"You only live twice. Once when you are born. And once when you look death in the face." (haiku written by James Bond in the Ian Fleming novel You Only Live Twice).
It took the 5th film in the James Bond series YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) for Bond to finally visit Asia. He had already been to the Caribbean (twice), Turkey, and Switzerland but never to the Far East. As big a James Bond fan as I am, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), has never been one of my favorites. I've probably watched the first four Bond films over a dozen times each but YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE just a few times. The Japan locations never bowled me over nor did the Japanese actresses who played the Bond girls. And a plot device that has Bond made up to look like a Japanese fisherman was just plain goofy. Bond looked like Jerry Lewis pretending to be Japanese (think THE GEISHA BOY).
But like all good things, a film like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE that I didn't rate as highly when I was young and finicky deserves a second chance now that CrazyFilmGuy is wiser and mellower and more appreciative of films he originally scorned. A new screening of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE reveals the filmmakers retreading some old Bond devices in new ways. The Japanese scenery and locations are actually very good (shot by David Lean's cinematographer Freddie Young). YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE finally reveals the face of the main villain behind SPECTRE'S diabolical plots, the cat loving, bald headed Dr. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (I'm curious to know where Blofeld got his doctor's degree). And, it's not often you get to say James Bond and Ninjas in the same breath.
After four solid hits, a franchise like James Bond is bound to hit a bump or two. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE had a new director in Lewis Gilbert (either Terence Young or Guy Hamilton had directed the previous four films) and a new screenwriter in Roald Dahl (yes, the children's book author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.) Sean Connery had announced this was going to be his last James Bond film. Producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had wanted to make Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service next but lack of snow forced them to go with Fleming's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE instead.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE begins with the death of James Bond (Sean Connery)...or so it seems. Bond is supposedly murdered in bed (where else) in a Hong Kong hotel by two machine gun toting killers after sleeping with a Chinese girl Ling (Tsai Chin). Bond's death and elaborate funeral (he's buried at sea wrapped like a mummy only for his body to be taken by scuba divers to a waiting British submarine where he's revealed to be alive) is all an elaborate ruse to get Bond's enemies off his back so he can do some undercover work in peace. A U.S. spaceship has vanished while orbiting the earth. Later, a Russian spacecraft will also disappear, both hijacked and gobbled up by a large mystery silver rocket ship. The Americans and Russians suspect each other. But the British represented by M (Bernard Lee) have detected a faint signal that something landed in Japan. M sends Bond to investigate before the U.S. and Russians start a nuclear war.
Bond meets up with his pretty but mysterious Japanese contact Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) who brings him to Henderson (Charles Gray), a British agent familiar with Japan. Henderson suggests Bond work with the secretive Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), the head of the Japanese Secret Service. Henderson is stabbed in the back with a dagger before he can tell Bond more. Bond chases down and kills the assassin, grabbing the killer's coat and medical mask to assume his identity and climbs into the waiting getaway car. The car takes Bond to Osato Chemical and Engineering. Bond steals some documents from Osato's safe and barely escapes, picked up by Aki.
Aki leads Bond to Tanaka. Bond asks Tanaka to look at the papers he stole from Osato Chemical. A microdot is found on one document, a photograph of a freighter called the Ning Po. Bond returns to Osato Chemical impersonating a businessman to learn more. His snooping leads Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) to order his beautiful assistant Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) to have Bond killed. Once again, Aki races in to rescue Bond. Bond and Aki travel to the Kobe shipyards to check out the Ning Po and its contents -- rocket fuel. More photos of the freighter reveal its cargo disappeared somewhere in the islands of the Japanese archipelago.
With tensions running high between the U.S. and Russia and another U.S. launch imminent, Bond and his cohorts are running out of time as they canvas the islands, looking for a launching pad. A squadron of helicopters almost kill Bond during one reconnaissance flight in his mini-copter called "Little Nellie." Tanaka has Bond to disguise himself as a Japanese fisherman and marry a local girl (and agent for Tanaka) named Kissy (Mie Hama) to infiltrate the fishing village and discover where the rocket might be. Bond and Kissy discover SPECTRE's secret underground volcano base, hiding the rogue SPECTRE rocket. In charge of the global extortion (the Chinese are paying SPECTRE to start World War III between the U.S. and Russia) is none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), SPECTRE's top man with Brandt and Osato by his side. Bond calls in Tanaka and his Ninja warriors as good battles evil in the enormous subterranean volcano lair in an impressive finale full of explosions and catapulting stuntmen.
