"You only live twice:
Once when you are born
and once when you look death in the face."
- James Bond
Ian Fleming wrote three Bond novels that featured the villainous organization SPECTRE and its leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a trilogy consisting of Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. So it was quite appropriate that Eon Productions planned to follow up their film version of Thunderball with an adaptation of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. They announced the film in the Thunderball end credits and even started running a contest in search of the many beautiful women who would need to be cast... Then they ran into trouble; securing the snowy, mountainous locations required proved to be too difficult at the time, so plans had to change. The "James Bond will return" card was removed from the Thunderball credits and a different novel had to be chosen as the basis for Eon's fifth Bond film.
They ended up going with You Only Live Twice, sort of a questionable choice. By leap frogging to the last book in the Blofeld/SPECTRE trilogy, they would have to both disregard the very important events of the second book that lead into it and the book's very final resolution to the Blofeld story. They're left only with the basics of the sparse story between.
Novelist Roald Dahl was hired to write the screenplay adaptation of You Only Live Twice, a screenplay that, for the first time in the series, is very different from the book that it's based on. Which is kind of ironic, given that Dahl went on to be famously unhappy with the popular 1971 film adaptation of his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, saying he was infuriated by changes made, even disowning the film and blocking a sequel from being made. But to be fair, the Fleming novel was not very cinematic.
In the novel, a run down and depressed James Bond is sent to Japan on a diplomatic mission to try to convince Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, to share with MI6 the MAGIC 44 decoding machine, with which Japan has been able to decipher signals coming from Russia. Bond and Tanaka become fast friends and Tanaka soon tells Bond of a suspicious foreigner called Doctor Guntram Shatterhand, who has recently purchased an oceanside castle and surrounded it with a "garden of death" filled with various species of deadly plants and animals, where people have been flocking to commit suicide. Tanaka wants Bond to eliminate this gaijin - who Bond discovers is actually Blofeld. Bond reaches Shatterhand/Blofeld's castle on page 174 of the 240 page novel. Most of the book consists of Bond and Tanaka traveling the country, visiting interesting locations and spending a lot of time in brothels.
Dahl rather accurately described the book as a travelogue. Putting together his screenplay, he took what was usable from Fleming's novel - setting, characters, a visit to a ninja training school here, a pool of piranha there - and things that a previous writer, Harold Jack Bloom, had also expanded upon when he wrote a draft, so Bloom got an "Additional Story Material" credit. From there, Dahl went by the established formula and based his script on the film adaptation of Dr. No, updated to appeal to the world's fascination with the space race of the time.
The film begins in space. The crew of American spacecraft Jupiter 16 is on a routine orbiting mission when a large unidentified craft comes flying into view. The nose of the mystery ship opens up and it "swallows" Jupiter 16 within it, in the process severing the lifeline of an unlucky astronaut who was on an EVA spacewalk.
A glass globe-shaped building hosts an international meeting, seated at three tables are representatives of three countries. On one end are the Americans, accusing the Russians of the attack on Jupiter 16, destroying an American spacecraft in a blatant attempt at gaining control of space. At the other end are the Russians, denying all knowledge of this affair. The Americans warn the Russians that they're launching another spaceship in twenty days. If it's interfered with, this will be considered an act of war by Russia. Sat between the Americans and Russians are the British - calm and logical, the British representative informs the others that the craft that attacked Jupiter 16 is believed to have come down in Japan, which is where everyone should be focusing their intelligence efforts. The British already have a man on the job in Hong Kong.
The "man on the job" is James Bond, and what he's currently working on is spending an evening in bed with a Chinese girl named Ling (played by Tsai Chin) while pondering, "Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?"
Bond is seriously injured near the end of the novel, he's missing in action and presumed dead. His obituary is even printed within the pages. As noted in previous articles, the filmmakers enjoyed teasing the audience with the notion of Bond dying in the early films, and here Fleming's writings allowed them to really go wild with the idea. James Bond is killed in the pre-title sequence of this movie. Ling shuts him up in the wall bed, then a couple hitmen rush in and fill the bed full of holes with their machine guns. When the police arrive later, they pull the bed down to find Bond lying there in a pool of blood. Dead.
