Bond Night returns from the depths to explore You Only Live Twice‘s volcano base, Connery’s yellow face, death by tray table, and the proper temperature of saké!
By Michael O’Connor // Welcome back to Bond Night! This month we’re covering Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice (1967), Connery’s final foray as James Bond… or so they thought! Set almost entirely in Japan, the film begins with Bond faking his death and searching for the culprit behind attacks on American and Soviet manned spacecraft. With the clock ticking down to World War III, he must act quickly… but instead he participates in a sham wedding, attends ninja school and transforms himself to look vaguely Japanese by way of Scotland. For this Bond Night, I prescribe a liberal dose of saké and some solid Japanese cuisine. Oh and another thing. If you plan to survive You Only Live Twice, bring your best heckles and one-liners.
Here’s a fun bit of trivia: Roald Dahl, the famous children’s author responsible for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and the most recent cinematic adaptation, BFG penned the screenplay for You Only Live Twice. Surprised? It actually makes a lot of sense, at least on paper. Not only were Dahl and Bond creator Ian Fleming contemporaries and friends, they also had several other things in common.
Like Fleming, Dahl was a British intelligence officer during World War II and a prolific author. He wrote several novels and short stories after the war and while many of these stories were intended for a younger audience, there is certainly a subversive darkness hidden beneath the surface. He also published harrowing crime and suspense stories in The New Yorker, Playboy and Harper’s, many of them just as grisly and depraved as anything Fleming wrote.
Unfortunately, Dahl doesn’t deliver that kind of work here. You Only Live Twice is candy-coated and colorful, like some ostentatious sugary confection in Willy Wonka’s factory. While it’s difficult to know how much of the fault is Dahl’s, it’s telling that he referred to Fleming’s original novel as the author’s “worst book.” As such, it’s no surprise that You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film–though certainly not the last–to completely ignore the source material. In fact, it was the beginning of a messy divorce between the cinematic incarnation of the character and the literary.
Though to be fair to Dahl, he did have a hell of a challenge.
The novel You Only Live Twice calls for a very different kind of James Bond story. In the novel, a nearly suicidal Bond, reeling from the tragic events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, seeks redemption in one final mission: revenge against Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It’s a far more meditative, grounded story with fewer set pieces and action sequences, but its ending is, in my opinion, the definitive ending for the character.
The problem is this: the producers weren’t interested in ending the Bond franchise or even concluding the story of Bond’s battle with Blofeld. And because they hadn’t filmed Majesty’s yet, there was no reason in this film for Bond to grieve. When you consider what the producers wanted–another exciting action-adventure blockbuster spectacle on par with Goldfinger or Thunderball–it’s a real head-scratcher why they chose to adapt You Only Live Twice. Literally any other Bond novel or short story would have been a better fit.
So what remains of the source material? So little it’s difficult to call it an adaptation. There’s obviously the setting and a few locations; some of the characters have the same names although act decidedly different; and then there’s the title, of course.
To be fair, Bond does go undercover disguised as a Japanese man and trains in a ninja camp in both the novel and the film; but that’s where the similarities end. Tonally, the difference between these scenes in the film and the original novel is like the Adam West Batman television show vs. The Dark Knight. And in the novel, Blofeld is unaware of Bond’s presence, let alone his assassination plot, so there’s actually a point to Bond’s immersion in Japanese culture. In the film, Bond loses his cover before he goes to all the trouble to unconvincingly transform himself and marry a Japanese woman; it just doesn’t make any sense.
If there’s one silver lining to the script it’s that wild, fanciful ideas make for stunning sets, gadgets and spectacles. In particular, production designer Ken Adam really gets to cut loose. There are few movie sets in film history that rival Blofeld’s volcano base, and the sheer audacity of the ninja raid in the film’s third act is almost enough to rescue Connery’s ambivalent performance and Dahl’s plot hole-ridden script. The volcano base is the Death Star of the Bond franchise and just begging to be turned into an action figure playset with its elevators, monorails and multiple levels of shielded rooms connected by catwalks. (Somebody get on that!)
