Pop Culture

La Fin Du Bond: You Only Live Twice

Imagine all the hair in that drain.
Imagine all the hair in that drain. United Artists
We're revisiting the highs and lows of Eon's James Bond movies in the lead-up to No Time to Die. This week, it's 007's not-so excellent Japanese adventure.

Despite the fact mankind has only traveled to the Moon a handful of times, we as a species have gotten pretty blasé about space travel. It's a shame, because there are developments afoot in that area both cool (SpaceX, MOXIE) and not so much (the Spaaace Force).

It's therefore easy to forget how the excitement of our first tentative forays into the void permeated everything in the late '60s, when you could catch reruns of The Jetsons or relax to the far-out bachelor pad sounds of Esquivel! before catching an episode of Star Trek. Or you could just head to the movies, where British Intelligence was also coming to grips with the new frontier.

You Only Live Twice wasn't the first Bond movie to use a Space Race plot (recall that Dr. No was trying to sabotage a Mercury launch), but it was definitely the most ambitious in that regard until 1979's Moonraker (and I remain bitter that the real world still has yet to catch up with the latter's laser-fighting astronauts and orbital miniskirts). Before we get to all that, YOLT presents a "shocking" pre-title sequence in which James Bond (Sean Connery) is murdered by machine gun-wielding toughs. Honestly he deserved it after that "Chinese girls taste different" comment.

And just so we're clear, this movie is hugely racist. What makes it honestly curious is how director Lewis Gilbert (also Moonraker, and The Spy Who Loved Me) juxtaposes depictions of Japanese culture (sumo wrestling, a Shinto wedding) largely unknown to Western audiences with shit like Geisha baths, ninjas, and Connery's regrettable Asian makeover (more on that later).

click to enlarge He may be a megalomaniac bent on plunging the world into chaos, but the guy sure loves his cat. - UNITED ARTISTS
He may be a megalomaniac bent on plunging the world into chaos, but the guy sure loves his cat.
Also, we give Roger Moore a lot of shit for how laughable his geriatric Bond was in those later films (with good reason, he was almost 60 in A View to a Kill), but Connery ... well, let's just say he had more of a zest for living. He ages pretty dramatically in just five years, and there are a lot of foot chases in this film, which he clearly doesn't like it (I kept waiting for a precursor to Jimmy Malone's "Enough of this running shit" from The Untouchables).

Anyway, it turns out 007's death was a cunning ruse to throw off his enemies so he can more thoroughly investigate the disappearance of an American spacecraft. The Americans naturally suspect the Soviets, who deny any involvement, and in the lead-up to their own launch, warn the United States not to try any funny business.

You can see where this is going. The culprit is, of course, SPECTRE, led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), whose character is named for the first time. They're attempting to foment conflict between the superpowers, which is their whole goddamn raison d'être. This time around, it's pretty clear they're being employed by China, but to what end? A war between the United States and the Soviet Union isn't going to end with something as innocuous as Brezhnev surrendering to LBJ at Yorktown, or whatever. Is the PRC hoping to corner the global market for radiation meds?

The hunt leads Bond to Japan, where he meets Henderson (Charles Gray), a weeaboo intelligence contact almost as creepy as his real-life counterparts. His character is offed quickly, though I choose to believe he was merely paralyzed below the waist, which explains his wheelchair in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the actor himself would reappear as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever) Bond slays the assassin and hitches a ride back to Osato Chemicals, where he steals some Important Papers and has to be rescued by Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), an SIS agent in the employ of Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurō Tamba).

Tanaka deserves his own series, honestly. As head of Japan's secret service, he's so feared/reviled he has his own subway train and is never seen in public. The guy also has access to giant magnets, rocket guns, and a ninja army. That he never appointed himself Emperor is a damn miracle.

click to enlarge "What's he going to do next? The flapping dickey?" - UNITED ARTISTS
"What's he going to do next? The flapping dickey?"
A wholly undisguised 007 goes "undercover" to the chemical plant, where Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) doesn't recognize the "Mr. Fisher" who visits (in fairness, he orders him killed anyway on general SPECTRE principles). Bond is rescued by *again* by Aki (a real ... deus ex Akina) before escaping thugs on the docks thanks to the most conveniently placed landing pads since Gymkata.

You Only Live Twice is mostly boilerplate Bond. The screenwriter was Roald Dahl. Yes, that Roald Dahl. He was a friend of Ian Fleming's, which I guess is why he agreed to adapt what he called Fleming's worst book. Dahl does a decent job, considering the franchise constraints (the Broccolis' infamous "three girl formula"), though YOLT is the first of the movies to stray significantly from the novel's plot.

Which brings us back to Bond's transformation, in which the spy is altered in a way that will supposedly fool any SPECTRE observers into thinking he's a mere Japanese fisherman. It's ... not good, though the Moe Howard toupee they fit him with is only slightly more obnoxious than the one he sports the rest of the movie. The question remains: why did he have to get married? Where's the submarine MI6 used to insert Bond into Japan in the first place?

Aki gets murdered shortly thereafter, conveniently eliminating any annulment questions.

But Bond's new "wife," Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), can't catch a break either. Not only is she expected to assume, er, spousal responsibilities, she has to swim a mile past helicopter patrols to alert Tanaka about SPECTRE's base, and she doesn't even get her own ninja outfit when she returns with the cavalry. Maybe bikinis allow greater freedom of action.

There's a cool car (Aki's Toyota 2000GT), the "Little Nellie" autogyro that improbably bests four full-sized helicopters, and Q's cigarette rocket.You Only Live Twice is also the most obvious inspiration for Austin Powers, right down to the color-coded uniforms in SPECTRE's secret volcano base. It makes sense, because this is the movie where Eon fully embraces the occasionally ludicrous formula that would mark the franchise through the 1970s and '80s.

Stray Bullets:
> I don't think that's how torpedo tubes work, chief.
> "You forget, I took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge." Must be why you pronounce "saké" as "sacky," you lummox.
> Hama and Wakabayashi previously appeared together in King Kong vs. Godzilla and as sisters Suki and Teri Yaki in What's Up, Tiger Lily?

Next Up:
We take a look at the franchise's only "one and done" 007 in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar