Page to Screen: You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice
based on the novel by Ian Fleming


I’m running into an accessibility problem with my Bondathon (and yes, I’m very disappointed it took me until the fifth movie to realize the obvious title for this project). My local library had the first four films on DVD, so all was well, but You Only Live Twice? Yeah, not available to me; PINES, Georgia’s statewide system, doesn’t ship video recordings outside of local systems, due to the obvious danger of the Georgia sun on VHS tapes. And, of course, it’s not on Netflix Instant. So renting off of iTunes or Amazon is the best way to go for now, robbing me of the delight of the utterly cheesy menus for the early Bond films. Alas.

You Only Live Twice opens with an American shuttlecraft being abducted by an unidentified spacecraft. The Americans blame the Russians, but the UK intervenes (because it apparently has the authority to do so?). The spacecraft landed in Japan; luckily, James Bond is already in Asia, and, after faking his own death, he is dispatched to Japan. There, he works closely with Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese Secret Service, and his beautiful assistant, Aki. Their investigation leads them to Osato Chemicals, including their president, Mr. Osato, and his beautiful assistant, Helga Brandt. But the real danger here is, of course, the evil SPECTRE, headed by the mysterious Blofeld…

After the heights of Thunderball, You Only Live Twice disappoints. The pacing issues of the earlier films rear their heads again, and they have a surprising source—Roald Dahl, a close friend of Ian Fleming’s (it figures), wrote the screenplay, despite never having completed a screenplay before. And new Bond director Lewis Gilbert shot the script with little to no changes. In a 1991 issue of Starlog, Dahl said that “[w]hat I admired so much about Lewis Gilbert was that he just took the screenplay and shot it. That’s the way to direct: You either trust your writer or you don’t.” While I admire that, and there are plenty of screenwriters whose work can just be translated to the screen as is and be fine or even amazing, it’s the art of collaboration that gives films their bite. Han Solo’s famous “I know” in response to Leia’s declaration of love was developed on set. The film only picks up about halfway through, when we finally discover that SPECTRE is behind everything.

And then there’s the fact that this film is essentially James Bond Does Japan. The first four films had their issues, certainly (Thunderball, I’m looking at you—well, I’m looking at all of you, let’s be honest), but this is a film that introduces the hero bedding a Chinese woman and asking her why Chinese women taste different than other women. To be honest, it’s not as bad as it could be, and I was definitely bracing for the worst—we see modern Tokyo, but the last third of the film takes place in a remote fishing village. But then we also have the film explicitly telling us that men come first in Japan, and then it tries to convince us that Bond can pass as Japanese with some eye make-up, a wig, and a Japanese wife. (Fifty years on, and we’ve got Hollywood trying to tell us the same thing in Cloud Atlas. Whitewashing: go die in a fire, okay?) and two women die as a consequence of bedding Bond. In fact, this film gives us women who sleep with Bond for seemingly no reason. On the one hand, bully for them, sleeping with someone simply because they want to—on the other hand, I think Dahl and company didn’t have their agency in mind at all while writing. Plus, Connery was already over the character and worried about Bond’s effect on his career, so he makes only a half-hearted attempt here. And on top of it all? The theme song isn’t that amazing. It must be said, however, the hook is so good that Robbie Williams built his song “Millennium” around it.

So what’s left? Well, Aki, Tiger Tanaka’s assistant, is nicely manic, teasing Bond and driving like a maniac. And Tiger Tanaka is fantastic. This is a man whose first line is “The one thing my honourable mother taught me long ago was never to get into a car with a strange girl. But you, I’m afraid, will get into anything. With any girl.” Tetsuro Tamba (on top of being quite handsome) gives Tiger a light but intense air, which works well in comedic scenes and in dramatic ones. And this is the first film where we see Blofeld, who had previously been only a deep-voiced white cat. Donald Pleasence’s quiet, subtle Blofeld only appeared in this film, but he owned the character so much so that Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil is based almost entirely on him. He’s quite good, and the make-up job still looks great, but that’s not enough to make You Only Live Twice really worth it.

Bottom line: After the triumph of Thunderball, You Only Live Twice feels like it’s sleepwalking, despite the best efforts of Tetsuro Tamba’s awesome Tiger Tanaka and Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld. For completionists only.

I rented this film from iTunes.

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