James Bond in space! Well, not quite yet, but almost. The story behind this one is that following Thunderball, the original intent was to film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but since that movie involved a significant amount of skiing and they missed out on winter, plans were quickly modified to shoot a script that didn’t involve snow; namely, Ian Fleming’s rather odd story of Bond journeying to Japan, battling archnemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in a weird “garden of death,” losing his memory and thinking he’s a Japanese fisherman. In the novel, Blofeld, in the alias of “Dr. Shatterhand,” lives in a medieval Japanese castle on the edge of the sea, which for producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman turns out to be a flight of the late Ian Fleming’s imagination. Initial location scouting trips reveal that the Japanese never build their castles on the seashore because of Japan’s tendency to be smacked around by earthquakes and typhoons. What’s the answer then? Keep Blofeld and the Japanese setting but toss the story completely in favour of a brand new screenplay by the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Makes perfect sense, right?
And so, from the pen of Roald Dahl comes a tale where a mysterious rocket is gobbling up American and Soviet capsules in outer space, forcing the superpowers to the edge of nuclear war. Apparently one of Harry Saltzman’s favourite gimmicks was surprising the audience by killing Bond off in the teaser, and since it worked so well in From Russia with Love, the movie opens with Bond apparently being gunned down in the bed of a Chinese dalliance and given a funeral at sea, only to revive unharmed aboard a British submarine for his mission briefing. Aided in Tokyo by local intelligence czar Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and comely spy Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), Bond finds a connection to the missing spaceships through industrialist Osato (Teru Shimada) and is disguised as a Japanese fisherman in order to get close to the volcano where they suspect the interceptor spacecraft is being housed. After Aki’s tragic murder, