James Bond Declassified: File #5 – ‘You Only Live Twice’ rewrites Fleming completely

File #5:  “You Only Live Twice”

This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming’s original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay by Roald Dahl
Produced by Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli


James Bond / Sean Connery
Ernst Stavro Blofeld / Donald Pleasance
Aki / Akiko Wakabayashi
Kissy Suzuki / Mie Hama
Tiger Tanaka / Tetsuro Tanba
Mr. Osato / Teru Shimada
Helga Brandt / Karin Dor
“M” / Bernard Lee
“Q” / Desmond Llewelyn
Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell
Henderson / Charles Gray
Ling / Tsai Chin


The orchestration of the sting is very different this time out, and I really dig the stop and fire this time.

Nice FX shot at the start of the film with the capsule in orbit.  In fact, the staging of the whole outer space sequence is pretty terrific.  It’s grim, too.  What a way to die.  An astronaut gets clipped off of the capsule, left drifting in space.  The conversation afterwards is efficient at setting up that someone is intentionally playing the Americans and the Russians against each other.

And it’s a great intro for Bond.  “Let me assure you that our man in Hong Kong is working on it now.”  Aaaaaaaaaaaand he’s boning. OF COURSE HE IS.  This film marks a bit of an attitude shift for the series, one that was already beginning in “Thunderball” but that seems more pronounced here.  There’s more self-awareness.  At this point, the audience was starting to have a sense of what “a Bond movie” is, and so the filmmakers seemed happy to play to that.

Even better is Bond’s first line.  “Why is it that Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?”  Oh, boy.  We’re not wasting any time in establishing that it is a different age, are we?  Before we can even register the wild sexism and racism inherent in their banter, Ling hits a button, the bed closes into the wall, and dudes race in and riddle the entire bed with machine guns.  An ambulance pulls up, the cops barge in, and sure enough, Bond is dead.

“At least he died on the job.”
“He’d have wanted it this way.”

And as the camera pushes in on the blood pouring out of him, staining the sheets, it blossoms into a Chinese umbrella, and the opening title song starts playing.  I am partial to Bjork’s remarkable cover version of the song…

… but the original version is pretty great, too.  I think it’s one of the dreamiest of the Bond themes.  Gotta love the volcano imagery behind the titles, and the visibly naked Asian women certainly don’t make it a difficult credit sequence to sit through.  If you want an indication of just how different the PG rating is today and in 1967, this is a good one to look at.  And this is a Maurice Binder sequence, one of the signatures of the series, only the third at this point and only the second that is what we think of as a “typical” Bond title sequence.  The one he did for “Dr. No” is pretty dramatically different, and even here, it’s pretty efficient and brief considering how big and overblown these eventually became.


The opening is both elaborate and efficient.  We see Hong Kong of the late ’60s, a positively sleepy little town compared to the Hong Kong of today.  We see Bond’s funeral.  We see someone watching it from a balcony, an open newspaper on the table announcing “British Naval Commander Murdered.”  They dump Bond’s body out at sea, and once it touches down in the silt, two divers come long, pick him up, and swim away with him, taking him to a submarine, where it’s revealed that he is just fine.

I guess these are the lengths you have to go to when your top secret spy introduces himself to everyone using his real name.  Once you’ve literally killed and buried him, he’s finally free to go back to work spying, although let’s see how long it takes him to say his name to someone in the film.

You know what bothers me?  He looks better coming out of an underwater coffin than I look on my best day.  Bastard.

It’s fun to see Moneypenny and M with a pretty functional reproduction of the London office onboard a submarine.  M calls this “the big one,” the most important case of Bond’s career so far.  He preps Bond on the incident with the spaceship and talks about how they’re sure it came down somewhere in the region.  They don’t suspect the Japanese, but they are sure this is where the rocket landed with the stolen American rocket.

Moneypenny takes special pleasure in torturing Bond this time, and the way he withholds the password from her is great.  I love their chemistry, and I still think of all the Bonds, Connery was the one who had the most fun playing with Moneypenny, and vice versa.  I never really buy the heat in the Moore films.

Bond is on the streets of Tokyo for a full 34 seconds before someone spots him.  Well-played!

