History, Legacy & Showmanship

James and the Rocket Factory: Remembering “You Only Live Twice” on its 50th Anniversary

June 13, 2017 - 2:01 am   |   by
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You Only Live Twice

Coate: In what way was Mie Hama’s Kissy Suzuki a memorable Bond Girl?

Cork: Which one is Kissy again? I’m sorry, that sounds mean. When Bruce Scivally and I were working on various projects together, figuring out which studio glamor shots showed Mie Hama and which showed Akiko Wakabayashi was always a challenge. Mie Hama is lovely and talented. Neither Roald Dahl nor Lewis Gilbert seemed to see the women in Bond films as little more than ornamentation, so it is no surprise that Hama’s role feels generic. Like any heterosexual male, I could look at her lovely face for days and be happy.

Desowitz: She’s memorable for her soft beauty and the way she disarms Bond. Also, the fake marriage anticipates the real thing in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Pfeiffer: Mie Hama’s experience on the film was a challenging one. She was originally going to play the role of the ill-fated Aki but due to complicating factors, it was decided that she should be cast as Kissy Suzuki, the young female agent who “marries” Bond when he goes undercover as a Japanese fisherman. (Perhaps the element of the script that represents an even more fantastic plot device than the villain capturing space craft.) The role of Aki went to Akiko Wakabayashi, who, in turn, had been expected to play Kissy. Like many of the early Bond actresses, their voices were dubbed. Mie has gone on to become an enduring celebrity in Japan. She acquitted herself well and looked great in that white bikini- although her character’s name is not mentioned once on screen.

Scivally: I actually think Akiko Wakabayashi’s Aki is more memorable than Mie Hama’s Kissy Suzuki. Both are terribly underdeveloped characters, but Aki at least has a semblance of an arc, ending with her tragic death (although, given Bond and Tanaka’s reactions, her demise seems to trouble them about as much as a hangnail). Kissy comes on the scene as Bond’s pretend bride (in a beautifully filmed reveal), brushes off his attempts at lovemaking until they’ve trudged halfway up a volcano, joins the fight inside the villain’s lair and ends up with in a raft kissing Bond (I guess she had to live up to her name). But while she does exhibit a certain degree of spunk, there’s just not a lot of personality there.

Sherman: Hama does great work, styling Kissy as delicate, feminine, almost angelic. Yet she shows us that Kissy is also a highly competent agent who is unafraid of battle. Her sweet chemistry with 007 begins as they hold a fake Japanese wedding to throw the bad guys off their trail. These scenes are richly appointed and capture Fleming’s technique of having us live vicariously through Bond, savoring exotic experiences.

You Only Live Twice

Coate: Where do you think You Only Live Twice ranks among the James Bond movie series?

Cork: Okay, here is where things get messy. Over the years, my taste for You Only Live Twice has waned dramatically. The last two times I watched it, I was completely aware of how much I felt the film was a dreadful mess. All the things for which I made apologies when I was a teenager now seem painful. Worse, the script, despite having some moments of amusing dialog, fails to pull me into any kind of story, and I say that with great love for Roald Dahl as a writer (just don’t judge him by his children’s novel, the unworthy sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). So, ranking them a few years back at my son’s insistence, I ranked it 16th. If you think that’s harsh, it came in 21st for him.

Desowitz: I would rank it fourth among the Connery films and maybe 13th overall.

Pfeiffer: I would rank Twice among the top half-dozen Bond movies. Roald Dahl’s script is wild and has a patchwork element to it but the production values are top-notch. No action sequence in modern screen history matches the battle inside the volcano and Ken Adam’s production design is a work of genius. Incredibly, he was not nominated for an Oscar, but the people who designed the living room set for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were. It was one of the great injustices in Academy history. For that matter the production design of the spoof version of Casino Royale should have also been nominated the same year. The movie also boasts a magnificent and timeless score by John Barry and a great theme song sung by Nancy Sinatra. A lot of people said that by this point Sean Connery looked bored on screen because he was chomping at the bit to get out of the Bond role. But looking at the film today, it’s possible that the character of Bond is less interesting simply because he is eclipsed by all the grandeur and gadgetry. In any event, I feel the film showcases Connery at his best and he gets good support from an inspired supporting cast including Karin Dor, Tetsuro Tanba and the usual supporting actors.

Scivally: For me, it’s in the lower half of the Top 10. It’s not the best of the series, but it has its moments. For instance, the slow pull-out helicopter shot of the rooftop fight at Kobe Docks is genius; it’s the total antithesis of how a fight scene is “supposed” to be shot, and yet it works beautifully. Plus the locations are gorgeous, John Barry’s music is perfection, and Ken Adam’s sets are a marvel.

Sherman: The old Bond guard ranks Twice fairly high, especially those who are avid Sean Connery fans. Twice is not one of Connery’s strongest 007 performances, but the audience savors Bond suspending disbelief as he saunters through a volcano’s giant rocket launch pad, a helicopter carrying a giant magnet to plunge cars into the ocean, and other inspired nonsense. Each Bond film grew in budget and scope before Twice was hugely indulgent. Twice looks great but some grit is lacking as prior villains had real menace but Twice’s henchmen are merely cool, distant. And in previous films, Bond is a dark, brooding hero facing death with less camp. But visiting Himeji castle for a good ninja fight and to shoot an exploding cigarette and a gyrojet rocket gun adds “thumbs up” to this Bond review.

You Only Live Twice

Coate: What is the legacy of You Only Live Twice?

