twiceYou Only Live Twice

  • Year:  1967
  • Director:  Lewis Gilbert
  • Series Rank:  #23
  • Year Rank:  #111
  • Oscar Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Bond Girl:  Akiko Wakabayashi (Aki), Mie Hama (Kissy Suzuki)
  • Bond Villain:  Donald Pleasance (Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Karin Dor (Helga Brandt), Teru Shimada (Osato)
  • Bond Support:  Bernard Lee (M), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Tetsuro Tamba (Tiger Tanaka), Charles Gray (Henderson)

After four successful outings, the series was bound to slip, and slip it did.  This is not only my least favorite Connery outing (by a long way), but also one of my least favorite of all the Bond films.  How could this possibly have been written by Roald Dahl?  (Veronica asked that question a lot because I specifically pointed out his name in the opening credits – I had never myself realized it until I first saw the deleted scenes from Trainspotting on the laserdisc release).  And it turns out the Dahl actually had a lot of free reign on the film, as long as he made certain to stick to one formula – Bond had to seduce three women, one ally who would die, one villain who would also die, and then the main Bond girl.  Reading that I realized that the previous two films in the series had also followed that formula, but it worked better there, for one primary reason: though I find Mie Hama (Kissy) more attractive than Akiko Wakabayshi (Aki), and she runs around mostly in a bikini, there’s no question that Aki is the more appealing character.  It was quite a problem for Veronica after Aki suddenly dies in an assassination attempt on Bond (an attempt that Veronica found familiar and I had to remind her that it’s used in Grosse Pointe Blank).

james-bond-helicopter1Actually, that last parenthetical aside reminds me of something else about this film: that it had been so long since I had seen it that I approach it now more for the ways in which it is parodied in the Austin Powers films (I have to say films, because I can’t remember which scenes are in which of those films) than for the film itself.  Those scenes in the Austin Powers films work so easily because this film is so ripe to be parodied in the first place.  Yes, there are some cool scenes (Bond is “killed” in the opening scene and this scene is never adequately explained, but it is cool to see, especially when his body is buried at sea and then is pulled into a submarine, and there are Moneypenny and Q, basically in their same office as always, except it’s in a submarine) but the main premise of the film – that American and Russian rockets are being kidnapped in space by a mysterious power which of course will turn out to be SPECTRE is so ridiculous that it was easy for Austin Powers to it (with an enormous Bob’s Big Boy statue rocket).  That Bond would have to go to Japan to find out who is behind this and will end up in some fight scenes and will seduce some women is reasonable (for a Bond film), and his air-chase with his autogyro Little Nellie (which is really pretty cool) shooting down helicopters is also okay for Bond.  But to have him be disguised as a Japanese man (he’s so much taller than everyone else in these scenes it’s absurd) and get married to a local Japanese woman (who’s also an agent) just to find the base seems like an enormous waste of time.  It is true that it is one of the few points in the film that actually hearkens back to the original novel (in the novel, Bond ends up in the village because he has amnesia after he has already taken out the SPECTRE plot, not as part of the plan to infiltrate it), but it is still agonizingly stupid.  You’ve already dropped so much from the books – the novel takes place after the key event of his marriage and his wife’s death in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not before it, and that informs all his actions – they wanted to make this film first for logistical filming reasons.  Why bother to keep a part of it that is so relentlessly dumb?

You-Only-Live-TwiceThe most important thing about this film and its place in the Bond oeuvre is that we finally see the face of the dreaded Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  The problem with that, though (aside from how parodied it has been over the years that if you didn’t see this film before those that it loses all power) is that while Donald Pleasance is good as the man who can forge things in The Great Escape or as a weary psychiatrist in Halloween, it’s hard to take him particularly seriously as a deadly villain here (and yet, he’s miles above Charles Gray who will take the role two films later).  In fact, none of the villains in this film really hold up.  Teru Shimada mostly just stands around as Osato and we never get a real sense of menace from him.  Karin Dor as Helga Brandt is neither as deadly or as sexy as Luciana Palozi was as Fiona Volpe in the previous film (nor as much falling out of her dress).  In fact, the most menacing thing in this film are the piranhas that Blofeld feeds henchmen who fail him to and we never actually see them (or even blood from them – this film might have been a bit more interesting if it had come out a few years later).

miehamaakiko_wakabayashi_bond_girl_01Even the girls and locales aren’t as exciting as they seem like they should be.  In the 1980’s, people my age would start to become obsessed with Japanese culture, partially because our cartoons came from there and our comic books (X-Men, GI Joe) started to become obsessed with Japanese culture and ninjas.  But here the school for ninjas just isn’t that exciting, especially for someone who watches every episode of American Ninja Warrior.  The real problem is that both of the women – Aki and Kissy – really should be the same role.  The only real reason for the split is the mandate from the producers.  Aki is a perfectly good spy (she saves Bond on numerous occasions and accompanies him at various dangerous points in the film).  After she is killed, Bond simply goes through with the marriage that has been planned and then scores with that girl as well because that’s what the plot demands.  There’s no other mention of Aki once she has been disposed of – she was the far more interesting character but we’re supposed to just forget her.

Watching this film the main thing I kept thinking was that the producers had made some real money and clearly wanted to show it off, with things like Little Nellie and their big panoramic shots of Japan.  This film was being made on location, and not just somewhere on the continent fairly close to England.  They wanted the money to show up on screen, and to be fair, it did.  It’s just too bad that everything is going through the motions, from the script, to the direction (Lewis Gilbert steps in and he’s not really that good) to Connery himself, who wanted out and was talked into this film by the money.  It’s not a great final shot after those first four wonderful films, but Connery will be back with a couple of much better outings.  Next we’ll move to Lazenby and I will spend some serious time explaining why everyone else is wrong.