We come now to a moment that Across the Bond had to inevitably come to. You Only Live Twice is really the first Bond to just go all out crazy-go-nuts. Completely ditching the story in the book and throwing in ninjas and hollowed-out volcanos this is the film when Bond truly got larger than life.
What’s the mean for our take on it? Do we harbor ill feelings towards the film that truly started Bond down this path or do we dig it anyway? Xander and I have both come to accept YOLT in different ways. What can be agreed on is that ninjas are cool.
After going bigger with Thunderball Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, Bond‘s producers, really only had one choice: go hallowed-out-volcano big. They pretty much threw everything at You Only Live Twice (including ninjas) and this is really the film where Bond became the cliche (for lack of a better term) that he’s known as. With a screenplay from Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl) and a story and set up that goes beyond silly the movie surprisingly works. Connery’s edge is almost entirely gone in this film, replaced instead with charm and the uncanny ability to make any woman fall in love with him. Previous to this film many of his conquests were through sheer “perseverance,” but in You Only Live Twice he doesn’t even have to try.
The entire movie is just a bunch of fun. Yes, the dissapearence of a grittier Bond is sad, but who cares when there are ninjas! That pretty much sums up the entire attitude of the film, which is almost parody of itself. It’s too bad that this is the movie they decided to introduce Blofeld in, though. Donald Pleasence’s cat hugging, deformed criminal is neither threatening or maniacal, and a lot of that has to do with the tone of the film. Bond is just so invincible in this one and Blofeld so not that it hardly makes him seem like a worthy arch-nemesis.
What You Only Live Twice lacks in grit and villain it easily makes up for in action and set. Despite Thunderball‘s big underwater battle this is really where Bond‘s action sequences took off. The helicopter fight with Little Nelly is impressively put together from models and some stunning footage filmed over the islands of Japan, and Bond‘s two fist fights in this film against larger adversaries are both impressively choreographed and well put together. Nothing as raw as the Grant/Bond train fight in From Russia with Love, but light years better than most of the other Connery fist fights in the Bond films. An especially intriguing shot, that you rarely see even today, has Bond fight his way across the rooftop of a building as the camera pulls further and further away. Put all of this into some of Ken Adam’s most impressive sets, and shake well with an exotic locale like Japan (considered far more exotic back then), and you’ve got some great Bond going on.
What wasn’t so great was what was going on behind the scenes. Sean Connery was having hell in Japan where his privacy was continually disrespected by reporters, and he and Harry Saltzman were not on good terms. It’s impressive that it doesn’t show too much in his performance how miserable the entire filming experience was.
I remembered not being a particularly big fan of You Only Live Twice, finding it little more than a succession of action sequences lacking the coherence and edge of Connery’s earlier movies. That’s true, but I’d forgotten how ridiculously entertaining it is. The plot isn’t exactly deep but provides plenty of excuses for gorgeous visuals, with the Japanese setting used prominently enough to give the movie a distinct exotic flavour without becoming overkill. Lewis Gilbert shoots with great flair, offering something new to see every couple of minutes. A delightfully eccentric undercurrent – Henderson’s fusion of Japanese and Western decor, Tiger’s ridiculously great living arrangements (he’s got an office with a slide, a private train, AND a bath-house run entirely by gorgeous women!), Connery’s hysterically terrible ‘surgery’ to turn him Japanese – gives the movie its sense of humour. Nancy Sinatra’s title song, as Mad Men fans will know, is among the series’ most underrated, even if it reflect the novel’s pensive tone better than it does the whizz-bang-whallop of the movie.
It’s entries like You Only Live Twice which show how perfect the Bond formula can be when surrounded by striking enough aesthetics. While Thunderball suffered from slightly lethargic pacing, Gilbert’s movie is more or less non-stop action, but made compelling through the richness and variety of its ideas. Roald Dahl’s script has the purest grasp to date of what a Bond movie ‘is’, but this early in the game, doesn’t rest on its laurels in the way the most uninspired Roger Moore movies do.Bond being introduced by a sex pun has become cliché (‘Our man in Hong Kong is working on it now’, cut to Bond shagging an Asian lass while making sensationally inappropriate comments about Peking Duck), as has the set of character types (one main villain, one sub-villain, one henchman, one male ally, one female victim, one female survivor) which became standard for most of the series’ entries from here on in. Fortunately, scenes like the opening sequence with an astronaut left floating through space after his vessel is devoured by SPECTRE’s rocket (what a way to go), Bond‘s funeral at sea and submarine debriefing, the meeting with Aki (the stunning Akiko Wakabayashi) at the sumo arena, the Little Nellie dogfight, and Ken Adam’s still jaw-dropping volcano set, are so singularly enjoyable that the familiarity of the underlying structure doesn’t matter a jot. It’s frivolous, but in the most appealing way possible. If there’s anyone alive who can’t get excited about Bondleading a ninja assault on a volcano rocket base, I weep for the future of humanity.
YOLT sets a less encouraging precedent as the first movie to throw out more or less everything in Ian Fleming’s novel, bar the Japanese location and, very briefly, Bond‘s stay with Kissy Suzuki among the Ama fishing community. It’s understandable, because the source material is among the most unusual Fleming wrote, a self-reflective slow-burner built entirely around Bond coming to terms with the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had yet to occur in the movie canon. Fleming’s health was in terminal decline by the time he finished the novel, and it was the last he managed to complete. (There’s much speculation over whether his posthumously released book, The Man With The Golden Gun, was only a first draft or possibly even completed by his friend Kingsley Amis). It has a uniquely melancholy tone, revolving as much around the depressed Bond as with Britain’s weakening position on the world stage, which is beautifully played out through the delicate otherness of the Japanese culture Fleming adored. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels and the movie producers should be ashamed that the climactic showdown with Blofeld – or Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, as is his outstandingly overwrought pseudonym – in his ‘garden of death’ has not yet made it to the big screen. Despite sharing a name, the novel and movie could not be any more different, and while that became a problem more often than not further down the line, here it provides two fantastic experiences, marking the point at which the cinematic and literary Bonds diverged into very distinct creations.