BlogalongBond #5 – You Only Live Twice
This blogpost was brought to you in association with LOLcano, providing 007-related jokes since 1962…
You Only Live Twice
(Lewis Gilbert, GB, 1967)
007 gets bored of reality and logs in to ‘Second Life’ – only to discover everybody else is already having fun without him
It’s a commonly reported fact that people who suffer a near-death experience gain a new lease of life verging on the euphoric. So it is that, after Thunderball, the James Bond producers didn’t shy away from the problem but slyly acknowledged it: one fake death later, 007 is freed of his debts to the audience of the last film and can get on with the business of being cool again.
“This is the big one,” M reports, and he ain’t kidding. In You Only Live Twice, the series goes further than it is has ever gone before geographically – not only East towards Japan, but up towards space for the first time. After several films of teasing foreplay, we finally get to see the fella with the cat, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld is played by a proper actor in Donald Pleasance (you can tell he’s a proper actor because of the way he chews his way through the word: an-ni-HIL-ate. Twice). Ken Adam goes for broke with one of the greatest sets in cinema: a fully-functioning under-volcano lair with its own monorail system, rocket launch-pad and piranha pool. And, for good measure, the film is shot by the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Lawrence of Arabia, directed by the hot property who’d just broken Michael Caine in America via Alfie and written by the fella behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The unspoken subtext here is: we’re unstoppable. The set-pieces are huge – spaceships! ninjas! Little Nellie! – but crucially, unlike last time, nothing is laboured. The film glides with smooth assurance like poison on a string, aided by the cockiness of Roald Dahl’s screenplay (low on macabre thrills, maybe, but as giddy and gleeful as his literature) and the twinkle in Gilbert’s direction, as much a fourth-wall-breaking nod and wink towards the viewer as Alfie was. When we’re let in on the secret of the lair’s location halfway through, Vertigo-style, it’s almost like a DVD extra, or a special SPECTRE episode of Cribs.
If You Only Live Twice has a flaw, it’s that very little happens (aside from locating the base, Bond’s figured out pretty much everything within half an hour), and much of what does happen is stoopid. The film’s weird Japan fetish is bizarrely double-edged, envious of its technological prowess but also turned-on by its social conservatism… In other words, exactly what the audience wants from gadget-heavy, shag-happy 007 himself. But the unspoken subtext is that Bond is better at doing Japanese stuff (fighting Sumo wrestlers, drinking sake at the right temperature) than they are. Just look at Tiger Tanaka, supposedly his local equivalent, but a man prone to exactly the kind of vain, bonkers flourishes (trap doors into secret lairs, a private underground train, an assassin training camp) as the baddies in earlier Bond films. The idea that Connery could pass for Japanese with a wig and some eyebrow adjustments beggars belief, but at least makes sense thematically… even if the theme is that the Bond films have basically given up pretending that their exoticism is anything other than casual racism.
Ditto, the sexism. The disposability of the Bond girls has rarely been as overt as the moment Aki is killed off to make way for her replacement, Kissy: another nubile Japanese secret agent whose only point of character differentiation is that he doesn’t immediately jump into Bond’s arms. [Off-screen, the two actresses swapped roles because Akiko Wakabayashi, originally pencilled in for Kissy, turned out to have had a better grasp of English. Casting based on being able to walk and talk at the same time: how progressive, eh?].
It’s a formula, in other words, and one that thrives on cutting off oxygen to the brain so that we can don’t worry too much. In which case, You Only Live Twice is honed to perfection, its frequent lurches between sincerity and camp – hitherto a problem – suddenly calibrated into a dynamic that feels deliberate and critic-proof. It helps that everybody’s doing their best work here. The action is a step up, with the swooping aerial shot of the docks fight is a moment of second-unit virtuosity. John Barry’s sumptuous score, especially the rising majesty of his space theme, is so good even Robbie Williams couldn’t screw it up. And did we mention Ken Adam’s volcano?
The only person not playing ball is Sean Connery, who remains captivating but is a long way from the heights of From Russia With Love or Goldfinger. By now, he’d had enough of Bond, and the film’s strutting confidence seems aimed at much as its indifferent star as anybody: “thinking of leave, Sean? We won’t miss you.” Critics who raved about Gasper Noe’s recent Enter The Void, a film about the spirit of a dead man wandering around a hyperreal Japan while loads of mad stuff goes on around him, probably hadn’t seen You Only Live Twice, because the most startling thing about this is how intent the producers are on looking at anything but Connery (the stuntmen, the hardware, Pleasance) for its kicks. Even 007’s plot trajectory is subtly testing the waters for a reboot. Killed off pre-credits, given a new face (sort of) by plastic surgery, the 007 who ends You Only Live Twice isn’t the same one who begins it – and it’s only the tiniest of logical leaps to starting the next film with a completely different actor working On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.