All the James Bond films borrow and steal from previous Bond films but YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE is the first film to attempt it, making variations from the previous four films. In THUNDERBALL (1965), Bond's enemy Colonel Bouvar fakes his death to open the film. In TWICE, Bond fakes his own assassination. Tiger Tanaka, the man in charge of Japan's Secret Service, plays the role of sidekick that CIA Agent Felix Leiter performed in DR. NO (1962) and GOLDFINGER (1964). Bond's Aston Martin (tricked out with weaponry) is replaced by the mini-helicopter "Little Nellie" complete with two machine guns, two rocket launchers, two heat seeking missiles, two flamethrowers, and aerial mines. And when Bond needs help, Felix Leiter usually called in the reinforcements. In the case of TWICE, Tanaka brings an army of Ninjas. Bond trains with the Ninjas at their island training ground in TWICE. The Ninja training sequence is reminiscent to the SPECTRE training facility in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963).
Director Lewis Gilbert would even steal his own plot device from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and use it not only once in 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (the first Bond film I saw in a movie theater) but a second time in MOONRAKER (1979) one of the most disappointing films in the 007 series. The device in TWICE is the SPECTRE rocket ship that opens up like a Venus Fly Trap and gobbles up the American and Russian spaceships. In THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, it was a gigantic oil tanker that swallowed both a Russian and American nuclear submarine (and their crews) like Moby Dick. In MOONRAKER, Gilbert would return to space as American and Russian space shuttles (and their crews) were hijacked by a larger space shuttle (almost identical to YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE).
The Bond films have always done a nice job of playing tour guide for the exotic countries Bond visited, highlighting the scenery and customs of various locations but director Gilbert and writer Dahl make the Japan Tourist Board proud in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. A wonderfully staged scene in a jam packed arena has Bond taking in a sumo wrestling match between two behemoth wrestlers. Tanaka introduces Bond to the custom of Japanese women bathing and massaging the man (a bit sexist in today's society). There's a traditional Japanese wedding complete with silk robes that brings together (temporarily) Bond and Kissy. And the scenery is spectacular as the film takes us from Tokyo to the Kobe shipyards to the volcanic islands and coves of Japan. The only iconic landmark missing in TWICE is Mount Fuji.
Although this is Gilbert and Dahl's first James Bond film, they don't shy away from the ghosts of past Bond success, staging some impressive set pieces in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Second only to the fight scene on the train between Bond and Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, TWICE has a brutal duel between Bond and an Osato bodyguard/driver (Samoan wrestler Peter Fanene Maivia) complete with both men throwing each other through Japanese paper screens and Bond fending off the bodyguard with a couch, ramming him repeatedly with the sofa. Another famous set piece involves a sedan full of Osato gunmen chasing Bond and Aki until a helicopter with a large magnet swoops down and picks up the sedan, dropping the sedan and gunmen into a nearby bay.
The attack by Tanaka's Ninja's on Blofeld's underground volcano base is YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE'S best set piece and one of the best in the Bond series. Production Designer Ken Adam's massive set includes a monorail, control room, Blofeld volcanic apartment (complete with stolen art), piranha pool, and rocket launch pad. I didn't even mention the retractable crater that opens up at the top of the volcano. The siege on Blofeld's base is well staged with hundreds of Ninjas repelling down from the top of the faux crater and multiple explosions sending numerous SPECTRE agents flying and somersaulting into the air courtesy of mini-trampolines off screen. TWICE would involve over 100 stuntmen for the finale.
The underground volcano base and epic battle between good and evil help to disguise the fact that YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE'S space special effects leave a lot to be desired. Gilbert, Dahl, Adam and company are ambitious with their intentions for the various lunar modules and rocket ships in TWICE but the technology just wasn't there in 1967. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY just a year later in 1968 makes TWICE'S space special effects look amateurish. Yet YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE'S space scenes beat Kubrick's 2001 by one year and the first actual landing on the moon by the United States by two years. TWICE even has a scene eerily similar to 2001 when the rogue SPECTRE rocket snaps the spacewalking U.S. astronaut's lifeline cable with its retracting jaws as it swallows the American space ship, the hapless astronaut floating away to his death in space.
Sean Connery as James Bond is his usual charming, lethal self but one might say Connery sort of walks through YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. In previous films, we always saw a bit of humanity or compassion emerge from Bond in a scene or two. In TWICE, he's a stranger in a strange land when he arrives in Japan. There's no spark between Connery and his female co-stars although I prefer Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki to Mie Hama's Kissy.
