Countdown to Skyfall – You Only Live Twice (1967)

Flickering Myth’s writing team count down to the release of Skyfall by discussing their favourite James Bond films; next up is Simon Moore with You Only Live Twice…

Face it. There is no objective reason to love You Only Live Twice. This is not a film you come to see in film school, where you might experience a spiritual and moral awakening through the poignancy of its underlying message. James Bond is not a film franchise for underlying messages, unless you are totally convinced that the Cold War was ended because Bond got to the Soviets’ Self Destruct switch just in time.

For most viewers, You Only Live Twice is a film you come to with child-like innocence and glee. Every parody on the Bond franchise takes notes from the energy and the lunacy of this film, and with good reason. This is the one with all the big, fun and yes, I’ll say it, outrageously daft ideas.

Certainly Dr No had an island to himself, but Blofeld’s magnificent hollowed-out volcano crater makes the Doctor’s evil lair look like an undergraduate’s flat share. And then there’s Bond’s arch-nemesis himself. This is the film where we finally see Blofeld’s face, and it does not disappoint. Donald Pleasance, with his horrific scar and that malevolent, unblinking fish-like gaze, simply is Blofeld. His aloof manner, his strange, non-specific European accent and his penchant for casual execution all make for one of cinema’s most instantly identifiable villains.
Then there’s the other element, the one we take for granted in modern cinema. The casting. Broccoli and Saltzman put together their biggest production yet as a huge collaboration with Japan’s Toho Studios, exposing a great deal of Japanese talent to Western audiences for the first time. In a Hollywood that thought the Eastern equivalent of blackface was still acceptable, this was a real breath of fresh air.
Our story begins in space, where an American spaceship in orbit gets eaten by a bigger one. At an international summit the Americans blame the Russians; the Russians wobble their chins with indignation; only the British remain calm and level-headed. Flattering our nation’s self-image of unflappability, Robin Bailey plays the Foreign Secretary who suspects Japan might be a more likely launch site. Our man in Hong Kong is soon on the job, in exactly the way your dirty mind just imagined. Not for long; two goons rush in with machine guns and riddle him with bullets. James Bond is dead. Aaand… roll that title sequence.
Maurice Binder was the man who designed every title sequence for every Bond film up until Licence To Kill, and this is easily one of his very finest efforts, with its spidery fan shadows and ghostly geishas against a raging sea of lava. Such lush and mysterious imagery is nothing less than perfect for Nancy Sinatra’s fey, haunting theme song, quite unlike anything EON ever did for Bond before or since. The brass section get a rest as John Barry coaxes his strings to breaking point over an eerie guitar riff.

To all intents and purposes, everything that follows after might as well be the life of Bond’s dreams; he steps out of his funeral shroud without so much as a crease in his suit, off to see M in a submarine office. There he takes on sole responsibility for stopping World War III and even has time to exchange flirty winks with Moneypenny (the marvellously wry Lois Maxwell).
Of course Bond can’t enter Japan on a dinghy or take a ferry. Nothing less than being fired out of the torpedo tube will do for him. He sets to work searching out his contact, the highly efficient Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). Tricks and traps abound in the city of Tokyo, and Bond soon finds himself unceremoniously plonked into a chair in the office of Japan’s very own SIS chief. Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba) is a far cry from Bond’s own boss, the brambly, hermetic M. He’s dashing. He’s flamboyant. He has his own private subway.
He’s also very proud of the Japanese advances in technology; a full colour video phone comes as standard in Aki’s car, which is itself a sporty little Toyota 2000GT – the first model, as it happens, to showcase Japan to the world as an car manufacturer to be reckoned with. Maybe this is all fidgety gadget talk, but it’s just one of many touches to illustrate the truly unpredictable nature of this foreign land Bond finds himself in.
Indeed, director Lewis Gilbert takes great pleasure in showing us the Japan of 1967. Like Bond, we’re seeing it all for the first time, and we don’t need words or guides to help us appreciate the singularly fascinating culture, or that deeply beautiful landscape.
On the strength of these gloriously shot exteriors, you could almost take Ken Adam’s masterfully realised production designs for granted. His sets evoke a very Japanese form of dignified minimalism – Osato’s office alone is a masterpiece of set design. You Only Live Twice sees Ken Adam at the height of his powers, when nobody could touch him for style or scope.
He’s also responsible for the appearance of an ingenious bit of British engineering, better known as Little Nellie. The world’s first gyrocopter, features in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, trouncing a squadron of bigger, more advanced models in aerial combat. Bond has no shame or embarrassment flying around in what Tanaka calls a ‘toy helicopter’; this is classic British underdog tactics, and Bond is at his best when he embraces them wholeheartedly.

The fact remains that so much of screenwriter Roald Dahl’s love for heroism and triumph over terrific odds shines through in his script. Bond feels like a real hero in this film; not just in the big things like saving the world, but in smaller, braver actions, like putting his life on the line for Aki by distracting a dockyard of villains while she gets away with vital information.
Even these scenes are but teasers for the inevitable climax – the full scale ninja raid on Blofeld’s volcano launch-site lair. Now, I don’t know about you, but typing that kind of sentence is what makes my day. I put it to you that every other Bond villain lair since has been playing catch-up with this one.
The sheer pleasure of watching this masterpiece of staging and co-ordination on such a grand scale cannot be underestimated. With martial arts experts showcasing deadly ninja skills and explosions catapulting henchmen off in every direction, it’s a hearty feast for the eyes and an inspiration to film fans young and old. Simply put, my childhood was never quite the same after seeing this film. I learnt there was more to the world than what the six o’clock news could (or would) show me. Playground games took on that same ambitious scale. Stories were bigger, wilder, braver. It didn’t matter then that the plot was ridiculous, and it doesn’t matter now. You Only Live Twice has what fewer and fewer action thrillers offer today – an indomitable sense of fun.
I keep coming back to You Only Live Twice, far more than other Bond films; perhaps because I invariably walk away from this film with a spring in my step, an imagination brimming with striking, vivid images and a supremely catchy theme tune stuck in my head. Maybe that’s the appeal of all great Bond films, but I’d never have bothered seeking out the rest if I hadn’t fallen in love with this film first.

Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.

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