I love the sumo match.  I love the glimpse of this particular culture at this particular point.  And then Aki makes her entrance, and that kicks off one seriously roundabout introduction to Tiger Tanaka.  First, Aki offers to take Bond to meet Mr. Henderson, who is an MI6 contact.  The casting of Charles Gray isn’t strange here, but it is strange when he shows up in “Diamonds Are Forever” to play Blofeld opposite Connery, and neither of them seems remotely phased by it.  Gray is indeed a no-necked weirdo for his few minutes onscreen, and he sets up the idea that Tanaka is the man who Bond really needs to talk to just before he gets smoked.  Bond runs down the assassin and kills him, then disguises himself just enough to manage a ride with the getaway driver that takes him right to Osato Chemicals.

Looks they hired every giant Japanese dude who wasn’t already Odd Job for this one.  The fight with the driver at the Osato offices is a good one because the guy is like twice the size of Connery and pretty capable.  It’s a real fight, not just a quick murder, and it’s really well-staged.

Then Aki returns, helps Bond escape from the offices, and takes him to meet Tiger Tanaka.  I like the footchase where she manages to outrun him even though she’s in heels, and I like the way Tanaka scolds Bond as soon as he meets him.  Sure enough, it’s 30 minutes into the film before Bond’s cover appears to be completely and totally blown.  Seems like a lot of effort they went through to “kill” a man considering how long he stays dead.

Have I mentioned that Tiger Tanaka knows how to live?  The bathing sequence with Tiger’s girls and Bond must have sent tourism through the roof.  Tetsuro Tanba is a great presence as Tiger Tanaka, and I would have enjoyed a series of films just about him based on the glimpses we get of his life here.  And that massage?  That’s got a happy ending and a half.  You can just tell.

Leave it to Bond to walk right back into the office he broke into the night before, using a fake name now to meet with Mr. Osato.  Bond manages to give himself away with two or three small gestures even before Mr. Osato makes it into the room with him.  Again… this seems like perhaps the term “superspy” does not fully apply in Mr. Bond’s case.

Does James Bond realize he’s being x-rayed the entire time he sits in that chair in front of the desk in Osato’s office?  He takes enough of it to the chest that he probably walks out of there with a tumor the size of a grapefruit.  On his way out of the office, they try to kill him again, and once again, Aki is right there to rescue him at the exact right moment.  She really is the all-service spy assistant in this film. 

I really like the orchestrations in the film, and I think it’s one of those films where the score does so much of the work in terms of mood that you should almost credit John Barry as a co-director.  There’s a lot of touches here, like the giant magnet-bearing helicopter that takes care of the end of the chase sequence, that really only work because of the way Barry scores them.

Seriously, though, Tiger Tanaka handles the crap out of a bad situation.  With him on the scene, why send in a white English agent in the first place?  Why not just have Tiger Tanaka handle things and then tell the English what happened?

After all, when the henchmen attack them on the docks, who gets away?  Aki or James Bond?  I do love the use of the helicopter shot gradually pulling back from the rooftop fight.  Really smart image, and unusual in terms of staging.  Just as Bond thinks he’s gotten away clean, though, they cave in his head with an iron bar and he wakes up onboard the Ning-Po, with Helga Brandt questioning him.

Brandt can’t resist once she’s got Bond tied up, and she lays some smooch on him.  He confesses that he’s a spy to her almost immediately, but he claims he’s trying to steal the secret to making MSG.  He bribes her to let him go, and she’s sorely tempted.  I love how easy it is for Bond to make a woman crazy.  Lay some lips on her, and he’s free to go.  And his “Oh, the things I do for England” line is a killer.

Of course, his mojo only goes so far, and she’s actually setting him up to die in what may be the worst example of rear-screen projection I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Cool idea, terrible execution.  That’s crazy, since this was by far the most expensive Bond film so far, something like ten times more than “Dr. No” cost.  Once Tiger and Bond go through the wreckage, they are able to discern that Blofeld is the man behind the plot, and Bond decides he has to go look for SPECTRE’s base.

I forgot how antagonistic Bond and Q were in the early films, and it makes perfect sense.  After all, Bond destroys almost everything he uses.  “Little Nellie,” the autogyro that Q brings for Bond, is a great creation, and I love the sequence where he goes exploring near the volcano, ending up in a dogfight with some helicopters that are obvious SPECTRE-issue.  The location footage is great, and they shot some beautiful plates for them to use in the rear projection.  On top of everything else, it’s the first use of the Bond theme in the film, and it’s a great spot for it.

