Light Bondage: “You Only Live Twice”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

For the record, every poster for this movie is amazing, this one just happens to use the three best paintings in a collage of madness.

It’s the space race, and the US and Russia are sending capsules into orbit. Unfortunately, something keeps approaching these capsules and swallowing them up, only to disappear back down into the ocean. The US and Russia blame each other and the Cold War escalates, but the British being the only sensible country on Earth believe SPECTRE to be behind the plot. Which is how James Bond ends up faking his own death to go undercover in Japan, where the mysterious hostile space vehicle was tracked landing.

You Only Live Twice is a weird turning point in my Bond experience. It is, in some ways, simply a bigger, more ridiculous retread of Dr. No, with hidden bases and Bond feeling out a single foreign country and its power politics for most of the movie. But it does it all so well, and with such verve, that I ended up finding myself genuinely pumped up by the number of admittedly nonsense things that happen in the movie. I could spend a bunch of time relating the plot, but let’s just hit on the things that made this movie the kind of big action movie I could root for.

First, it takes place in Japan. I’ll admit to being partial to Japanese culture, but it also plays really well on film as an interesting location that looks wildly different than everywhere else Bond has been. And for the mid-60s, the portrayal of Japan is surprisingly not full of wild racism. It probably helps that it was filmed in Japan with a lot of assistance from Toho studios. And sure, they play up some bits, and get others wrong, but mostly it’s an exotic location that really becomes a key player in the film, a setting where anything could happen and Bond is noticeably out of place.

The Japanese setting leads to amazing backdrops like this one for the best reason: because it was there.

When Q finally shows up he brings with him the most badass gyrocopter ever seen on film, stored in three cases and assembled in a stop motion montage. It has rockets, flamethrowers, and mines. Bond immediately takes it up in the air and after being a dick and buzzing over Q for his trouble manages to engage in a dogfight with and totally blow up 4 genuine helicopters. It is a pointless scene in terms of plot, and basically involves a lot of aerial photography cut with obvious model explosions, but the 007 theme kicks into high gear during the scene and it is by far the best action moment in all five of the movies so far. I was thrilled to be surprised by it.

Eventually it’s discovered that SPECTRE’s base is in the crater of a dormant volcano, and Bond is so ill-prepared to assault said base that he’s given genuine ninja training. So we get a montage of guys with katana and shuriken and breaking boards and blocks with their hands and heads and it is awesome. The sudden, random segue into martial arts movie territory is admittedly pretty camp (and the movie’s concept of ninja looks an awful lot like samurai and nobody could tell the difference), but watching Connery wearing kimono and trying to swing around weapons is priceless.

This culminates in him going undercover, which means dying his hair and getting it cut to make him ‘look Japanese.’ This whole idea could have been wildly racist it didn’t turn out so laughably bad, as Bond emerges looking more like a Star Trek Romulan than any Japanese person I’ve ever seen, and spends much of his time in a hilarious, awkward slouch to not appear visibly taller than the rest of the cast. It’s one of those things that probably could never be pulled off with quite the same balance today, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

This all culminates in a giant ninja assault of SPECTRE’s base, where Bond finally comes face to face with SPECTRE’s leader Blofeld (played in this movie by Donald Pleasence), who after several movies of teases is revealed to be admittedly pretty menacing in an understated sort of way. Unfortunately, three Austin Powers movies have made Dr. Evil more of a culturally relevant figure than Blofeld will ever be, so the reveal has in many ways had a lot of its impact undercut. Still, with his vicious scar and wild-eyed stare, he genuinely looks like a threat in the evil mastermind way Bond villains have so far seemed to not quite successfully hit.

You Only Live Twice isn’t a smart movie, to be sure, but it is competent and confident in its dumbness in ways the past two movies just couldn’t hold onto. Its highs are the best the series have seen so far, and the lows are more forgettable than angering. After Thunderball, I was actually starting to worry about how this project was going to go, but I found myself loving this movie more than I have any of the movies outside of From Russia With Love. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with a Romulan, space ships, helicopter dogfights, and an army of ninjas.

The Theme Song/Opening Titles:
Even Nancy Sinatra can’t save the otherwise forgettable Asian-inspired pop ballad that opens the movie. It’s inoffensive, and it certainly plays more like a ‘real’ song than the last two Bond themes did, but it’s a bit low energy and so unmemorable that it barely gets turned into the instrumental background music that usually fills this era of movies. That said, the actual opening titles are easily the most visually interesting we’ve seen so far, with some great animation and composite editing to really tie together disparate elements into something evocative. You win some, you lose some.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
There is a wealth of options in this movie, to be sure, from the aforementioned capsule-swallowing space ship to the volcano base to the crazy weaponized gyrocopter. But the best moment is a nearly throwaway gag earlier on in the movie when Bond and his lady friend are being followed in a high speed car chase. Calling in a favor from his allies, a giant helicopter shows up with one of those junkyard crane magnets suspended underneath it. Dropping it on the pursuing car, it lifts it up into the air and then drops it into the ocean. Totally unnecessary, totally awesome.

The volcano base is maybe one of the best sets in the entire Bond series.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
This is also a movie lacking a really strong Bond girl, though, certainly there’s a few Japanese actresses lending an exotic flavor to the proceedings. The closest thing to one of note would be Akiko Wakabayashi who plays Aki, an SIS agent who drives around in a cooler sports car than Bond has ever had and manages to be more confident than all the other female agents we’ve seen so far in the series, until sleeping with Bond totally marks her for death in a fashion that reeks of slasher film moralizing, as the night they have sex a ninja breaks into their room and tries to poison Bond but murders Aki by accident. Siiiiiigh.

Best Bondickery:
Honestly there isn’t a ton of awful things happening in this movie, outside of Bond’s usual womanizing meeting up with some borderline-racist explanations of the low-level sexism prevalent in Japanese culture. That’s kind of shitty, to be sure, but compared to the near-rapey levels of Thunderball these moments seem kind of quaint. The only thing I can think of, to be honest, is a moment where when Bond is told he needs to have a cover marriage to sneak into the fishing village where SPECTRE’s base is, totally balks when he is told that the woman he is supposed to be marrying isn’t beautiful. Queen and Country, unless it involves ugly women, then no deal. Good job, Bond.

Of course, because these are the movies they are, it turns out the woman is the most gorgeous one in the film and the woman he ends up with as the film ends. Not unexpected, but hardly repellent on quite the same level.

JAMES BOND will return in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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