United Artists released You Only Live Twice in the summer of 1967 to enthusiastic audiences around the world. The film is vaguely based on the 1964 Ian Fleming novel with the same title. Sean Connery, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their roles as Bond, Moneypenny, and Q, respectively, and the film was shot on location in Japan and Alaska as well as in Pinewood Studios. It was considered risky to release a summer film back in the sixties and seventies, but Bond had such an extensive fan base by that time that the risk was justified. You Only Live Twice grossed $111,000,000.
In this fifth Bond film, we finally get a good look at the sinister SPECTRE arch-creep, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, as he tries to play off the USA and the USSR against each other in a plot that revolves around the Cold War reality of the 1960s. Both the USA and the USSR and their various allies and client states took the space race very seriously, and this movie creates instant tension by tapping into that deep well of space drama.
SPECTRE hatches a plan to do mid-orbit hijackings of USA and USSR manned space vehicles with the correct assumption that each nation will blame the other, and that they will go to war and destroy each other. SPECTRE plans to pick up the pieces and rule the world.
The U.K. is convinced that the hijacked American space capsule landed in the area of Japan. Bond is “inserted” into Asia by means of an elaborate ruse, which includes his faked assassination at the beginning of the movie. Hence the title.
The first thing that sticks out to me about this Bond film is that it was shot in Japan. I find that significant for two reasons.
First of all, the Japanese are our allies in the film. It’s true that Japan was our ally at the time the movie was made, but that was only 22 years after the end of WWII. Until just a few years before, American movies about Japan focused on WWII, and, clearly, we were not allies. In such a short time, our previous animosities with Japan were imperceptible in this full-scale Hollywood production, and our archenemy was, of course, the USSR. I believe it’s difficult to picture what a mental leap that represented in this day and age when wars are with glorified gangs rather than with actual countries.
Remember, too, that back then, people couldn’t google Japan and see pictures of Mt. Fuji or Tokyo. Most of us had no idea what Japan looked like, and the only thing we thought we knew about Japanese culture was kamikaze pilots. Except for a few pockets in urban centers, martial arts were just beginning to find their way from close-knit dojos into mainstream America, so not many people outside of real cities knew karate, either. That gave this movie a huge exotic factor.
You Only Live Twice also reflects the changing role of women in society and in the Bond films. As in Thunderball, fully naked female silhouettes adorn the opening credits. However, in what seems a paradox to me, as the women shed clothing in the openings, their characters become stronger in the actual films. This is the first Bond film in which female agents, Aki and Kissy, are competent allies with extensive roles. Previous to this, the only competent women who lasted longer than a scene or so were the villainesses. By competent, I mean women who contribute substantially to the success of the mission and aren’t just thrown in for eye candy.
So what’s the message here? Naked women are nicer, more useful, and have better character?
We have a quintessentially Bond wardrobe scene in this movie, as well, that is reminiscent of the perfectly pressed tuxedo under the wet suit that we saw in Goldfinger. Bond apparently always wears a gray turtleneck under his Japanese peasant clothing, complete with a hood and four super-strength toilet plungers capable of holding him vertically on a wall. Just in case he should need them on his reconnoitering jaunt, you know. But, hey. That’s why we love the guy, right?
In this film we see that 007 finally starts paying attention to his kindergarten spy teachers. He not only shares well with others, but he remembers not to announce his presence by loudly declaring his real name in the face of his archenemy. He also doesn’t sneak into the bedroom window of the bad guy and exchange DNA with the bad guy’s wife. In fact, in this film, Bond bothers to use an alias and, eventually, a local disguise.
Way to go, James! At this rate, with a few more films, we’ll have him using his Walther PPK properly and shooting bad guys in a timely fashion instead of getting into tedious and mission-risking Judo matches.
Judo and other martial Arts are splendid fun and great exercise in the Dojo, but in the field they are the tools of desperation. It’s always best to never let an argument drag on that long. I suppose efficient killing makes for boring movies so just enjoy the lavish martial arts demonstrations in the film.
In 1967, a growing number of Americans were already practicing martial arts, but the concept had not yet been well exploited by Hollywood. In another decade, moviegoers would be tired of the seemingly endless, over-choreographed, terribly dubbed Kung Fu-lish movies filmed with cameras that were apparently stolen by some previous generation of thieves. But back then, martial arts scenes were not yet the mark of a movie in need of a plot.
I enjoyed watching the well-executed sword play. In re-watching the film, I remembered seeing it at the age of ten and insisting on returning for another viewing to see the sword play a second time. I proudly named the sword school where the style had likely originated, pleased with myself for being so martially enlightened and just plain cool.
Donn Draeger choreographing martial arts sequences, image from sabakumartialarts.com
At that age, I dismissed the entire movie except for the sword work, and I forgot the entire plot. Now, as a mature man, I find myself doing the same thing. To hell with the useless rocket guns and the gyrocopter. I want more sword work. I had to watch the film a second time and pay attention to the script to write this review.
One of the interesting aspects of the film was the lavish volcano space launch complex. In the age prior to computer generated movie scenes, the only way to create those images was to build an elaborate set at pinewood studios, complete with a retracting roof and monorail train.
The Bond production budget had come of age. When interviewed years later, the cast, the crew, and the visitors all remembered being awed by the gigantic set. For overhead shots of the launch or helicopter traffic, a camera crew was hoisted in a box by a 150 foot crane. The crew dreaded the raising and lowering of the box so much that they elected to spend the entire day aloft rather than repeat the trip in the swinging box. Once aloft, the box was stabilized with a static tether and remained somewhat stable in cooperative weather.
Aston Martin lovers will miss Bond’s usual vehicle, but might try to enjoy him being chauffeured about by a stylish Japanese agent in a Toyota 2000GT. The Gyro Copter was a perfectly real one with cute weapons props added.
I especially enjoyed the dichotomy of the ultra futuristic space launch site in the volcano, contrasted with good guy ninjas equipped with 1915 vintage Webley pistols. Likewise, the bad guy Japanese had a highly advanced space craft, but they relied on crow bars, clubs, and junky Japanese WWII Nambu rifles. And the top assassins in the bad guy gang? They were equipped with poison and a few Thompson .45 machine guns. Firearms enthusiasts will giggle at the Thompson scenes being matched with 9mm Sten sound tracks, but those lapses make the movie more comical and, for me, more fun.
Another glaring mistake that John Glenn/Neil Armstrong fan club members will catch is in the Russian and American rocket launches. Why are there palm trees in central Russia and why are those no good sneaky Russians launching a very American looking rocket? The editors mixed up the two launch scenes.
Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki
We give this movie a .357.* If you want realistic espionage drama, go to the UN building in New York, sit in the gallery, and watch the gesticulating idiots below. That’s fairly realistic geopolitical drama down there. If you want a little farcical spook drama with decent fight scenes, grab whatever you care to drink and watch You Only Live Twice. Unlike watching the UN in session, you won’t be ill after twenty minutes.
What do you think of the evolving Bond?
Piper Bayard–The Pale Writer of the Apocalypse
Holmes–Student of Sex, C4, and Hollow Points
*Our rating system:
- Dud Chinese-manufactured ammo: Stay home and do housework. You’ll have more fun.
- .22 rim fire: Not worth the big screen, but ok to rent.
- .380: Go to the matinée if someone else is paying.
- .38 special: Worth paying for the matinée yourself.
- .357 magnum: Okay to upgrade to prime time if you can stand the crowd.
- .44 magnum: Must see this. Life-altering event.