Buckle up. This is where things get weird.
You Only Live Twice is what happens when a studio keeps trying to outdo itself to the point where it overreaches its limits. Thunderball was balanced nicely between the realm of the ridiculous and the plausible. But with this one, things careen off the deep end, and here there be monsters.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a fun movie. Unlike Goldfinger, which went for silliness all the time, this one has its moments…they’re just sandwiched between moments of extreme sexism, Orientalist stereotypes, and bonkers mayhem. And then, when you couldn’t think things could get any more extreme, a character uses the word “sexiful” in a sentence, and the audience is dropped into a bubbling pond filled with piranhas.
SPECTRE, our old buddies, are trying, once again, to start a world war by capturing American and Russian orbital spacecraft (in space) and then waiting on the sidelines while the two nations destroy each other. Then, after faking his own death in China so as to lure his enemies into a false sense of security, James Bond (Sean Connery) tracks (one of) SPECTRE’s bases of operations to Japan and comes face to face with SPECTRE’s elusive Number One, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) himself, appearing fully on screen for the first time. Aided by Japanese spy master “Tiger” Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), his agents Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) and Kissy (Mie Hama), and a whole army of “ninjas,” Bond tries to stop SPECTRE before they ignite World War Three.
I would like to point out that the script was written by Roald Dahl, who gave us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, and a short story about a psychotic landlady who poisons her guests, stuffs them, and puts them up in her attic.
This is actually pretty normal for him.
Dahl brings a measure of playful wildness to the franchise which would blossom most fully in the Roger Moore era, but, as fun as it is, I’m not sure if it’s all for the best. SPECTRE, especially, seems radically different. Previously, Blofeld was the anonymous head of an organization that seemed quite plausibly diabolical. It felt like an anti-MI6: sleek, professional, and comprised of deadly assassins, saboteurs, and corporate criminals. Aside from the occasional fun knife-shoe or electrified conference chair, they seemed genuinely sinister because they were as organized and professional as any government spy organization. Now, Blofeld is a deformed madman who seems to just want to cause chaos for the sake of chaos. And SPECTRE itself is now a huge, bloated organization where insane amounts of money are put into building a monstrous secret base inside a volcano who’s sole purpose is to carry out one war-igniting operation (though, I should say, that the volcano crater base set is spectacular–apparently, that set had the same budget as all of Dr. No).
I suppose I should give them credit for going all in, but this Saturday morning cartoon version of SPECTRE doesn’t really seem all that dangerous, regardless of what the script says about the overall stakes.
But, Bond was never meant to be bleak and terrifying, so, even though things get perhaps too weird at this point, it’s still a crazy fun movie.
This iteration of Blofeld, cartoonish as he is, is still delightful. He embraces (or perhaps perfects) the Bond villain cliche to such an extent that you really don’t remember any of the other Blofelds that well (even though Bond will face him in 2 1/8 more films). This feels like the “real” Blofeld. The version of him in From Russia with Love seems smarter, and the version of him that we’ll see in Diamonds are Forever seems more charming and sarcastic, but it’s the bald head, the eye deformity, and the white cat we always think of (it’s no surprise Austin Powers chose that version to lampoon). So, regardless of my issues with how the character was changed for this movie, I must give Donald Pleasence quite a bit of praise for creating such an iconic character (that is as recognizable as his other incredibly iconic characters). *tips hat*
The pre-credits sequence is also pretty strong. We’ve got the creepy spaceship-stealing spaceship and then what looks like Bond’s brutal and efficient death at the hands of some assassins. The only thing about about the sequence that freaks me out is the Chinese woman Bond is with. She sounds like some sort of living creepy child doll, especially when she says, “Darling. I make you very best duck.” It’s downright unsettling. This movie isn’t the best when it comes to dealing with women, in general, especially when it gets to Tanaka and his bathing house of pleasures where “men come first and women come second,” but this particular character is especially unfortunate.
But anyways, moving on.
