You Only Live Twice (DVD, 2007, Canadian; Single Disc Version)

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For a European, You're Exceptionally Cultured

Nov 25, 2005 (Updated Aug 21, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Japanese cultural atmosphere; Pleasence, Tamba and Akiko Wakabayashi; Ninja raid; volcanic lair; great score

Cons:Weak henchmen and henchwomen; weak second Bond girl; passive Bond

The Bottom Line: This Bond film mixes exceptional strengths (exotic Japanese atmosphere, music, beautiful Aki, intriguing Tanaka, great villain, imaginative lair) with glaring weaknesses (inane plot, poorly integrated toys, weak henchmen and henchwoman).


After the preceding Bond film Thunderball, there was the distinct possibility that the producer of the Bond series, Eon Productions, might scuttle the series. Instead, they called in director Lewis Gilbert, fresh off a solid box office triumph, to find a new direction.

Historical Background: Lewis Gilbert, born March 6th, 1920, in London began directing films in 1947. During the fifties and early sixties, he made mostly war dramas, including, most notably, one called Sink the Bismarck! (1960). Gilbert had his first major commercial success with Alfie (1966) and it earned him a chance to resurrect the flagging Bond series. Gilbert's effort, You Only Live Twice (1967), was strong enough to result in his being invited back twice again later in the series, for Roger Moore's third and fourth Bond movies, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). Gilbert's best film subsequent to his work in the Bond series was Educating Rita (1983).

The Story: At the height of the cold war, America and the Soviet Union are brought to the brink of Armageddon when each nation loses one of its orbiting manned space stations to a mysterious interceptor space vehicle. Since these are the only two entities on earth thought to possess space technology, each naturally blames the other. British Intelligence, however, believes that the intercepting spacecraft came down near the Sea of Japan and sends its "best man" to the scene to investigate, desperately hoping to stave off a nuclear conflagration.

One difficulty has to be dealt with first. Britain's "best man," who we all understand means "Bond, James Bond," has been targeted by SPECTRE for elimination. To provide Bond with elbow room, the British Secret Service concocts an elaborate faked death for 007. Machinegun toting gunmen assassinate Bond during a dalliance with the lovely Ling (Tsai Chin) in Hong Kong. Bond dies in bed, just as he would have wanted it. After a funeral at sea, Bond and his shroud are recovered from the ocean floor and hauled aboard a British submarine. As the shroud is cut away, Bond's eyes flicker open and he requests permission to come aboard. This particular submarine is also a British Secret Service station and M (Bernard Lee) is already aboard. Soon, Bond is jettisoned out through a torpedo bay in scuba diving gear and swims up onto the Japanese coastline. In Japan, he's to make contact with a British agent, Dikko Henderson (Charles Gray), and M's counterpart in Japanese Intelligence, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba). Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) has provided Bond with a code phrase straight out of her own fantasies, for identifying his contacts: "I love you."

Bond is to meet Henderson at a Sumo wrestling arena. Instead, an exceptionally lovely Japanese woman, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), approaches and sits beside him. Bond has to identify himself, so his prophetic first words to Aki are "I love you." We can almost see him blush, assuming Bond knows how. Aki drives Bond to meet Henderson. Henderson tells Bond that he also believes that the intercepting space vehicle came from near Japan, but could not have been launched by the Japanese government. As he is expounding on his theory, Henderson suddenly stops short. Bond jumps up and discovers that Henderson has been stabbed in the back through the paper-thin wall of his Japanese home.

Bond's pursuit of the assassin takes him into the headquarters of Osato Chemicals. Bond opens the safe with one of his Q-furnished toys and grabs the papers contained therein, setting off the alarm in the process. After fleeing the building, Bond finds Aki waiting in her white sports car to whisk him away. Bond, however, is suspicious of Aki after Henderson's sudden death. When he starts to threaten her, she stops abruptly and dashes away. Bond pursues her into the walkway of a subway tunnel, but before he can reach her, falls through a trap door, into an underground facility. There, Bond is greeted with a derisive chuckle by Tanaka, head of Japanese Intelligence.

Bond and Tanaka find some incriminating clues among the stolen papers. The next morning, after enjoying a night of Tanaka's generous hospitality, not to mention Aki's more personal touch, Bond arranges to visit Osata headquarters under the guise of an industrialist, wanting to place a large order for some chemicals that Osata manufactures. There, he meets Mr. Osata (Teru Shimada) and his helicopter pilot and chief assistant, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor). Osato has toys as well, such as surveillance cameras and an ex-ray device for detecting weapons. As soon as Bond leaves, Osata orders him killed. Once again, Aki has to whisk Bond out of harm's way in her sports car. The pursuers are disposed of in an inventive manner. A large cargo helicopter picks the pursuing vehicle up off the highway, using a giant industrial magnet, and then drops the vehicle into the ocean.

Bond and Aki next go to investigate a suspicious Osato tanker. There, they encounter a number of Osato thugs. Bond diverts the attackers while Aki escapes, but Bond is ultimately captured. The malicious Helga Brandt threatens Bond with a surgical dermatome, but ultimately chooses to seduce him instead. Later, however, she abandons Bond in a crashing plane, parachuting away. Bond manages to level the plane off just enough for a controlled crash landing and jumps from the plane before it explodes.