Bond Night hasn’t done much to sing the praises of Ken Adam so far, so let’s change that. I’d argue the production designer may be just as crucial to Bond’s indelible imprint on pop culture as Sean Connery or composer John Barry. When we think of what makes Bond feel like Bond, it’s those enormous sets of Adam’s, elaborate and ornate, ridiculously impractical and yet so incredibly cool.
And it’s not just the big action sets like the Fort Knox interior in Goldfinger, the submarine set in The Spy Who Loved Me, or Moonraker’s space station; even normally drab settings like conference rooms or hotel rooms are larger-than-life, enviably luxurious and epic. We’ll be seeing plenty more of his work in future Bond films, but it’s well worth noting that even in the lesser entries, there are hard working, creative people behind the scenes who manage to elevate even the weakest scripts.
Japanese cuisine is a huge category and getting bigger in the Western world as new forms finally reach our shores. When I’m in the mood for Japanese, I have a bevy of delicious options. Hearty ramen soup joints have opened everywhere, offering a far more legitimate meal than those cheap packets that got so many of us through young adulthood; alternatively, hibachi style steakhouses offer prime cuts of meat cooked right in front of you and often come with seasoned mixed vegetables and yakisoba noodles; and of course there’s sushi, with its rice and seaweed wrapped portions of veggies, seafood, and garnishes.
For Bond Night, though, there’s one option beyond any other that I would recommend. See if your area has a good local izakaya, which loosely translates to a kind of Japanese “gastropub.” Prices are usually far more reasonable than hibachi steakhouses and the emphasis on small plates of pan fried udon noodles, seared salmon, sesame pork and mochiko chicken are perfect for sharing and variety. And compared to most sushi or ramen joints, an izakaya is more dependably traditional to actual Japanese cuisine and usually comprised of higher quality ingredients. Pick out a few unfamiliar sounding dishes and open your palate to a wealth of exotic new flavors.
We should dispel a myth about saké that Bond and Japanese agent Tiger Tanaka impart aboard Tiger’s underground train. In the film, Bond says he likes saké, especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees fahrenheit. But here’s the thing: saké is only served hot when it’s lousy saké. Serving something too hot or too cold deadens the tastebuds on your tongue, blunting the flavors of whatever you’re drinking. As much as I hate to disagree with Mr. Bond, I’d say it’s time to learn a little bit about real saké and how best to serve it.
Saké often gets compared with wine and is usually nicknamed “rice wine.” But actually, it’s brewed and fermented like beer. Taste-wise, it’s light, fruity, herbal and usually a little sweet, and its alcohol level is usually somewhere in the low teens. The difference between varying styles of saké has to do with the extent to which the rice grain is polished. “Polishing” the rice essentially means cleaning and clearing the grain of undesirable proteins and oils on its exterior. The more polished the rice, the cleaner tasting the saké.
The highest quality saké is classified Junmai Daiginjō-shu and the cheapest and most common is Honjōzō-shu.
I recommend choosing a quality saké, but here’s a tip to save a few bucks. The American saké-maker Saké One makes traditional, award-winning saké, but without the hefty price tag of many Japanese bottles. Their traditional label Momokawa is your best bet and should be readily available. All their Momokawa varieties are classified Junmai Ginjo, just one level down from the Daiginjo peak. Pick up a bottle of both the Silver and Diamond; both are affordable, especially when splitting with friends, and they contrast well–the Silver’s a bit more dry and savory, the Diamond a little sweeter and fruitier.
Open one bottle before the movie starts and then open the second during intermission. I think you’ll be surprised by the differences in flavor. Who knew boring old rice had so much going on under the collar?
If you take my advice with the Momokawa, you’ll want to serve it slightly chilled, as you would a bottle of good craft beer or wine. In Japanese culture, saké is usually consumed out of small clay cups, but a wine glass is ideal when you can’t be bothered with constant refills.
Pause the film at 1:09:01, or just after Blofeld yells “KILL. BOND. NOW!” and the lackeys apologize and rush out the door. This is a good time to go upstairs for your second helping of saké and get your friends’ initial reactions to the first half of the film. Remind them the ninjas are coming.
You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m not the biggest fan of You Only Live Twice. But what did my friends think? Well, they mostly agreed, but some of them actually enjoyed it more than Thunderball.