I love the opening credits sequence. Maurice Binder once again designs it, and Nancy Sinatra’s lovely, coy theme song is juxtaposed with images of lava, fire and Japanese women in traditional dress. It’s a beautiful metaphor for what we hold in and what we show the world, and also what we do versus what we wish we could do. Its message has little to do with the actual movie (aside from Blofeld saying the phrase and Bond appearing to live, die, and then live again), but it’s a lovely work of art in its own sense.
I also really love the “Little Nelly” scene. It’s so silly, and exists solely so Bond can have a fun aerial battle that really serves no purpose to the plot, and features really terrible visual effects, but you gotta admit, having one of those would be amazing! I would like to state, for the record, though, that I could do without the flamethrowers. I imagine they come with a disclaimer that warns against firing them while flying forward (a paraphrase of the “no peeing into the wind” thing, perhaps).
I love the Bond girls, too, especially since they seem to be fighting against more than the usual amount of chauvinism (*looks at Tanaka and narrows eyes*). Aki is smart and feels like a spy, though I’m sad she isn’t given more to do in the action sequences. It’s become such a Hollywood cliche now that the gorgeous female sidekick shoves the leading man aside at one point and beats the crap out of the horde of henchmen accosting them, that I always feel a bit disappointed that Aki never gets that moment. But overall, she’s a great character, and it’s sad she doesn’t survive the whole movie.
The second Bond girl, Kissy, is also quite likable. At one point, she’s all like, “Oh, I’ll just swim back. No biggie” (I’m paraphrasing) and you see her swimming later on, and it looks like the equivalent of swimming the English channel. An then she gets shot at by bad guys and easily eludes them, even though they have the clear advantage. She’s pretty metal. I also find it amusing that, even though she spends 90% of her time in a bikini, it seems, she never really succumbs to Bond’s charm until the very end, repeatedly telling him that their false marriage is “just business.” You go girl! Also, fun fact! Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama both starred in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), a movie that is so cheesy and amazing, it makes this one look like Inception by comparison.
The third “Bond girl” isn’t much of a character. In the movie she’s just called Number 11, and she’s a SPECTRE agent. She seems to be trying to channel Thunderball‘s character Fiona, but doesn’t do as good a job. She’s a dreadful interrogator, and then, instead of just shooting Bond in the head, puts him in a crashing plane and then jumps out, giving him lots of time to free himself and fly the plane to safety. Even Blofeld notes that that was a poorly executed plan. It seems she only exists so Blofeld can drop someone into his piranha pond. According to IMDB, she has a name, but she’s so bland, I don’t really feel the need to go back and check what it is. She’s sort of a yawn, overall.
I could go on, but I don’t want to overthink this one. It’s silly, and ridiculous, and dumb, and hilarious, and you’ve just got to take it for what it is. Bond would get much sillier in later years, but in the Connery era, whose strongest entries were somewhat more serious, grittier spy thrillers, it seems way out of left field. It’s no surprise that Connery began growing tired of the character by this point. By the time Diamonds are Forever comes around, this one will seem restrained and thoughtful.
-I love how Bond learns ALL the ninja stuff in a day or so.
-Also, Bond’s “Japanese” makeup is atrocious. He looks like a Vulcan with an ear defect.
-It’s Japan, so naturally someone should dive/be thrown through as many rice paper walls as possible.
-The long helicopter shot of Bond taking out a whole squad of Osato’s henchmen on the roof is pretty fantastic, even if each is felled by a single punch (and they have to fall as ridiculously as possible).
-I love Blofeld’s “exploder button.” Maybe it’s because Star Trek was brand new in 1967 and hadn’t yet brought the phrase “self-destruct” into the pop culture lexicon yet, but still… I can think of many better names for a destruct button other than “exploder button.”
-This movie has a very obvious anti-smoking agenda… I never really picked up on that before. I think Mad Men may be the culprit.
-Bond and Kissy end the movie in a boat. This makes 4 out of 5 movies so far where this has happened. What is it about boats that scream, “Alright, we’re done now?”
I’m clearly overthinking the boat thing
Next week, things get crazy (a different sort of crazy) as we have newcomer George Lazenby taking over the role from Sean Connery in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, an entry in the Bond canon that has sparked much debate. I will return!