Cue the title sequence, which features some beautiful work by designer Maurice Binder, silhouettes and bubbling lava playing out under the theme song performed by Nancy Sinatra. This is one of the Bond songs that most often comes to my mind, although the opening lyrics are the only ones that I retain. "You only live twice, or so it seems / One life for yourself and one for your dreams."
When the title sequence ends, we're shown that Bond's obituary is in the newspapers and then we see the end of his funeral. Before becoming a spy, Bond had been in the Royal Navy and reached the rank of Commander, so he's given a Naval funeral and buried at sea. His wrapped body is dropped off a ship and sinks to the ocean floor... where it's immediately retrieved by a couple of divers and taken aboard a submarine. The corpse is unwrapped and there is Bond, alive and well, breathing from an oxygen tank.
Bond's boss M is aboard the submarine and has quite a cozy mobile office set-up which isn't much different from his office in the MI6 headquarters. M has a wood-paneled room to himself, with a room just outside it for his secretary Miss Moneypenny. Moneypenny must've been a Naval officer herself at one point, she's dressed in uniform while on this submarine, as is M, an Admiral.
During Bond's meeting with M, we gather that Bond has faked his death so that his enemies will turn their attention elsewhere, giving him more room to concentrate on his next mission... The film has already lost me at this point, just 12 minutes in. Bond's "death scene" doesn't make sense. Ling was in on the plan and her hitmen had to be, since they must've been firing blanks at a bed that was wired with squibs. The policemen who pronounce Bond dead while he lies in a pool of fake blood were obviously in on it, but what was the point of the charade? We're never given the idea that the room in which all this is happening is under surveillance. Unless the hitmen were firing live ammo and Bond was catapulted into a safe room when the bed went up or the mattress was bulletproof... I'm confused. It's a show put on for the audience with no explanation. There was a man watching Bond's funeral through binoculars, is that meant to infer that he was also watching the room? I don't know.
Bond, with his knowledge of Japanese (he took a first in Oriental Languages at Cambridge), is sent off to Tokyo to find out where the mysterious spaceship was launched from and returned to. His death doesn't take the heat off of him for too long, he's already got suspicious types observing him as soon as he reaches the city. His first stop is at a sumo wrestling match, where he makes contact with Japanese agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) by speaking the designated password: "I love you."
Aki takes Bond to the home of local contact Henderson, who can introduce him to Tiger Tanaka, the elusive head of the Japanese secret service. A formula element is checked off in the scene with Henderson, but fumbled a bit - Henderson hands Bond a martini and says that it's "stirred, not shaken. That was right?" Bond takes a drink and deems it "Perfect." I always assumed that Bond was just being polite in accepting this improperly mixed drink, but people involved with the film have said that it was a mistake. It makes sense that they could get it wrong, since at this time the line "shaken, not stirred" had only been spoken a few times over the course of two of the previous films. But it also makes sense for Bond to just go along with Henderson's blunder, this isn't a situation where he should be complaining about such things.
Henderson agrees that the mysterious rocket was fired from Japan and is sure that neither the Russians nor the Japanese are involved. The villian is a foreigner, although a large Japanese industrial concern is -- Henderson gets cut off mid-sentence. The character is played by Charles Gray, who will return to the series to play a large role in another film, but not as Henderson. Henderson is dead, stabbed in the back through the paper wall of his home.
Bond pursues Henderson's assassin and kills him, then steals the man's trenchcoat, hat, and surgical mask in order to get a ride with his getaway driver, a large Samoan man. As Bond pretends to be the badly wounded assassin, the driver takes him to an office at the Osato Chemical and Engineering Company. Once there, Bond reveals his identity and a fight ensues. It's a good one-on-one battle, a samurai sword gets involved and Bond even has to pick up a couch to defend himself. The driver is played by Peter Fanene Maivia, a professional wrestler and the grandfather of a very popular wrestler/actor working today: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Bond manages to knock out The Rock's grandpa and sticks him in a walk-in alcohol closet, where he stops for a quick drink. Unfortunately, the bottle he grabbed was Siamese vodka. He's not a fan. Bond then spots a safe in the office and luckily he just happens to have a safecracking gadget in his jacket pocket. This is something to think of when watching a Bond movie, in any given scene he might just have a safecracker in his left pocket.