Certainly no one thought it lived up to the high watermark of the first three films in the series, but the volcano base attack quieted groans and ceased eye-rolls for a few minutes. For the first time in the film, everything clicks together in a satisfying way. The editing is crisp, the action stunts are spectacular, and the stakes feel legitimately dire. In other words, all hell breaks loose, the toys come out to play, and stuff blows up real good. No matter how many times I watch it, I still think it’s an amazing accomplishment and my friends agreed, especially after Thunderball‘s comparatively soporific third act.
But as for the rest of the film…
My friends got the most amusement from the sequence where Sean Connery transforms into a Japanese man. It reminded one of my friends of a hilarious segment from Team America: World Police and the scene garnered constant call-backs during future Bond Nights. It’s hard to say whether it’s more offensive or unintentionally hilarious, but I lean towards the latter. Nothing they do actually makes Connery look like a Japanese man, and it serves absolutely no purpose in the story. As mentioned before, Blofeld’s agents know exactly where Bond is and even try to have him killed twice. Why Tiger goes to so much trouble to establish Bond’s cover is beyond me.
While we’re talking about parodies, Mike Meyers’ Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies is clearly a take on Donald Pleasance’s portrayal of Blofeld. While it’s admirable Blofeld’s face remained hidden this far into the franchise, the Pleasance reveal is fairly anti-climactic. Not to knock Pleasance, who is a favorite actor of mine, but he’s the wrong actor for the part. Blofeld as introduced in From Russia With Love and then in Thunderball had a silky, deep, sinister voice and manner. He exudes confidence and power. But here he’s a slimy, loony troll; more of a Hunchback of Notre Dame than a Dracula if we’re trading in horror analogies.
Perhaps if they’d really given Pleasance something to do, it might be forgivable. But Bond’s first encounter with Blofeld is fairly by-the-numbers. There’s little-to-no tension in their scenes together; nor is there any of the gentleman killers’ tête-à-tête we saw with Red Grant and Goldfinger. Blofeld appears so late in the film that he’s less of a presence than Dr. No who suffered similarly spare screen time in his film.
Speaking of miscasts, this film is seriously bereft of compelling acting or chemistry. The Japanese girls are one-dimensional, villainess Helga Brandt is disposable, and Tiger Tanaka is a poor man’s Ali Kerim Bey. Even Connery, usually so dependable at bringing the sizzle and the spark, is a hollow shell of his former self. There’s none of the dangerous animal here, or the cool, slick, debonair gentleman spy. He’s a cartoon character instead, stumbling through the film like Mr. Magoo until he can reach the end and collect his paycheck.
Speaking of cartoons, the campiness gets pretty jarring in this film. At least in later Roger Moore films, it’s a consistent level of absurdity. Here, campy punchlines undo grounded, gritty set-ups. Consider the car chase interrupted by a helicopter with a giant car-carrying magnet. Or the scene where Helga Brandt tries to kill Bond with an airplane tray table. After loosely securing his arms with it, she jumps out of the plane. Keep in mind she had the guy tied up minutes before; why waste a perfectly good airplane?
A friend also pointed out a pretty glaring plot hole I’d never noticed before. After Bond rescues the kidnapped astronauts, he attempts to enter the SPECTRE craft with two of them. But Blofeld discovers him and separates him from the astronauts. From that point on, we don’t see the astronauts ever again. Were the two who accompanied Bond discovered as well? Did they board the SPECTRE craft and blow up? And what happened to the remaining freed American and Soviet astronauts?
You Only Live Twice proved one thing: even a bad Bond film couldn’t kill this franchise; it had plenty of lives left to live.
Bond Night Will Return with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service…
About Bond Night
Bond Night is a tradition started between myself, a bonafide Bondian, and friends whose exposure to the James Bond film franchise was limited. We paired one film a month with a region-appropriate cuisine and cocktail and spirited discourse about each film’s merits and shortcomings. The column’s goal is to translate that experience here. By walking newbies and Bond-experts alike through fifty years of the British super-spy’s cinematic history (from Dr. No through today), we’ll declassify all the secret intel necessary for you to host your own Bond Night with friends and family.