Next on the Bond countdown is a bizarre movie that could almost work as a surreal fantasy if not for a few fatal mistakes. It’s the 5th Bond movie produced…
AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery
SETUP: A US space capsule disappears, literally snatched from orbit by another craft. The Americans blame the Russians and heat up the Cold War, while the British insist that the rogue attack craft originated somewhere near Japan. MI6 puts their best agent, James Bond, on the case, but the credits haven’t even started before he’s gunned down by Hong Kong assassins.
BUT IN REALITY: Obviously Bond isn’t dead, although that might have made for an interesting movie. Bond faked his assassination to confuse SPECTRE and provide much needed freedom while moving through the Japanese underworld. The enemy craft is crucial to SPECTRE master Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s plan to send the superpowers into a shooting war, and Bond enlists the aid of Japanese agent Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and his army of ninjas to infiltrate Blofeld’s volcano base and put a stop to the plan. Blofeld escapes, but the war is averted.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Blofeld was an unseen presence in the original Bond films, always stroking his pet cat and cruelly slaughtering minions whenever they failed to kill Bond or complete their master plans.
This movie pushed Blofeld to the front lines for the very first time, casting Donald Pleasance in the role and revealing both Blofeld’s face and his wicked eye scar. This look later served as the blueprint for Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers spoofs.
THE MUSCLE: Having presumably killed every minion he’s ever bothered to hire, Blofeld is down to a Japanese businessman named Osato, a fiery redhead named Helga Brandt (more on her below), and an anonymous army of color-coded henchmen. There’s not a real killer in the bunch. I guess I’d have to pass the honors to Blofeld’s pet piranha, kept well-fed by their master’s firing policy.
Yeah, he’s tough, but make it one year working for Blofeld and you can write your own ticket in the super villain community.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Bond’s first love in the film is Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), Tanaka’s partner and Bond’s guide through Japan. Unfortunately, Aki suffers a decidedly brutal death courtesy of ninja poison dropped on her lips in the night. Bond moves on and takes a sham Japanese wife to go undercover in the fishing village. The wife, Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) although she’s never named in the film, is instrumental to getting Bond inside the volcano and bringing back Tanaka’s ninjas as backup. She’s great.
The femme fatale is Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), a ruthless SPECTRE agent who threatens Bond, sleeps with Bond, and then tries to crash an airplane carrying Bond, all pretty much during the same scene. She meets her death in the piranha pool, obviously.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Bond brings Q to Japan to acquire “Little Nellie,” a gyrocopter equipped with missiles, flame throwers, and the cutest name a gyrocopter ever did have. Q exits after the Nellie scene, but Bond scores some additional equipment from Tanaka, including a gun hidden within a cigarette that saves Bond from execution at a dramatically appropriate moment.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “I just might retire to here,” spoken after learning that in Japan, men come first and women come second. (*ahem*)
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: This.
For some reason, Bond can only investigate the fishing village and the nearby volcano if he’s disguised as a simple Japanese fisherman. Tanaka accomplishes this by dying Bond’s skin, waxing his chest hair, giving him a Spock wig, and using prosthetic implants to alter his eyes. The result is exactly what you see: Sean Connery with goofy makeup on. This, plus a bucket of other offenses such as Bond going through “ninja class”, give this film a cultural infamy few Bond films can match.
WORTH MENTIONING: The screenplay was written by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, which actually makes a strange amount of sense… This is the first of three consecutive films to feature Blofeld as the primary villain, but he would never be played by the same actor twice, or even have the same makeup. Incidentally, the third Blofeld (Charles Gray, who we saw in Diamonds are Forever) appears in this movie as Henderson, Bond’s ill-fated British contact… Sean Connery was fed up with playing the Bond role by this point in his career and only agreed to this film for a hefty pay raise. He fled the series for the next film, although he would return for one last run in Diamonds are Forever.
OVERALL: This is a tough one. Depending on who you ask, You Only Live Twice is either one of the best Bond movies that has ever been made, or it’s one of the worst. I think it’s an interesting film, an example of a franchise in transition, unsure of what, exactly, it wants to be.
This was the first Bond movie to significantly depart from its source novel, an important marker. The franchise was on its own for the first time, trying to decide what tone to strike and what kind of action and adventure it should create (mostly) from scratch. The decision was to go BIG. From the mammoth volcano set to the Little Nellie helicopter dogfight, the script’s set pieces are huge and larger than life, bigger than anything seen so far in the series and establishing the tone for the wilder, wackier Bonds to come.
And it mostly works. The whimsical script blends nicely with director Lewis Gilbert’s comic strip aesthetic, giving the movie a fun, campy tone that never wears out its welcome. By the time Tanaka’s army of screaming ninjas storm Blofeld’s volcano, it feels natural. Of course ninjas and hollowed out volcanoes. How else was this supposed to end?
But is it good Bond? The shift in tone from the four earlier Bond movies to this one is stark, and Sean Connery’s performance suffers as a result. He plays his part seemingly on the verge of rolling his eyes, going through the motions until he can make his escape. It doesn’t help that Blofeld shows up way too late in the film to offer any kind of real menace or threat, leaving Bond to wander aimlessly around office buildings and corridors until the action finally comes to him. The film is spectacle, but not entirely spectacular.
Worst of all, there’s no escaping the cartoonish and absurd “transformation” that Bond undergoes, one of the few elements retained from the novel and one that undoubtedly works better sitting on the page than just lying there on the screen, assaulting our suspension of disbelief. This embarrassment would have been buried and forgotten already if You Only Live Twice was a lesser film or part of a forgotten franchise. As it is, the film is permanently relevant to Bond fans, leading to those pesky debates about its quality. Me? I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, and I’m quite happy to move on to something else.
The James Bond Project
17. You Only Live Twice
19. Die Another Day
22. A View to a Kill