Bond cracks the safe, grabs everything in it that's not money, then escapes the building to find Aki waiting for him in her convertible. Bond is not happy with his stay in Japan so far and wants answers from Aki, but she's not so quick to give them. She ends up making him chase her through a rail station, where he falls through a trap door in the floor, which might be a nod to a moment in the novel where Bond falls through an oubliette in the castle. He does not fall into danger here, instead he slides down a metal shaft and gets deposited onto a chair in the underground office of Tiger Tanaka.
Tanaka does not take the secret in secret service lightly. His identity is closely guarded, his office is underground, he gets around with his own private subway train. With an "I love you", Bond is sure that Tanaka is an ally and they begin to cooperate on the investigation... and do some male bonding, which includes a trip to a bath house where they are washed by a group of scantily clad women, followed by a massage. As the massage ends, Aki replaces Bond's masseuse. She's ready to open up to him now. "I think I will enjoy very much serving under you."
Among the things Bond took from the Osato safe is an order for liquid oxygen, which makes rocket fuel, and the negative for a picture of a ship sailing along a Japanese coastline. A picture that an American tourist was killed for taking. This was certainly an overreaction, the picture doesn't reveal anything suspicious, but now the ship must be researched, the coastline must be identified, and Bond must meet with the man behind Osato Chemical and Engineering.
Under the guise of Mister Fisher, the new managing director of another chemical company, Bond meets with Mister Osato in the same office where he fought The Rock's pops. The driver is no longer in the alcohol closet, but Osato has an x-ray viewer built into his desk and through this can see that Bond is carrying a Walther PPK. The meeting is all business on the surface, but when Bond exits the office, Osato tells his secretary, "Kill him."
Osato's secretary is Helga Brandt, played by German actress Karin Dor, and she's a henchwoman in the tradition of Pussy Galore and Fiona Volpe. She's sort of a mix of those two characters - she's a pilot like Pussy - with a heavy lean toward Volpe. A redheaded female villain worked so well in Thunderball, they put another one in this.
The first attempt on Bond's life comes from gunmen being driven in a black Sedan. The Sedan chases Aki's convertible around the city for a while, but she puts in a call to Tanaka requesting that he "arrange usual reception." Apparently the Japanese secret service's standard way of dealing with enemies in a car is to send out a helicopter with a high-powered magnet on the bottom, which lifts the baddies' car right off the road and dumps them into the sea. Quite effective.
Next, Bond is attacked by a large gang of corrupt dock workers when he goes to check out the ship from the picture. There's a great moment in this sequence where Bond is chased by the workers on the roof of a building and rather than stay down with the action, the camera rises into an awesome helicopter shot, flying around the building and watching from above as Bond fends off attackers and tries to escape.
Bond gets captured and tied to a chair, alone in a room with Helga Brandt. At first, she threatens to slice off his skin with a plastic surgery scalpel called a dermatome, but all he has to say is "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" and she's all over him. Keeping his chemical worker cover, he tells her that he's stolen secrets from Osato worth $300,000. With the promise of splitting the money with her and getting her safely away from Osato, he seems to have won her over to the side of right and virtue.
Until the next day, when Brandt makes one of the sloppiest attempts on Bond's life anyone has ever tried. She takes Bond up in a small private plane, then traps him in his seat with a flimsy wooden bar and parachutes out, leaving him to die in the crash. Well, all it takes is a hand chop and the wooden bar is broken and Bond is able to land the plane. Helga Brandt's such a sorry assassin that the next time we see her, she gets dumped into a pool of piranha for this failure.