By the time Bond links up again with Tanaka, the Japanese spy chief has pinpointed a small group of islands from which the villains are likely operating. Bond suggests raiding the islands with commandos, but Tanaka has something better: ninjas, who special in concealment and surprise. Tanaka takes Bond to his ninja training facility. Bond must himself train as a ninja and be made over to pass for a Japanese man. To complete the charade, Bond will have to take a Japanese wife or, at least, pretend to do so. Bond turns to Aki, who is greatly flattered by his thought, but Tanaka insists that it must be a woman from the islands in question. Tanaka assures Bond that the woman he has in mind has a "face like a pig." At the Ninja school, Bond survives two assassination attempts; unfortunately, the lovely Aki is killed in one of those efforts. Bond's determination to identify his foe is thus redoubled. In a lovely ceremony, Bond is "married" to Kissy Suzuki (Tetsuro Tamba), who turns out to be quite lovely after all. The package deal with Kissy does not, however, include a honeymoon, much to Bond's chagrin. He even discards the oysters he's been offered for dinner.

The rest of the film involves pinpointing the location of the villain's lair, penetrating, and destroying it. I won't add further detail, except that the villain is revealed only near the end and turns out to be none other than Bond's multi-film nemesis and head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance), complete with white pussycat. Bond has to deal not only with Blofeld but also his muscular Aryan bodyguard, Hans (Ronald Rich). The scene in which the ninjas breach the crater defenses is spectacular.

Production Values: Roald Dahl, a friend of Ian Fleming, wrote this film's screenplay. The title and the names of several characters (Tanaka, Kissy Suzuki, and Dikko Henderson) were taken from Fleming's eleventh and last completed novel, published in 1964. The rest of the screenplay was based on additional story material provided by Harold Jack Bloom. Dahl was otherwise best known for some rather dark children's stories, including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach.

Although previous Bond films had sometimes strained credibility, this was the first one to break with realism altogether. The idea of a massive space vessel being launched off the coast of Japan without anyone noticing, then swallowing American or Soviet satellite stations, and then making a precision reentry into a volcanic crater converted into a space center was the stuff of science fiction. It would have been a good deal simpler for Blofeld and SPECTRE to develop their own nuclear capability for destroying the superpowers than the kind of space technology implied by this film.

The pre-credit sequence for this film was comparatively simple in construction, yet dramatically effective. Viewers were shocked to discover Bond apparently killed right off. When he is later cleverly brought back to life, the film justifies its title immediately. Though the scene provides little of the action that would become the hallmark of future pre-credit openings, it is nevertheless a worthy one.

Some aspects of the script are very sloppy, however, almost as if the scriptwriter was simply going through the motions dictated by the now well-established Bond formula. Every other Bond film, for example, introduces the toys that will be used subsequently during a scene close to the beginning of the film, usually at MI6 headquarters in London, with Q running the show. Then the toys are later brought to bear to solve various difficult situations Bond encounters. In You Only Live Twice, by contrast, Q brings Little Nelly to Japan, explains what the mini-helicopter can do, and then Bond immediately flies off and demonstrates each of the capabilities that Q has enumerated against enemy aircraft. It's just all too pat and unimaginative.

The most outstanding quality of this film is the extent to which it truly delves into the culture and ambiance of the selected locale – Japan. Though all Bond films have scenes in exotic locations, this film doesn't just show us vistas or cityscapes. It shows us something of the character, beauty, and cultural traditions of the people. I will always treasure You Only Live Twice, among the Bond films, if for no other reason than its stellar ambiance. Some viewers may find scenes such as the Ninja training school, the wedding ceremony, and the fishing boats tedious, but for me they are what most elevate this film into the upper half of the Bond movies. Cinematographer Freddie Young renders the natural settings exquisitely.

The major artificial set is also stunning, consisting of Blofeld's space vehicle launching station, deftly hidden inside a defunct volcanic crater, hidden from aerial view by a retracting metal roof that resembles hardened lava. The set was so massive it had to be built on a back lot rather than a soundstage. The attack on the lair by Tanaka's ninjas is magnificent, and all the more so because the film took the time to show us the training of these ninjas and to allow us to develop sympathy for this group of characters. On the other hand, there are some shabby special effects in this film. The graphics for the scenes in orbit are very poor, even by the standards of the day, given that Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey dates from around the same time. There are also times when back projections are all too obvious. The landing of SPECTRE's rocket is another poorly rendered scene.

Every Bond fan has a favorite theme song. Mine is definitely the one for this film. Whenever I watch this film, the theme song reverberates through my mind for at least a day. It's emotionally powerful as well as quite lyrical. Frequent Bond composer John Barry reprises it throughout the film, sometimes with soaring orchestration, to add profundity to many of the most important scenes.

