Things take a turn for the weird in our Big Bond Countdown as James Bond travels to Japan to stop über-villain Blofeld from kickstarting a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR.
You Only Live Twice occupies an uncomfortable place in the Bond canon. On one hand it features some truly unforgettable moments, on the other there’s a lot that’s best left forgotten. Chiefly known for being the first film in the series to put a face to the name of Bond’s recurring nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (a hideously scarred and wonderfully hammy Donald Pleasence), it also features an army of ninjas, a giant rocketship and a hollowed out volcano serving as the villain’s lair. Unfortunately the sexual politics are despicable, and its treatment of race is unpleasant and weird; it’s the type of Bond film one can imagine a young Mike Myers and a young Jeremy Clarkson were both fascinated by for differing reasons.
Much of the blame for the problematic elements of You Only Live Twice can be laid at the door of Bond’s creator, the novelist Ian Fleming. A former spy with a love of gambling and a boyish enthusiasm for booze, Fleming had some views that might be diplomatically described as idiosyncratic. Most reasonable people would consider his opinions obnoxious and insane. This is after all a man who created a lesbian character called Pussy Galore and then had her ‘turned’ by the dubious and forceful charms of his male hero. You Only Live Twice was the last Bond book published in Fleming’s lifetime and lacks much of the action and adventure of previous efforts. Instead the novel resembles a travelogue through Japan as Bond investigates the nefarious doings of mad scientist Dr Guntram Shatterhand, a heavily disguised Blofeld.
The film adaptation -written by the much-loved author Roald Dahl- strays from the book more than previous adaptations, introducing a plot about stolen spacecraft and escalating tensions between the two major cold war superpowers. Rather than using this opportunity to cut all the unpleasantness from the book, Dahl largely keeps it all in and simply adds an over the top, cartoonish scheme for world domination.
Anyone who hasn’t seen You Only Live Twice might well be wondering what’s so repellent about its politics. Outside of the usual smirking misogyny (something that is both exaggerated and celebrated by exploring Japanese culture) it also features the jaw-dropping sight of James Bond dying his skin and wearing a wig to look like a Japanese man. It’s weird, uncomfortable and completely unconvincing; Connery simply looks like he’s wearing a Spock wig and a lot of fake tan.
Outside of the gross racial and gender politics (at one point Bond asks a Chinese lover why ‘Chinese girls taste so different’) there are elements that still stand up today. The score is seductive, dangerous, mysterious and bombastic with regular Bond composer John Barry at the top of his game. The production design by Ken Adams is equally superb, Blofeld’s volcano base is a wonder of set building and instantly iconic. Donald Pleasence gives the definitive performance of the maniacal villain Blofeld and some of the photography is audacious and inventive. It’s just a shame that all this comes in a film so loaded with horrendous dialogue, scenarios and characters.
Bond theme: After the last two lung-bursting efforts by Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, You Only Live Twice by Nancy Sinatra returns to the gentle crooning of Matt Monro. It’s a nice change of pace from Thunderball but is probably best known to a certain generation as being sampled by Robbie Williams for his hit song Millenium
Best one liner: Bond’s one-liners here are for the most part disgusting and rubbish. Even Connery seems a little tired by it all. Instead we’ll use a line by Tiger Tanaka, Bond’s contact in Tokyo, who describes a young masseuse as being ‘most sexyful’ in a line that’s possibly racist, definitely sexist but so utterly absurd that it manages to raise a smile.
Glamorous Locations: Bond spends the whole film in Asia, beginning in Hong Kong before moving to Japan. As expected Bond acts like an Imperial pig most of the time he’s there.
Girls: Beginning with a tryst in Hong Kong, Bond sleeps with pretty much every female with a speaking part, apart from Moneypenny of course. Along the way he seduces Tanaka’s assistant Aki (who is killed in an attempt on Bond’s life) SPECTRE henchwoman Helga Brandt and his fake Japanese wife Kissy Suzuki.
Gadgets: Early in the film Bond cracks a safe with some kind of electronic device but the main gadget here is Little Nellie; a portable helicopter equipped with machine guns, rockets, bombs and a smoke screen. It’s a lot like the Aston Martin from Goldfinger only airborne and a little rickety looking. Later he’s given a cigarette gun by Tiger Tanaka that comes in very handy when our hero finds himself in a tight spot with some baddies.
Classic moment: When cornered in Kobe harbour, Bond escapes to the rooftops, fighting his way through a wave of henchmen in a bravura helicopter shot that pans and whips around the action.
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