Cork: You Only Live Twice is the film that almost destroyed 007. Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were at each other’s throats. As is often the case with partners, Cubby felt Harry wasn’t pulling his weight (Saltzman, to be fair, was producing a full slate of non-Bond films). Saltzman felt that every time he tried to assert himself, Cubby would block him. This continued on You Only Live Twice with Cubby soon taking over the creative reigns from Harry, firing Harry’s choice for a screenwriter (Harold Jack Bloom, replaced by Dahl), hiring Lewis Gilbert, participating in the location recce for Japan and trying his best to limit Saltzman’s involvement. The two men were barely speaking at various points, and both took on ambitious solo projects immediately after…. Sean Connery, who woke up in 1966 to find that Dean Martin and James Coburn were both making more acting in James Bond spoofs than he was making playing James Bond, entered into tense negotiations before shooting began. He wanted to be a full-partner with Cubby and Harry. He wanted Terrence Young back directing. Instead, he was told that he was replaceable. It is no surprise that he sometimes seems as though he is sleepwalking through the scenes. Of course, Sean Connery sleepwalking as James Bond is still remarkably entertaining…. Further battles occurred with Peter Hunt, who felt that he had been promised the director’s chair after supervising the completion of Thunderball (Terrence Young walked off the picture after principal photography when confronted over his massive hotel bill for the Bahamas shoot). Hunt was eventually enticed to direct the second unit, and after some unsavory studio backstabbing of Lewis Gilbert’s editor, Thelma Connell, he took over editing the film as well…. When the smoke cleared, a lot of folks were unhappy with each other. Cubby felt he had made a big, audience-pleasing film. Harry didn’t like the parody aspects and missed the harder edge of the novels. As a result, Harry convinced Cubby and United Artists to take Bond back to his literary roots…. The film itself is lovely to look at, with lavish cinematography by Freddie Young, a score to die for by John Barry, a great title song (I always enjoy the single version produced by Lee Hazelwood), and one of the greatest sets in motion picture history: Ken Adam’s volcano rocket base…. The legacy of You Only Live Twice in many ways is that it was a film where the sum of the parts was far greater than the whole. Beautifully shot, beautifully scored, amazing sets, lovely women, great action, fantastic gadgets, yet one wonders where James Bond fits in to it all. Twice proved you could make a successful Bond film with very little Bond in the mix, and in that, it set a dangerous precedent.

Desowitz: Again, introduction of Blofeld, Connery’s first farewell, the first Bond set in the Far East, the first using outer space, and the first that explores the theme of death and rebirth. And Adam’s volcano lair remains an impressive set.

Pfeiffer: The legacy of Twice is that it remains one of the most popular Bond films, not with critics, but with the public. Whatever the flaws are with the script, it’s a magnificent production and it was all achieved in the era before CGI. The film retains a very contemporary look and doesn’t appear dated. It’s far more impressive than most of the action movies made today…. I’ll take the opportunity to make a cheap plug for our magazine, Cinema Retro, which is putting out an issue later this year that commemorates the film’s legacy and includes Mie Hama’s personal photos from the set.

Scivally: Everything in You Only Live Twice is bigger — the villain’s lair (Blofeld no longer operates from a mere yacht, but instead from inside an inactive volcano), the villain’s threat (not content with simply attaining a Lektor decoding device, SPECTRE is now appropriating entire rocket capsules), and James Bond’s waistline (though still trim, he’s a little paunchier than in the first four films). This is the film where Bond enters the realm of full on, dreamlike fantasy, where the rules of the real world just don’t apply. Also, You Only Live Twice had a lot of new blood in the creative ranks — scriptwriter Roald Dahl, cinematographer Freddie Young, editor Thelma O’Connell, and director Lewis Gilbert (who returned a decade later to direct The Spy Who Loved Me — a film whose plot seems to be wholly lifted from You Only Live Twice, except with a submarine-eating ship instead of a space capsule-eating rocket — and then returned to space with the even more loopily over-the-top Moonraker). As such, it showed that the franchise was robust enough to survive some turnover in the ranks — though the biggest test of that premise came with the departure of Sean Connery.

Sherman: The first four Bonds — namely, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball — adhere to Ian Fleming’s plots. You Only Live Twice was cut from whole cloth by screenwriter Roald Dahl. Dahl, known worldwide for his Charlie, Matilda and Danny sophisticated children’s novels and his wonderful short stories featuring shocking endings, added humor and panache. Dahl’s Bond is cool and says few words, mostly snappy punchlines, while other characters give exposition. Dahl’s playful language (remember his “scrumdiddlyumptious”?) has Bond deduce a homograph clue that “LOX” could be a fish dish or else a rocket fuel component. And in the same scene, Bond says “very convenient . . . very competent” as his two punchlines, while Tiger Tanaka’s punchline is that Bond is “exceptionally [very] cultivated.” So Twice has the legacy of a playful, rhythmic script but with no relation to the vivid original novel with its castle of death and assisted suicide plot (not right for 1967’s audience but could be a fascinating movie now). You Only Live Twice reminds us of when Bond and his many imitators dominated the world’s movie and TV screens.

Coate: Thank you — John, Bill, Lee, Bruce and Matt — for participating and sharing your thoughts about You Only Live Twice on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering “The Spy Who Loved Me” on its 40th Anniversary.

You Only Live Twice


Selected images copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, CBS-Fox Home Video, EON Productions Limited, Danjaq LLC, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation.


- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

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