Serial, Super Serial: You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Coming off the disappointingly dour Thunderball, Lewis Gilbert’s 1967 You Only Live Twice tries to recover with an admirable attempt, but ultimately goes too far in the other direction. I like the many of the camp elements in this film — there are a number of genuine laugh-out-loud moments — but there’s definitely something troubling about the brand of humor the film employs.

After an American spaceship is hijacked mid-flight, the prime suspects are the Communists (I mean, why wouldn’t they be?), but there’s absolutely no indication that they were the perpetrators. In order to keep the peace, MI6 contracts James Bond to travel to Japan, where they suspect something fishy happening. You Only Live Twice takes place almost exclusively in this foreign territory, which gives us a completely different situation for Bond, but also has plenty of opportunity for some not-quite-PC material.

I don’t think that the film’s portrayal of Japan and Japanese society is racist per se, but it walks a dangerous line. The film actually takes a commendable step by having a cast largely filled out by Asian and Asian-American actors, although some of their lack of English doesn’t help the film move forward. But, since the filmmakers want to inevitably show off the differentness of Japan, it locks them into pretty heavy stereotypes. For example, although sumo wrestling competitions are certainly very popular and important to Japanese culture, highlighting these types of stereotypes feels like reaching for the lowest common denominator. Also, I doubt most assassins in the late 1960s still used samurai swords as their weapon of choice, no matter what the typical middle-American would suspect. These certainly aren’t the most egregious example of Japanesisms being used in the film, but I’ll leave some of those for later on.

This marks the first film from director Lewis Gilbert, who goes on to make a few more Bond films during the Roger Moore era. Understanding that those films are the ones that tend to jump directly into camp territory, I can certainly see those beginnings here. Gilbert is allowed to ratchet up the action, including scenes with many extras fighting each other and scenes with helicopter battles, but I don’t see any particular style from him. This is also the last film in Sean Connery’s initial run — after a one-film hiatus, he returns for Diamonds Are Forever and then years later in the non-canon film Never Say Never Again. There’s no doubt that Connery made the character (the poster for this film literally says “Sean Connery IS James Bond”), so I’ve become accustomed to his natural performances. I’m ready for a shake up, though.

Bond, James Bond

Connery is still pretty set-in-stone again here, but there’s one aspect of the plot that provides an interesting challenge for the character. As we’ve seen through the first four films, Bond’s a bit of a lone wolf. Sure, he follows orders to the T and doesn’t mind getting help during his missions, but he loves being the star of his own movie. Being in a totally foreign atmosphere, in a culture that shies away from individualism, Bond is told to adapt to this particular mission. His adaptation is both a metaphorical and literal one in the film — there are many occasions where he needs to blend in to stay safe, and there’s an actual transformation he must undergo.

So, yes, Connery does don yellow-face, an metamorphasis that set-up by Tiger Tanaka, Bond’s Japanese counterpart. This is a slightly different situation from the long history of white actors playing Asian characters, as Bond plays a British man under disguise, but I can’t help but be rubbed the wrong way. I guess it’s a little less troubling that Connery in no way looks Asian at all — they’ve yellowed his skin a bit and gave him a haircut. Asian James Bond looks an awful lot like Sean Connery, which characterizes the laughably bad moments in this film.

Becoming Japanese has one other consequence, though, something that flies in the face of everything Bond stands for — marriage. He’s set up with Japanese spy-in-training Kissy Suzuki, and he uses the opportunity of a honeymoon to try and put the moves on her. She, however, is all business and refuses his sexual advances as if they were actually married. Of course she comes around to him by the end, but I imagine they have their “marriage” annulled at some point before the next film takes place.

The Mission

The concept of this week’s mission is easily digestible, but its wheels are constantly spinning. The film opens with the staged death of Bond, an interesting idea but one that really has no payoff. Although his enemies think that he’s dead, it doesn’t add anything to the suspense or story. Once we’ve seen the attack on the American spaceship, the film covers a lot of ground with finger-pointing and blind faith. For the Americans and the Soviets to blame each other for the incidents is pretty absurd, as the same thing happens to both of their shuttles. I guess our being disconnected from the Cold War doesn’t help motivations here — at the time, the tension between the two superpowers may have been enough to buy this. Or maybe the views of idiotic heads of state is satire or something.

There are no good explanations as to why Bond ends up in Japan other than gut feelings, which could have felt like an interesting mystery but just feelssloppy. There are even lines of dialogue where MI6 officials says that their curiosities of Japanese involvement aren’t really based on a lot of evidence. Because of this, there isn’t a whole lot of information for Bond to go on, and he spends a lot of the film doing random detective work that I frankly don’t want to see in a Bond film. The film’s able to splice in enough action scenes to dull the sense that nothing is really going on, but it takes a lot of time before we actually get where we need to be. This is first of the films that I feel is too long — it moves from scene-to-scene fine but could really have been 40 minutes.

There really isn’t a good space for this particular point, but there are NINJAS in this movie. In fact, there’s a whole army of ninjas that are commissioned during the final scenes, when Bond encroaches on the volcano lair of the bad guys. Even though they’re important to the final scenes of the film, they don’t really do all that much, but the fact that there’s a ninja army at the center of this film is really, really ridiculous. In fact, it could make the film worth watching all by itself.

The Villain

Because MI6 doesn’t really know who’s responsible for the hijacking of the spaceships, it takes a while before Twice reveals this to the audience as well. Part of my complaints regarding the film’s stumbling through its plot may have something to do with this — because the villain tends to be one of the more entertaining characters of the films, not having any one in particular hurts.