The Russians set off their own launch, and just as with the American capsule at the start of the film, a mysterious ship arrives and swallows up the Russian craft, which the Russians are convinced had to have been done by the Americans.  We see the whole process, though, including the re-entry by the mysterious ship, giving us our first glimpse of one of the most iconic and memorable sets ever designed by Ken Adam.  The volcano lair has been parodied and imitated endlessly, and for good reason.  It’s an amazing design, and it’s perfectly executed, a build that must have been impressive as hell in real life.  It’s just over an hour into the movie before we get our first shot of Blofeld in his chair, cat in his lap.  So much of the iconography that the “Austin Powers” movies make fun of came specifically from this film, and when you look at the films that were imitating Bond during this era, many of them were definitely influenced by the choices made on this movie.

It’s strange… those early scenes, where we’re only seeing his arms and the cat, Blofeld doesn’t sound a thing like Donald Pleasance.  And that scene where he punishes Helga for failing to kill Bond is hard to watch now on the far side of all the parodies without laughing, just because of how dead-on the jokes have been.  Bond gets back together with Aki and Tiger to discuss how to proceed, and ends up in a ninja training school, one of the greatest “what the hell just happened?” cuts in any movie.  The montage that follows is just plain hilarious.  It strikes me that in the late ’60s, this must have all seemed very exotic.  My generation mainlined this stuff, and by now, with my kids, Asian culture is so much a part of their everyday diet that they would be shocked to see an adult who needed to have ninjas explained to him.

Rocket guns?  Awesome.

I love Tiger’s plan.  It delights me endlessly.  “First, you become a Japanese.  Second, you train hard and quickly to become a ninja like us.  And, third, to give you extra-special cover, you take a wife.”  Step one alone makes me cackle, and the way they actually execute the plan is awesome.  I really like Lewis Gilbert’s choices as a director here.  He loves these Ken Adam sets, and he seems perfectly happy to back up and let the action take place in one small part of the frame.

Sean Connery makes a terrible Japanese person, by the way.

Aki dies a very bad death.  I forget what film I’ve seen this exact thing used in since then, but it’s a very famous gag, the way the guy tries to poison Bond.

Why don’t we get to see Bond try to break the block of ice with his head during that training montage?  Because I would watch that on loop.  Over and over and over.

By this point, Blofeld’s attempts to kill Bond are coming fast and furious, which makes me wonder why they’re bothering with another cover story and trying to turn him into a Japanese man.  It’s obvious his cover is as blown as blown gets.  Then again, Tiger’s plan does bring Kissy Suzuki into the movie, and you can never have enough characters named Kissy.

And, yes, breaking into a volcano lair in a bikini does make Kissy Suzuki a badass.  A super-adorable badass.

I dig Bond’s low-tech human fly trick with the suction cups.  I don’t buy it, but I like it.  Once he’s inside, we get a nice long sequence in which Bond walks around and checks out the base and how it works, and we intercut that with another launch from the volcano to try and seize a US space capsule.

As bad a Japanese person as he makes, Bond is an even worse ninja.

Still, he does manage to free the captive astronauts.  He then ends up face to face with Pleasance as Blofeld, and right away, Pleasance takes things right over the top.  This is a textbook lesson in how you can underplay something and still be incredibly broad.  That make-up is so aggressively crazy that it sort of sums Blofeld up as much as the creeeeeeeeepy stroking of the cat.  Is it any wonder Mike Myers ended up creating Dr. Evil?  This version of Blofeld practically demands that you parody it.

By the time he’s telling his henchman Hans to use “the exploder button,” destroying his ship by remote, I find I can’t stop laughing.  And a word of advice to supervillains… don’t let James Bond into your control room.  Just don’t.

Reading Vic Armstrong’s book last year, he talked about how insane it was to do those stunts of the ninjas dropping into the volcano on ropes, and how it was something they weren’t really sure they could do.  This is one of the first of the Bond films where it felt like they were really pushing the envelope for stunts and scale, and in doing so, they set a template that the producers are still following today.

Do ninjas typically drop into a location in plain view and then use machine guns and hand grenades?  Because if so, I really misunderstood the point of ninjas.

Also, it makes me laugh to a shameful degree when I see Bert Kwouk in the film as one of the SPECTRE henchmen.  I can’t help it.  I am hardwired to laugh when I see Bert Kwouk.  I blame Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards completely.

Another tip for bad guys… you might not want to engage in fisticuffs right next to the tank full of piranhas.  You know that’s not going to end well for someone.

