I recently re-watched You Only Live Twice for perhaps the twentieth time.
The 1967 film remains watchable due to Sean Connery’s portrayal of James Bond, the exotic locale of Japan, and the wonderful musical soundtrack by John Barry, who combined traditional Japanese music with luscious Western orchestration. Barry’s romantic and suspenseful music was an integral part of the early Bond films.
Having said that, I have many complaints about the film.
First off, the producers and screenwriter Ronald Dahl failed to utilize the plot of the great Ian Fleming novel, opting only to use the James Bond character, the names of other characters in the novel, and the Japanese location.
Having watched the great Scot actor Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr No and From Russia With Love as a pre-teen in the 1960s, I went on to read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers and I became a life-long Ian Fleming aficionado.
As an introductory offer, the Mystery Book Club in the 1960s sent me nine hardback Ian Fleming James Bond novels. These were the first nine books in my now considerable library. The first Ian Fleming novel I read was his 1964 thriller, You Only Live Twice.
I loved the novel. I loved the exotic Japanese background and the fascinating characters. Bond, of course, and Tiger Tanaka, Dikko Henderson and Kissy Suzuki, all based on real people Fleming met in Japan.
I also loved the plot. Fleming offered a criminal madman with a Japanese castle surrounded by a garden full of deadly plants that enticed Japanese people to come and commit suicide.
Above the castle floated a balloon with a scull’s face, which was officially meant to be a warning, but was in fact an advertisement. Great stuff.
I was thrilled to later visit Japan when I was a young sailor on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War. Prior to embarking the ship in Sasebo, I reread Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, as well as Fleming’s journalism piece on Japan in Thrilling Cities.
The film You Only Live Twice misuses the novel’s title in Fleming's novel, You Only Live Twice comes from an attempt by Bond to write a Japanese Haiku poem during a tea ceremony with the head of Japanese intelligence, Tiger Tanaka.
You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face.
Tanaka said the poem was a good effort, but it didn’t work in Japanese.
The film has Bond faking his death to throw off his enemies, and later in the film when the villain says he heard Bond was dead, Bond replies, “I was. This is my second life.” The villain then said, “You only live twice, Mr. Bond.”
The theme song, written by John Barry and sung by Nancy Sinatra, has another meaning:
You only live twice. One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
I much prefer Fleming’s Haiku poem.
In the film, after Bond fakes his death, he is buried at sea, with Bond actually in the canvas burial bag (Why?) The body bag is taken by frogmen to a submerged British submarine. The body bag is opened and Bond, in a naval uniform, quips, “Permission to come aboard, Sir.”
That got a laugh in the theater when I first saw the film.
Bond then heads to M’s office aboard the submarine. M’s secretary, Moneypenny, like M and Bond, is in a naval uniform. M informs Bond of the plot to hijack American spacecraft and instructs him to find out who is behind the plot.
My objection to this scene is that although M is a retired admiral and Bond served as an R.N.V.R. commander, neither of them were active-duty sailors and should not have been in uniform.
Then Bond informs Moneypenny that he studied Asian languages at Oxford.
No, he didn’t.
In the novel, M believes Bond was killed in Japan and he wrote an obituary that appeared in the London Times. M writes that Bond attended Eton, although his time there was brief and undistinguished, as he was kicked out due to an issue with one of the maids. Like Ian Fleming, who also attended Eton, Bond went on to study at Fettes and learned French and German, not Asian languages.
In the film, Bond later meets “Our Man in Japan,” Dikko Henderson. Henderson offers Bond a vodka martini, “Stirred, not shaken.”
Every Bond fan knows Bond likes his martini’s shaken and not stirred. Had Dahl ever read a Fleming novel or watched a Bond film? (Dahl was an intelligence officer in WWII and knew Fleming as well as Ernest Hemingway and other notables in the war). Why didn’t the producers, director or editor correct this?
But I liked Henderson’s line after Bond complements him on the Russian vodka.
“Yes. I get it from the doorman at the Russian embassy – among certain other things.”
British actor Charles Gray portrayed Henderson in the film, and
although I like Gray, who would later portray Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever,
Dikko Henderson in Fleming’s novel was a big, booming Australian. Henderson was
based on the late Richard Hughes, a foreign
correspondent for the British Sunday Times.
“He is a giant Australian with a European mind and a quixotic view of the world,” the late Ian Fleming said of Hughes.
In 1959, Fleming, then the foreign manager of the Sunday
Times, was asked by the newspaper’s editor to travel to foreign cities and
write about them, as Fleming notes, “through a thriller-writer’s eye.” The
newspaper articles were compiled into a book called Thrilling Cities in
1963. While visiting Hong Kong and Tokyo, Fleming’s guide was
Richard Hughes, whom Fleming called “Our Man in the Orient.”
Ian Fleming later wrote You Only Live Twice, which featured a character named Richard Lovelace Henderson. Henderson was the British intelligence chief in Japan. He was a big, boisterous and profane Australian who understood the way of the Japanese. Fleming described him as looking like a middle-aged prize-fighter who retired and had taken to the bottle.
(John le Carre visited Hong Kong in the late 1970s while doing research for his novel The Honorable Schoolboy, the sequel to his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. John le Carre met Hughes, and like Ian Fleming, he based a character on him. “Libel me to the hilt,” Hughes told le Carre.)
The character “Tiger” Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, was also based on a man Fleming met in Japan. The character was elderly, and he was a former Kamikaze pilot in WWII. How can one be a former Kamikaze pilot? Read the novel.
I thought the actor who portrayed Tanaka, Tetsuro Tamba, was too young to be Tanaka. Teru Shima, who portrayed Mr. Osato, would have been a better Tanaka.
The character of Aki did not appear in the novel, but I thought Japanese actress Akiko Wakabayashi was a beautiful woman, and the character was endearing. Mie Hama, another beautiful Japanese actress, portrayed Kissy, who was the love interest in the novel.
Donald Pleasence, a fine actor, portrayed Blofeld as a scarred and quite mad criminal mastermind. I was not fond of the portrayal. (Telly Savalas was a much better Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in my view. He was a more commanding presence and more of a madman).
Why, I wondered, did Blofeld, who could build a rocket launching center in a volcano, not have surgery to repair his scarred face?
I read the producers passed on Fleming’s idea of a Japanese castle with the poison garden, as they could not find a suitable castle in Japan. But they built a volcano rocket center, so I don’t see why they could not build a castle. (The poison garden was featured in No Time to Die, for no apparent reason).
As I noted above, the film’s saving grace was Sean Connery as Bond, the exotic Japanese background, and John Barry’s wonderful soundtrack.
But I liked the book better.