Sean Connery is my favorite Bond, but he did his best work in the first four films. He's not at his best in the present film, though part of that has to do with a script that almost turns him into a tourist. A lot of the action develops around him, making this the most passive effort of any Bond. Another factor was that Connery got fed up with the Japanese paparazzi, who hounded him relentlessly while the film was being shot, even sometimes following him into the men's room, perhaps hoping to discover the reason for Bond's success with the ladies. The shooting schedule was also grueling. About midway through the film, Connery declared that this would be his final Bond film. He retired from the series after You Only Live Twice, although it proved to be only the first of three such retirements. In my opinion, despite Connery's professionalism, his lack of enthusiasm for the job shows a bit in his performance here. It's still as good or better as any of the performances provided by other Bond actors, except for Timothy Dalton.

I really enjoy the performance of Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger. There seems to be a genuine affection and mutual respect between Tiger and James, as two of the very best in their mutual profession. Tamba's other appearances include Kwaidan (1964) and The Twilight Samurai (2003). The usual take on the Bond girls in this film is that they are the worst for any of the Bond films of the sixties, but I strongly disagree on one count: Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki. While it's true that her part had to be post-dubbed by another actress, her phonetic pronunciation of English is good enough to ensure that the dubbing worked. Her performance skills, outside of the lack of proficiency with English, are exemplary. Her facial expressions are as outstanding as those of any actress in the series. Her beauty may have been equaled a few times by other women in the series but never surpassed. Aki's death in You Only Live Twice is the one I felt most keenly of any in a Bond film, other than Tracy Draco. Of all the Bond girls, Aki is probably the one I'd most like to . . . . take out to dinner. When a Bond girl can elicit that kind of sympathy from me, she's doing a terrific job. She previously appeared in What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966). I agree with the consensus view in regards to the other Bond girl in this film, Mie Hama, who played Kissy Suzuki. Though she's lovely, she's not as drop dead gorgeous as Akiko and nowhere near as interesting.

Whoever designed and implemented Donald Pleasence's facial makeup should get an honorary Oscar, not to mention a percentage of Mike Myers's take from all of his Austin Powers films. Although Pleasence gets limited screen time, he delivers all of his sinister lines quite believably. His performance can't rank with the much more demanding and extensive one of Gert Fröbe as Auric Goldfinger, but Pleasence's physical appearance (the webbed eye and scarred cheek) and mannerisms (slouched sitting position and obsessive petting of his cat) make his character as truly frightening as any villain in film history. I love the way the guy feeds his errant henchmen and henchwomen to the piranhas. Pleasance appeared in such films as Look Back in Anger (1959), Sons and Lovers (1960), The Great Escape (1963), Cul-de-Sac (1966), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Halloween (1978), and Escape from New York (1981). Charles Gray, who plays Dikko Henderson in the present film, would take a turn as Blofeld two films later. Karin Dor is probably the least effective henchwomen in the entire series, or darn close. The regulars are in fine form in this film, though their parts are unexceptional.

Bottom-Line: For ambiance, music, and villain make-up, you can't beat this Bond film, but those great qualities are also offset by some deficits. Here then, is my Overall Certified Gold Bond Rating for this film, using my system that facilitates comparisons across the series:

Bond: Sean Connery, tanking it Rating: 4/5

Villain: Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) Rating: 5/5

Henchmen: Mr. Osato (Teru Shimade) 2/5; Hans (Ronald Rich) 3/5 Overall Rating: 3/5

Henchwoman: Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) Rating: 2/5

Bond (good) Girls: Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) 5/5; Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) 2/5; Ling (Tsai Chin) 3/5 Overall Rating: 3/5

Colleagues: M (Bernard Lee) 5/5; Q (Desmond Llewellyn) 5/5; Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) 5/5; Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) 5/5; Dikko Henderson (Charles Gray) 4/5 Overall Rating: 5/5

Storyline: Stealing satellite stations 1/5; volcanic fortress 5/5; delving into Japanese cultural atmosphere 5/5 Overall Rating: 4/5

Action: Bond's "murder" in Hong Kong and resurrection at sea 5/5; Henderson's murder and Bond's first penetration of Osato Chemical 4/5; second visit and magnetic disposal of pursuers 3/5; Little Nelly too blatantly incorporated 2/5; ninja attack on volcanic lair 5/5 Overall Rating: 4/5

Toys: Little Nelly, explosive cigarette, Tanaka's headquarters and train Rating: 3/5

Character Development: Good use of Tiger Tanaka and Aki, too little development of Blofeld, Osato, Hans, Helga, or Kissy Suzuki Rating: 2/5

Music: Superlative "You Only Live Twice" theme song by Nancy Sinatra, excellent soundtrack with full orchestra, incorporating the same song and Japanese motifs Rating: 5/5

Locales: Hong Kong, Japanese vistas beautifully utilized Rating: 5/5

******************************************************
Overall Certified Gold Bond Rating: 45/60
******************************************************


You may also enjoy my other reviews for 007 films:

Casino Royale (1954), non-series, television
Dr. No (1962)
From Russia with Love (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
Thunderball (1965)
Casino Royale (1967), non-series
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Moonraker (1979)
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Octopussy (1983)
Never Say Never Again (1983), non-series
A View to a Kill (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
Licence to Kill (1989)
GoldenEye (1995)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)


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