Karin Dor who plays Osato's personal assistant and SPECTRE agent Helga Brandt is a knock-off of
Fiona Volpe (she also has red hair), the insatiable assassin from THUNDERBALL played by Luciano Paluzzi. Dor does fine plus she gets to incur one of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE's most grisly deaths when Blofeld, unhappy that she failed to kill Bond earlier, sacrifices Brandt to his pool of man (and woman) eating piranha fish. The Bond filmmakers would steal this scene again in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME substituting sharks for piranha. Beware the trap floor when crossing the bridge over said piranha or sharks SPECTRE agents. You have been warned.
The star of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE for me is Donald Pleasence (THE GREAT ESCAPE, HALLOWEEN) as SPECTRE #1 aka Ernest Stavro Blofeld. The filmmakers keep the identity of the villain secret for most of the film so it's a great reveal (and shock) when we meet face to face the bald, facially scarred Blofeld. Previously, we had only heard Blofeld's sinister voice and seen him petting his Persian cat from the neck down in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and THUNDERBALL. Blofeld's appearance is a highlight of the film but he's only in the last 20 minutes. We are cheated of Pleasence's great, enigmatic characterization of the arch villain. Is Blofeld a leftover from the Nazi regime who's now in the global extortion business? Or is he a Swiss madman, plotting world catastrophe with a watchmaker's precision? Another actor was cast and started filming as Blofeld but director Gilbert felt he wasn't the right fit (and correctly so. Czech actor Jan Werich (the first choice) looked like a meek librarian). Pleasence was a last minute replacement and solidifies himself as one of the all time great Bond bad guys.
If the bald Blofeld character looks familiar to today's audiences, it's because Mike Myers lovingly parodies Blofeld as Dr. Evil in his James Bond spoofs, the AUSTIN POWERS comedies. The AUSTIN POWERS films borrow heavily from many of the Connery Bond films including FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, GOLDFINGER, and of course, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. The Blofeld character would return in two other Bond films. In 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, Telly Savalas (later to play KOJAK) played Blofeld. And in 1971's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, Charles Gray portrays multiple Blofeld's. But Pleasence's Blofeld is the best with his hypnotic voice, bald head, and bad scar across his right eye.
Speaking of Charles Gray, both Gray who plays Henderson and Burt Kwouk who plays Chinese SPECTRE agent # 3 in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE make appearances in other Bond films. Kwouk also appears in GOLDFINGER (1964) as a Chinese emissary Mr. Ling. Ironically, Gray would play Ernst Stavro Blofeld with white hair in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) giving the 2nd best performance as Blofeld after Pleasence (and much more screen time).
But YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE is not without it faults. Besides the mediocre space ship effects, Bond's attempt to impersonate a Chinese fisherman is unintentionally funny and distracts from the story. At least Connery plays it straight. TWICE also has some plausibility issues. As hard as SPECTRE has worked to hide its identity with the space ship hijackings and hidden volcano base, Blofeld is way too casual when he lets the captured Bond hang with him in the control room, casually showing his bodyguard Hans (and Bond and the audience) which key controls the SPECTRE rocket ship.
Some final Bond trivia, tidbits, and thoughts. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE is the only Bond film in which we never see Bond or M or Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) in their London headquarters. TWICE takes place entirely in Asia -- either Hong Kong or Japan. TWICE also reveals for the first time Bond in a Royal Navy uniform and that he holds the rank of Commander. Bond never drives a car in this film (he does fly "Little Nellie") and it's only the third film in the series where Bond does not wear a tuxedo. Although World War II had been over for 23 years when TWICE was made and our former enemies were now friends, the Bond filmmakers have villains from the former Axis nations. Helga Brandt and Hans (Ronald Rich) play German bad guys and Mr. Osato is Japanese. I guess you can't have the Russians and Chinese play the heavies in every Bond film. Lastly, a Sinatra sings the theme song to YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE but it's not 'ol Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra but his daughter Nancy. Can you imagine a James Bond theme song sung by Frank Sinatra? That would have been epic.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE caps off a very successful run for Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. From 1962 to 1967, they had produced five of the best James Bond films in the series (some a little better than others) and made James Bond (and Sean Connery) an international phenomenon. Not many film franchises can boast that kind of record. But with YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, their run of success would hit a brick wall as Sean Connery would leave the franchise (only to return for a curtain call in 1971's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER). Their answer to replace Connery would be the bizarre choice of Australian George Lazenby for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969). I tried to watch it once and fell asleep half way through it. Lazenby would be a one film failure. It would be uncharted territory for the Bond filmmakers going forward.