When the coastline from the picture is identified, it's time for some aerial reconaissance. Bond doesn't want to use a run-of-the-mill helicopter for this, he puts in a special order for a vehicle called Little Nellie to be delivered from MI6 by its creator. Q arrives with four large cases full of machine parts, which are then hand-assembled into a small gyrocopter packed with defensive weapons - machine guns, rocket launchers, heatseeking missiles, rear flame throwers, smoke ejectors, and aerial mines.
There's a cool moment during Little Nellie's flight when Bond looks down at the ground and notices that his gyrocopter's shadow is being followed by the shadows of four helicopters. The helicopters attack with mounted machine guns and Little Nellie's weapons are put to good use.
Soon after Bond's aerial skirmish, the Russians launch a spacecraft and have the same bad luck that the Americans did, as their ship gets swallowed up by the mystery craft. This time we get to see where the craft swallower goes after it finishes a meal: its rockets turn it back through Earth's atmosphere and it reverses all the way down to an easy landing on its launch pad, which is hidden within a hollowed out volcano on the Japanese coastline. Once the rocket is safely back home, the volcano's false top slides back into place. The rocket is opened up, the Russian craft removed from within and the cosmonauts taken prisoner.
The sets in the series had always been impressive, and as the budgets increased production designer Ken Adam was able to get more and more imaginative in dreaming up the sets, which got larger along with the budgets. Here he follows his amazing work on Goldfinger's Fort Knox interior and Thunderball's huge rooms and their massive maps and monitors with the hollowed out volcano, which may be the most impressive set in the series and is definitely one of the most popular. 120 feet high and featuring a rocket pad, a helicopter pad, a working monorail, a crane system, an elevator, stairways, walkways, and a control room, this set alone cost over $1 million. Bigger was better as far as Ken Adam was concerned, and the films greatly benefit from his vision.
Based within this volcano is the villainous SPECTRE organization and their leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As mentioned, Blofeld lived in a coastline castle in the novel. The filmmakers went location scouting for such a place, but found that there aren't any castles built on the Japanese coast. It was Ken Adam who came up with the film's alternative. If you can't have a castle, make your headquarters inside a volcano.
We find that Blofeld is working for an unnamed Asian government, disrupting the space race in attempt to stir up war between America and Russia. He's doing a good job at increasing the tensions between the countries, and for this he expects to receive quite a large paycheck. For an advance, he requests $100 million in gold bullion.
The security helicopters attacking Little Nellie confirmed to Bond that something is going on somewhere on that volcanic coast. Tanaka is sending one hundred of his ninjas to a fishing village on a nearby island and Bond is to join them. Before that happens, Bond has to spend a few days training in the way of the ninja himself. Tanaka's version of Q Branch can also provide him with explosive bullets and cigarettes that contain min-rockets within.
First and foremost, Bond must become Japanese. He got a Japanese makeover in the novel as well, and it's fine when Fleming types it on a page, but it doesn't translate to the screen. Bond is "made Japanese" by putting some prosthetics on his eyes, giving him a wig, dying his skin, and making him hunch over to appear shorter. It doesn't work, and Sean Connery looks ridiculous.
To add to his cover in the fishing village, Bond is also meant to take a Japanese wife. In the novel, Bond was able to move in as the guest of a family with no problem, the charade of a marriage is an unnecessary addition for the film. His bride can't be Aki, it has to be a local girl. Aki isn't happy with this plan, but she doesn't live long enough to see the wedding. An assassin sneaks into the ceiling of Bond's bedroom and runs a long string down so that it's hanging right over Bond's mouth. The assassin then pours poison down the string. Just when it's about to drip onto Bond's lips, he shifts in his sleep... and a sleeping Aki slides her head over so now her mouth is in the exact same spot that Bond's was. Drip. Tragedy.
Luckily for Bond, the girl Tanaka has arranged for him to marry is the attractive Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), so he quickly gets over Aki and attempts to consummate their false marriage.