Still, it’s really no surprise that SPECTRE is to blame. In fact, this is the first time where Blofeld, SPECTRE’s leader, directly clashes with Bond. Because Blofeld has to take this active role, we finally get a little more insight into his character, although his personal philosophies on how to run an uber-evil organization have been seen with SPECTRE’s other associates. We learn that Largo got his love for man-eating sharks from Blofeld and his strickingly similar man-eating piranha. Blofeld also doesn’t have any problems with throwing one of his underlings into the pond with little reason. This actually comes to hurt him at the end of the film, when he decides to shoot his own man instead of Bond to prove a point, ultimately giving Bond an opening to escape. Blofeld may be the head of the largest terrorist organization that has the resources and know-how to build a spaceship that literally eats other spaceships mid-flight, but he can be kind of stupid sometimes.

More importantly, we finally see the face of SPECTRE. Any cinephile can tell that the voice actor has been changed here to the great character actor Donald Pleasence, and when you have an actor of his caliber in the role, you aren’t just going to show his midsection. The moment of his reveal actually works pretty well in the film — it sets up the meeting of Bond and Blofeld and then has the evildoer introduce himself to the spy and the audience. Blofeld’s trademark scar tells you why he became evil, as he probably could never make a good first impression during job interviews. Blofeld also has the distinction of being the only villain to escape his film alive, obviously setting up more altercations to come.

The Bond Girls

Sadly, the only real memorable trait of the Bond Girls in You Only Live Twice is their ethnicity. There’s a nice social construct that the film uses in shaping the two major Bond Girls, Aki and Kissy, though. At one point in the film, Tiger Tanaka tells Bond that women are second class citizens in Japan, only there to serve men and ain’t that so much better than in America. This thought is contrasted in our Bond Girls, especially Aki, who’s action-oriented, smart and important to the Japanese spy organization.

The Gadgets

Twice is also not a film heavy on the gadgets, except that Q makes a random appearance to deliver Bond a “toy helicopter” that’s assembled from three suitcases. It doesn’t help his mission much besides providing an excuse for a helicopter fight, which is one of the better scenes in the film. Being in Japan and taking in as much Japaness as possible, there are also some gadgets given to Bond by Tanaka. The most important is a cigarette rocket that can be shot from any normal cigarette. Unlike the helicopter, this proves quite helpful when Bond’s in a pinch, cornered by Blofeld at the end of the film.

The Song

Do you remember the Robbie Williams song “Millennium”? It took me a while to figure it out, but Nancy Sinatra’s title song has been linked to that with some clever sampling. All in all, the song isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel like Bond. It’s sort of a sappier, more serene song than we’ve seen from the other titles.

“You Only Live Twice or so it seems,
One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
You drift through the years and life seems tame,
Till one dream appears and love is its name.”

As you can tell, it stretches a bit for end rhymes. Similarly, this is the worst overall soundtrack for any of the films so far. Unlike a few of the others, it doesn’t take an instrumental variation of the title track. Still, none of the film’s music heightens the action in any way.

Random Thoughts

- All great film franchises end up in space eventually. Jason X, Leprechaun 4: In Space, etc.

- Why is the UK sticking up for the Soviets? I mean, I can understand that they may not think that they are guilty for hijacking the American spaceship, but they are Communists, dammit!

- Fun trivia: the screenplay was written by close friend of Ian Flemming, Roald Dahl. His mind certainly contributed to the camp elements of the film, but it isn’t quite as culturally sharp as I would have expected.

- I’m sure Bond’s superiors wouldn’t have been shocked to find out he was killed just after making love to a woman. I guess, really, this was a pretty genius way to fake his death.

- The film definitely seems to try hard to make Bond about a foot taller than anyone else in Japan.

- Japanese paper walls are perfect for throwing baddies around.

- Apparently the best way to portray Japan is to make it super high-tech, futuristically so. Lots of cameras, scanners, video screens. This feels more like Robocop than James Bond.

- Bond is much better at shooting a gun than the Japanese. They probably spend too much time using samurai swords. Then again, Bond literally kills everyone he shoots at with one bullet.

- Random question: If you fired a heat-seeking missile while no one else was around, would it come back and blow you up?

- Bond wears a suction-cup suit with giant suckers on his hands and knees. Someone call the fashion police!

- Ninjas, believe it or not, are not immune to machine gun bullets.

- Why would anyone put a remote self-destruct button inside of your spaceship? That’s just asking for an enemy to hit that thing.

- On more than one occasion Bond takes the clothes off of a Japanese enemy in order to get closer to the bad guys. You see this a lot in movies like this, so I have no problem with it, except for two things: Bond is a foot taller than the people he takes clothes from, and he’s remarkably not Asian looking.

Serial, Super Serial will return in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.

tags: james bond, lewis gilbert, super serial, you only live twice

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Danielle-Rush/100002186800334 Danielle Rush

    Although I was not that impressed by Mie Ama as Kissy Suzuki, I was more than impressed by Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki.  Not only did she possess a strong screen presence and good acting skills, she also had great screen chemistry with Connery.  I was also impressed by Tetsuro Tanba as Tiger Tanaka and Teru Shimada.  Which is why I have difficulty accepting your view that the only memorable aspect of the Bond girls in this movie was their ethnicity or that the cast’s limited English near bogged down the film.  Perhaps from your point of view, but not from mine. 

  • Aaron Pinkston

    I have been perhaps a bit too dismissive of Aki and Kissy, but they aren’t characters that have stuck with me.  I could have expanded on Aki a bit, but I did touch upon her bucking the “idea” of Japanese women in society as servants to men.

    Thanks for reading and for posting!

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