Arguably the Bondiest of all Bond films and the prime inspiration for practically every spy spoof that has ever spoofed, You Only Live Twice is truly the epitome of the view that ‘bigger is better’.
Let’s dive in and find out…
A US space shuttle goes missing and the Russians are blamed. A Russian space shuttle goes missing and the US is blamed. The Brits point out that it’s probably some ne’er do well based in Japan and, after a brief JAMES BOND IS DEAD fake-out, send him into the breach to sort things out.
Then we get a Japanese travelogue, taking in Sumo, scenery and sake before Bond gets married and finally comes face-to-face with Blofeld inside that now classic villainous hideout: the hollowed out volcano.
The good guys
Sean Connery reportedly really struggled with the media attention while filming on location in Japan. Mobbed wherever he went despite repeated pleas for privacy, he was in the process of breaking his contract with the Broccolis to make a sixth film.
He was far less fit than he had been and it showed. By now he could play the character in his sleep, a character now fully realised as a man who goes into every situation assuming, generally correctly, that every single woman he sees will want to sleep with him.
No Felix Leiter this time, instead we get the far more useful and interesting Tiger Tanaka, played by Tetsurou Tanba. He’s the head of the Japanese Secret Service, has his own private train system in Tokyo, a castle where he trains ninjas, an irrepressible good humour and a Q-esque gadget lab that produces rocket cigarettes. It’s a genuine pity he never returned to the series.
Charles Gray plays Henderson as an eccentric ex-pat who seems to think of himself as some sort of feudal lord. Other than to make a sly joke about Bond’s (bad) taste in martini preparation, his only purpose is to get quickly killed mid-sentence, leading Bond to the villainous Osato Chemicals. Oddly Gray then went on to play Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever.
We get to see the gang outside of MI6, doing exactly what they always do but this time on a submarine in Hong Kong harbour. We never get to see Bernard Lee’s legs but we like to think he’s wearing white shorts like the rest of the sailors on board. Lois Maxwell is in a more classic uniform, complete with fetching hat.
The bad guys
We finally get to see Blofeld’s face, and it looks like Donald Pleasence. The role was initially played by Jan Werich, but after a few days of filming it was decreed he wasn’t menacing enough. It can be quite hard to take this Blofled seriously post-Dr. Evil, but if you can put those movies out of your mind it’s easy to see why this is the ultimate portrayal, and possibly the ultimate Bond villain.
As Helga Brandt, Karin Dor has the tough task of basically being a repeat of Fiona Volpe – the flame-haired femme fatale from Thunderball. The difference is she uses utterly incomprehensible methods to try and rid herself of the Bond menace and her inevitable failure is rewarded with a dunk in the piranha tank.
Another long-standing tradition in the Bond universe – every villain should really have some sort of 8-foot tall Aryan bodyguard who almost, almost gets the best of Bond. Hans, played by Ronald Rich, is no exception and he, too, is rewarded for his efforts with a bath of piranhas.
One of the best, and most over-looked, Bond girls. Akiko Wakabayashi plays Aki, a Japanese Secret Service agent who drives an open-top Toyota 2000GT, careening round the streets of Tokyo saving Bond’s life like it’s just another day at the office. Whilst it seems a little unconvincing that she’s so keen to sleep with Bond so soon into their relationship, maybe it’s just a spy thing – you get it when and where you can.
After Aki’s unfortunate death by poison, Bond has to get fake-married (for reasons we’ve still never quite understood) to Kissy, an Ama diving girl who lives near where they suspect is the source of the missing space shuttles.
Whether she’s in on the ‘faked death’ scenario or not will never truly be understood and she’s barely on screen, but Tsai Chin’s Ling does get to deliver one of the all time best/worst Bond double entendres, coupled with some dubious racial comparisons.
Bond: ‘Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?’
Ling: ‘You think we better, huh?’
Bond: ‘No, just different. Like Peking duck is different from Russian caviar. But I love the both.’
Ling: ‘Darling, I give you very best duck.’
The best bits
The Ken Adams designed volcano lair famously almost cost more than the entire budget for Dr. No – but, as we all know, you have to spend money to make money. It makes zero sense to have a lair in an active volcano (and goodness knows what’s going on with the lava at the end) but who cares – it’s still a ridiculously cool concept, brilliantly realised.
It should be noted that at no point does James Bond drive a car in this film. That’s almost entirely left to Aki in one of the coolest cars that isn’t an Aston Martin to ever grace the Bond universe. Apparently it wasn’t supposed to be open top, but Connery didn’t fit so they chopped off the top and there you have it.
Picture the scene. You have Bond all tied up and a drawer full of sharp implements right there in the room.
Do you a) stab Bond to death and go about your megalomaniacal day or do you b) untie Bond, possibly leaving your scalpel in his pocket, sleep with him to make him think you’ve switched sides, get him onto a plane and up in the air before revealing it was all a lie, your lipstick is explosive, there’s a weird balsa-wood seat-trap, the plane’s in a nose dive over somewhere that looks nothing like Japan whatsoever and you have the only parachute that you’re going to use to get yourself to safety.
Good choice, Helga; that won’t come back to bite you.
Thunderball, and arguably Goldfinger, were missing anything approaching a decent fight scene for Bond. You Only Live Twice makes up for it in spades, letting Bond have an all-out brawl that involves picking up an entire sofa no less and using it as a weapon-cum-battering ram. It’s well choreographed, makes good use of the space and let’s Bond prove himself once again as a physical force to be reckoned with.
There’s no Aston Martin stuffed with gadgets, but instead Q turns up in Japan to deliver what looks like a toy helicopter but is in fact a rotary bladed death machine. Obviously Bond unnecessarily uses up all the weapons in a dog-fight and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bond is tricked and so is Helga. The difference is the Bond gets to go down a chute to land in a comfy chair and drink sake and Helga lands in the piranha pool. Look before you leap.
Tsai Chin, she of the duck quote fame, returned to the Bond series as one of the high-rolling poker players in Casino Royale.
This is the only James Bond film to date where Bond does not drive a car.
The rocket pistol and cigarette rocket from Tanaka’s gadget lab were real-life weapons that were featured as product placement.
Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi were initially cast in the opposite roles. When it became clear that Hama’s English skills were not up to scratch she was initially fired, but after threatening suicide the roles were swapped instead.
Hama could also not swim very well and so Sean Connery’s wife at the time, Diane Cilento, doubled for her (and several of the other Ama girls).
Wakabayashi couldn’t drive so in all her driving scenes it was actually a stuntman in a wig.
In the novel Blofeld’s hideout is not a volcano but rather a castle on the coast – but the Japanese never built any there for fear of typhoons.
Flawed, yes, but a much more enjoyable watch than Thunderball. Bond is up to his usual tricks and this is probably peak-Bond for Connery.
James Bond will return in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
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