Bond just barely manages to stop SPECTRE’s ship by self-destruct, thereby calling off the stock footage that was about to kick off World War III.  Then Blofeld comes racing back in on his Egg Tram, and he starts the self-destruct of the volcano, with Bond and all the other ninjas still inside.  It is the narrowest of escapes, and it feels like they were pushing right up against what could be done with visual effects at the time.  It is crude by today’s standards, but there are so many different types of tricks in one series of about ten or twelve shots that there’s no time to dwell on what doesn’t work.

And then just like that, Bond hauls Kissy into a life raft and just as he’s getting to the honeymoon, the submarine with M and Moneypenny onboard surfaces, lifting them out of the water, and “You Only Live Twice” comes up on the soundtrack again, bringing the fifth film in the series to an abrupt close.





but James Bond will be back



As much as Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl has to be acknowledged as one of the architects of what we think of as the modern James Bond movie.  “You Only Live Twice” was the first of the films to pretty much jettison the book that it was based on.  “Thunderball,” for example, is about as close an adaptation as the series ever managed, which should come as no surprise since Fleming reverse engineered the book from an original screenplay.  Here, Dahl worked from the template that the first four films had been perfecting to create what is essentially an original story.  There was one writer on the film before him, Harold Jack Bloom, and he came up with a few of the key pieces of the script, like the fake death and the ninja camp.  But Dahl, who was actually fairly close with Fleming socially, came in and was given free reign to do anything with Bond.

All he was told is that he had to have a certain number of girls for Bond to bed in the film, and it seems like that idea was a significant one for the producers since it absolutely echoes through the next batch of films in the series.  Dahl criticized Fleming’s novel, the twelfth book in the series, saying there was no real storyline to hang a film on.  While he’s not exactly right, part of the problem was that adapting the films out of order made this one a particularly difficult trick.

After all, the book is set eight months after Blofeld kills Tracy Bond, sending James Bond into a major depression.  He’s basically a train wreck at the start of the book, drinking too much, screwing up jobs.  He’s sent to Japan to try and convince Tiger Tanaka to do business with the English, only to find that Tanaka’s got other plans.  He pushes Bond to kill the awesomely-named Dr. Guntram Shatterhand and shut down his equally awesomely-named “Garden Of Death.”

I repeat… there is a villain named Dr. Shatterhand… AND THEY DID NOT USE THAT IN THE MOVIE.


What’s even better is that Bond eventually works out that Shatterhand is none other than Blofeld, and he sets out to kill Blofeld’s wife as revenge for Tracy’s death.

What unfolds is one of the wilder plots in any of the books.  Bond and Tanaka hatch a plan for Bond to pose as a lowly Japanese coal miner with Japanese movie star Kissy Suzuki helping him.  Bond manages to get close enough to Blofeld to eventually duel him and then kill him, but during the fight, Bond suffers a head injury, so while the world believes Bond to be dead, Kissy keeps him to herself, happy to let him be an amnesiac.  She gets pregnant by him, determined to eventually tell him the truth but not sure when to do it.

As much as “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” this novel features a Bond in flux, changing and growing and having to deal with his own weaknesses.  Tracy’s death marks him deeply, and this entire novel is a process of tearing his personality down completely, then rebuilding him as a new James Bond.  And as much as Tracy Bond, Kissy Suzuki is one of the most important of the women in any of the Bond books, a true partner to him, and the mother to his child.

It’s interesting that Fleming was happy to wrap up the Blofeld story in this book, killing him with no ambiguity, while the producers of the films have never been able to truly commit to getting rid of Blofeld.  Even after they couldn’t technically use him anymore, he makes that appearance in “For Your Eyes Only,” and while that looks pretty final, I wouldn’t count him out.

Tiger Tanaka in the film is just sort of a Japanese version of Bond, but in the novel, Tanaka is a much darker character.  He’s one of Fleming’s most confounding characters, and it seems like Tanaka gives voice to certain skepticisms about Britain and its place in the world that Fleming must have been feeling in the early ’60s.

The last full book written by Fleming before he died, “You Only Live Twice” is the most existential and esoteric of the original Bond novels.  I’ve always found it fascinating, especially compared to the movie, although you can see the influence of the then-new film series starting to creep into Fleming’s writing.  Strangely paced and deeply pessimistic, it is little wonder the producers felt like they had to abandon it largely when making the movie.  The book even ends with a cliffhanger, with Bond on his way to Russia to try to figure out his real identity and Kissy still not sure how to tell him he’s going to be a father.

While the book marked a decided shift in tone for the series, the film really locked the Bond formula into place, just in time for Sean Connery to walk away and send the whole franchise into a tailspin.

But more on that next time.

James Bond will return…