Now a married Japanese ninja, Bond moves over to his bride's island home. He soon finds out that an American rocket launch is imminent and he only has one day to find out where the mystery rocket is. If the American spacecraft is interfered with, it will surely result in war. Tanaka's ninjas have found no sign of an enemy base. The only possible lead is provided by Kissy - an island girl recently rowed her boat into a cave on the coast and when she floated out, she was dead. Bond and Kissy set out to investigate this cave... and this eventually leads Bond to SPECTRE's volcano.
Bond infiltrates the volcano base, and finally comes face-to-face with Blofeld. For the first time, after much secrecy and build up, Blofeld's face is revealed. In this film, Blofeld is played by the great Donald Pleasence. Though the character would be played by other actors in future films, Pleasence is the Blofeld that most people remember. I quite enjoy his performance, his version of the character is a little creep. Blofeld speaks the film's title in a line of dialogue, after he tells Bond that he heard he'd been killed and Bond replies, "Yes, this is my second life." "You only live twice, Mister Bond."
In the end, it's Bond and Tanaka's one hundred ninjas against the forces of SPECTRE, an epic climactic battle. Bond used to get more backup in the early days, it's been quite a while since he's been part of a large scale assault. Now, the films tend to wrap up with Bond and just an ally or two - usually the Bond girl - fighting the bad guys on their own. I'd love to see another large group battle in a new film.
During the battle, Bond gets in a tussle with Blofeld's bodyguard Hans, who's sort of this film's version of Oddjob and Red Grant (who he's especially reminiscent of) and a precursor to Richard Kiel's Jaws, since he's a 6'8" hulk of a man, though he doesn't stand out as much as the others.
I also find that You Only Live Twice itself doesn't stand out as much as the other films from this era. It only has a few notable things in it - the volcano, the first appearance of Blofeld - mixed with a story that I don't find all that interesting and the brain twisting elements of the faked death, the Japanese makeover and the fake wedding. When I was first viewing my way through the series on VHS in 1995, I had really enjoyed the first three films, but then I hit two speed bumps with Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. Both put me to sleep back then, and to this day I can't really get into them. Neither holds my attention very well, You Only Live Twice even less than Thunderball.
This is despite the fact that director Lewis Gilbert - fresh off the critical success of the drama Alfie - and cinematographer Freddie Young - an Oscar winner for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago - gave the film a fantastic visual style. The sets are amazing, the Japanese locations are beautiful and some of the most picturesque yet, it's well shot, it's often wonderful to look at. The story just doesn't work for me.
I do like the movie more now than I did before examining it for this article, and keep in mind that even if I don't enjoy a Bond movie as much as some of the others, they're still all special films to me and I appreciate each one.
If you haven't seen You Only Live Twice but did watch all three Austin Powers flicks, then you sort of have seen it in piecemeal. This movie provided more fodder for Mike Myers to directly parody than any other entry in the Bond series.
The film ends with Bond and Kissy rafting away to safety, preparing to enjoy their fake honeymoon. Interestingly, the novel ended with Bond developing amnesia from a head wound and completely falling into his life as a Japanese resident living with Kissy. Eventually he sees a word in a newspaper clipping that he knows is connected to his past and has to leave Japan to try to re-discover his life. By the time he leaves, Kissy is pregnant with his child, but she doesn't tell him. The films avoid this entirely and the following books ignored it as well, this loose end wasn't dealt with until 1996, in a short story by Raymond Benson called Blast from the Past.
At the time of this film's release, it seemed that Bond in the raft with Kissy would be the last time we'd see Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery had a terrible time working on the movie. Dealing with rude journalists, overzealous paparazzi, and starstruck spectators caught up in the furor of Bondmania drove him to a breaking point. The bad experience did no favors to his performance, he doesn't seem into it, at times he even looks uncomfortable on the screen. He had one more turn as Bond in his contract, but he asked Eon to let him out of it and publicly announced that he would not be returning for the next film.
The end credits say that "Bond will be back On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and this time OHMSS did happen, but with a new actor in the role of James Bond 007.