Friday, 28 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "You Only Live Twice"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. Next up: You Only Live Twice.

For it's time, You Only Live Twice was the pinnacle of how outlandish the Bond producers were willing to go in terms of the series. This was when the series had completely become a genre of its own-the James Bond genre. At the time, this was also going to be Sean Connery's final film as James Bond. He announced his retirement during filming, most likely becoming and bored and feeling boxed in by the role. It's hard to blame him, especially since the films were becoming more about spectacle than the actual character of James Bond. The character was still the draw for audiences but Connery was just going through the motions now and he wasn't really being challenged as an actor. While this wouldn't turn out to be Connery's final outing, it's the last one that feels like a true 60s Connery Bond film, an end of an era of sorts. As I said earlier, it's probably the most outlandish film in the series yet-and there's some unfortunate rascist and sexist overtones- but if you're willing to embrace the film for what it is, it's pretty enjoyable escapism. 

The plot of the film involves the abduction of an American space shuttle by a spacecraft in the pre-title sequence. The Americans believe the abduction to be the work of the Russians, which causes tension between the two countries. The British suspect the Japanese to be involved since the spacecraft landed in Japan. We cut to Hong Kong where Bond is in bed with a woman. She gets out of bed and pushes a button that launches the bed in to the wall. Men come in with machine guns and shoot through the wall. Like the beginning of From Russia With Love, it's pretty shocking to see Bond killed before the credits roll. But as the title, and title song, sung by Nancy Sintra, implies, Bond may not be dead quite yet. As we exit the title sequence, Bond's coffin is being buried at sea. Scuba divers bring it on board a submarine and we discover Bond has faked his death. This will make it easier for Bond to go undercover in Tokyo and discover who's behind the disappearance of the American space shuttle.

Tokyo is arguably the most "foreign" location in a Bond film up to this point. In Tokyo, Bond teams up with Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), head of the Japanese Secret Service. He meets Tiger by being lured in to a subway station by Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), Tiger's assistant, and then falling through a trap door. It's a fun Bond movie moment where we're led to believe Tiger is the villain but realize he's on Bond's side. Tiger serves as the Karim Bey of the film and I like the interplay between Bond and Tiger. The name is pretty cool as well. There's a scene that's humourous only because it's so blantantly and uncomfortably sexist where Bon and Tiger are at a bath and Tiger tells Bond "In Japan, men come first, women come second," to which Bond replies "I might just have to retire here." It's pretty cringe worthy hearing Bond be so nakedly sexist but at the same time it's interesting to view these early Bond films as time capsules of both a less enlightened and yet sexually aggressive time. The Bond series would eventually mature out of its sexist roots but at this time, it was still pretty cavailer towards women.

There's also the bizarre plot point of James Bond becoming Japanese. In order to remain undercover while on the island where Tiger trains ninjas, Bond has to get a makeover-except the it doesn't really make him look Japanese. His hairdo is a little more in the Japanese style and the corners of his eyes are widened but he still looks like Bond-or at least the Paul McCartney version:

This transformation is another element in this film that just wouldn't fly. It's nearly as bad as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's but it's still pretty bad. At the same time, the matter of fact nature of the transformation is what makes somewhat funny.

While I haven't read every Bond novel, I would argue that, up to this point, You Only Live Twice is the least faithful to the original novel on which it's based. The novel followed On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the novel in which Bond gets married to Tracy Di Vicenzo, who is then murdered by Blofeld. The novel was about Bond dealing with the loss of his wife when M assigns him to a mission in Japan to gain information from Tiger Tanaka. Tiger wants Bond to kill a Dr. Gunthram Shatterhand, who operates a garden with poisonous flowers where people go to commit suicide. Bond discovers that Shatterhand is Blofeld. Bond eventually get revenge for his wife's murder and kills Blofeld. After blowing up Blofeld' castle, Bond suffers a head injury and loses his memory. The film version of You Only Live Twice was made before On Her Majesty's Secret Service in the film chronology, so it couldn't be a straight adaptation of the novel. The novel was thematically and emotionally more interesting whereas the film goes for a more escapist feel. 

Blofeld still factors in to the plot since it is SPECTRE that is behind the abduction of the American space shuttle, and who later captures a Russian space shuttle. SPECTRE has been hired by an Asian organization to create tension between the US and Russia and start World War III. While Blofeld is still the shadowy figure pulling the strings, this is the first Bond film where Blofeld is the main villain- and near the end of the film we finally see Blofeld's face. Donald Pleasence plays Blofeld and while he gives a fine performance, he doesn't match up with the Blofeld from the previous films. His voice is a little too high and to me, he seems too short. I think it comes down to Blofeld being more intimidating when we don't see him. The meeting between Bond and Blofeld isn't very satisfying either, seeming to be more of a set-up for future confrontations now that they've met face two face. The confrontation between them in the next film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, will be much more satisfying. 

The action in the film is pretty spectacular. The sequence where Bond flies the mini-helicoptor Little Nelly to investigate an island and gets in a fire fight is a highlight. So is the hollowed out volcano where Blofeld is operating. Throughout these writings I've unforgivably forgotten to mention Ken Adam, who was the production designer for many of the Bond films, including this one. The volcano headquarters actually feels tangiable  and the final shootout in the volcano, with ninjas coming down on ropes, is marvelously epic.

Unfortunately, the Bond women don't get a lot of character development. Aki is eventually murdered by poison that is meant for Bond. While it's sad, Bond pretty much moves on to the woman he's pretending to be married to, Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Kissy becomes the main Bond women of sorts but I wish there was more time to develop her character-especially since her arc in the film is to go from someone who just wants to pretend to be married to Bond to actually falling for him.

You Only Live Twice is an enjoyable Bond film but On Her Majesty's Secret Service will be more emotionally complex and resonant and closer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming novels. James Bond will return in: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.       

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