We now come to the one and only film in my personal Top 10 list that is not a perfect motion picture; indeed, "You Only Live Twice"--the 5th outing in the currently still ongoing James Bond franchise, the longest-running franchise in the history of cinema--is very much a flawed film, with several moments of head-scratching stupefaction that might make the viewer wonder if he/she is witnessing a fever dream that 007 is having while lying in some tropical hellhole (and the lyrics of the film's beautiful theme song DO give us the words "this dream is for you...."). It is not the most violent and groundbreaking Bond film; that would be the first, "Dr. No." It is not the film that hews closest to its Ian Fleming source novel; that would be the second, "From Russia With Love." It is not the most perfect 007 film; that would be the third, "Goldfinger." It does not have the remarkable trio of gorgeous "Bond girls"--Lucianna Paluzzi, Claudine Auger and Martine Beswick--to be found in the fourth outing, "Thunderball," and it does not feature the most tear-jerking and heartbreaking moments in Bondom, as does the sixth,"On Her Majesty's Secret Service." But what "You Only Live Twice" DOES feature is action, and spectacle, and color; it is the biggest, most lavish film of the franchise, and despite its flaws, it has been the favorite of mine and many others (for example, Mike Myers, who blatantly used it as his template for the Austin Powers films) ever since it opened in June 1967. I have often told people that the first six Bond films are the only ones that really matter, and that all the others (18 others, at this point) are just for fun. And "You Only Live Twice," it seems to me, despite its many flaws and detractors, might be the most thrilling of that initial sextet. All five of the initial Bond films appear on my personal Top 100 Movies list, by the way, but this is the one that holds a special place for yours truly.
Near the beginning of this 5th Bond outing, M tells 007 that "this is the big one," and boy, do those words ever ring true. This is the first film in the 007 franchise that completely threw out the Ian Fleming source novel that it was based upon, only keeping the Japanese backdrop, and while Bond purists might object that this movie has nothing to do with Fleming's 1964 vision (which dealt with Bond investigating the Japanese suicide gardens of one Dr. Shatterhand, rather than S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s hijacking of Russian and American space capsules in an effort to precipitate WW3), and that the film is more sci-fi/adventure than the sexy spy thrillers that Ian Fleming had made popular, the fact remains that this Bond masterpiece is both the most visually spectacular entry in the 56-year history of the franchise, as well as the culmination of the four Sean Connery episodes that precede it. Sure, there are some things to carp about in this story, and many inconsistencies. Bond takes a martini that is "stirred, not shaken" (!), he conveniently has a safecracking device in his pocket just when he needs it, he magically has a ninja outfit under his fisherman's shirt and so on. But the movie is presented with such panache, and there is so much local Japanese color and scenery, and the sets are so very spectacular (there's that word again!), that these little slips just pale into insignificance. The battle at the end of this film, with ninjas pouring into the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. volcano lair, is one of the most exciting sequences in the history of Bondom; perhaps in the history of the action film. The Bond girls this time are both beautiful AND interesting, and Karin Dor makes for a sexy Bond enemy/lover. (In Bond movies, female enemies make for very strange bedfellows!) We finally get to see Ernst Stavro Blofeld in this outing, and Donald Pleasence does not disappoint (although, granted, he is NOT the Blofeld that Fleming had described). I have seen this movie at least 50 times since it first opened in June '67 (I saw it three times in its opening week alone!), and still thrill to its superb drive, color and action. The movie also features perhaps the loveliest of the Bond theme songs, sung by Nancy Sinatra, and all in all is a smashing entertainment package.
Some personal background history: Back in June '67, my father dropped me and my buddy Dave off at the (sadly long extinct) Prospect Theater in Flushing, Queens on a Saturday afternoon; the first weekend after "YOLT"'s opening. Dave and I had been friends for a short time, having, uh, Bonded back in day camp after discovering our mutual love of the Ian Fleming novels. We sat through the film two times in a row that afternoon, and as I said above, I saw the film again before the week was out. Back when I was a kid, I could think of no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than watching the first four Bond films on the big screen, at the (now sadly defunct) Queens Theater, which would often show them as double features. Though I was a preteen, for some reason, my parents felt it a safe proposition to just drop me off there for four hours while they did their thing (shopping). I must have seen those first four Bond movies in every possible double feature combination before "YOLT" premiered, and was thus well primed for this big event. The film blew Dave and I away that first weekend, and today, over four dozen viewings later, I still watch it with undiminished enthusiasm. What can I say? This movie brings out the kid in me, and makes me feel like I'm 12 again. And there is SO much to love in this film, despite the flaws mentioned above. The opening scene, in which Bond is "killed" while in bed with the gorgeous Tsai Chin (one of the few Bond actresses who would reappear, many years later, in another role; this time in "Casino Royale"); Bond's burial at sea, with its beautiful underwater photography (reminiscent of the recent "Thunderball") accompanied by a truly gorgeous piece of never-used-again background music; the vastly underrated fight that 007 has with a Japanese guard (played by Samoan wrestler Peter Maivia, who, five years later, would become the maternal grandfather of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson!) in the Osata Chemical Company building; that wonderful car chase, culminating with a helicopter-assisted "drop in the ocean"; the fight at Kobe dock, accompanied by the rousing "YOLT" theme song; the battle that Bond has over the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. volcano hideout in his "Little Nellie" gyrocopter (an action sequence that resulted in the real-life partial loss of a leg for the actual gyrocopter cameraman); the death of Helga Brandt (played by German actress Karin Dor, with whom I have been enamored to this day, and whose recent passing saddened me greatly) in Blofeld's piranha pool; the death of Aki, Bond's beautiful Japanese ally, by poison; and finally, that monumental final battle between the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. forces on one side and 007 and the ninja forces of the Japanese Secret Service on the other. This final segment, as I mentioned, very well might be the most visually spectacular (I keep coming back to that word!) sequence in the history of the action film, to this very day, and continues to amaze this viewer over half a century later. And while I'm on the subject, that colossal volcano set, designed by Ken Adam, is just absolutely remarkable, with its functioning monorails, spaceship landing pad, built-in observation windows, sliding crater-lake top and so on; a set that cost $1 million on its own to construct (ridiculous money to spend on a film set 50 years ago), and put together the old-fashioned way...with no green-screen special FX or computer enhancements.
I have perhaps been remiss in neglecting to mention the contributions of Akiko Wakabayashi (Aki) and Mie Hama (Kissy, although her name is never mentioned in the film itself), both of whom are lovely and appealing; along with Ms. Dor, still another Bondian trio of female pulchritude. And the film's script, by children's author Roald Dahl, of all people, is a clever one, with any number of witty lines, despite its inherent flaws. Although many have complained of Sean Connery's apparent lack of enthusiasm in the film, and his visible boredom with the James Bond role at this point, I must confess that I have never been able to discern it on screen. Nor can I understand the "Maltin Movie Guide"'s assertion that the film lacks "clever and convincing crisis situations"; are they kidding?!?! The film is filled with nothing but! Anyway, I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. This film might be the only one on my Top 10 list that could be called a "guilty pleasure," but my love and enthusiasm for it remain undiminished after half a century. The last time I watched this film was on its 50th anniversary, in June of last year, and I do believe that I'm about ready for another look. Arigato!
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