriously.
Even stranger is when Bond and Kissy explore the volcano on foot and discover that the pool in the crater is the roof of the concealed base. He sends Kissy away for help – yup, she runs all the way down the volcano to get reinforcements (in her skimpy white bikini) while Bond produces strange suction cups to wear on his knees to help him get into the secret base. A base he didn’t know existed until they happened upon the pool in the crater. Always pack your suction cups.
Poor Kissy, swimming across the bay in the dark, then is somehow spotted by a helicopter patrol which then tries to shoot her in the water. Yet she manages to escape, get Tiger, and return to the crater for the final battle (wearing a blouse over her white bikini this time – while the ninjas are dressed in battle-grey). Don’t worry though, this blouse mysteriously disappears when the base explodes.
These events are all interesting enough but play like Bond Building Blocks which they’ve placed in the film because that’s what they think we want. Sadly, they just don’t work, even in the fantastical and unrealistic world of Bond.
NO MATTER HOW WE GET THERE, THE FINALE IS WORTH THE JOURNEY
The appearance of Blofeld after years of just hearing his voice or catching glimpses of his hands and his cat, it great. And Donald Pleasance makes for a great villain, a melodic voice which is incredibly polite yet sinister, and of course the bald head and facial disfigurement (remember, facial disfigurement = evil in the olden days).
The inside of the volcano set by Ken Adam is staggering – a vast location which accommodates the engineering area, heliport, and a monorail. While this is Bond Bloat at its best, it is for many people THE one factor that marks a good Bond film. Sure, to keep things fresh the producers would depart from this over the years, but Blofeld’s base surely inspires the big locations in subsequent films – oil rigs, hidden lairs, underwater bases, space stations etc.
The final battle really is impressive, with rappelling ninjas, punch ups, hand grenades, machine guns, explosions, high falls and then – the ninjas bring out their swords for some katana-action. And time and again during this battle you realise just how VAST the set is.
Blofeld, nursing a ninja star wound on his wrist, abandons the lair, pulling the self-destruct lever and we don’t see him again.
The final scene of the ninjas swimming to freedom works well, and the closing gag of Bond and Kissy trying to get it on in the life raft is nicely undercut when the submarine surfaces, with them perched on top.
For many is THE Bond film. Indeed, my father spoke fondly of Little Nellie, Aki’s poor demise, and Donald Pleasance as Blofeld.
You Only Live Twice was the most expensive Bond to date and was a huge global and financial success for EON Productions.
The credits announced that James Bond will be back On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Then, as he had planned, Sean Connery walked away.
|Produced by: EON Productions
Presented By: Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay: Roald Dahl
Composer: John Barry
“You Only Live Twice” written by John Barry, Leslie Bricusse
Sung by Nancy Sinatra.
Production Design: Ken Adam
London Premiere June 1967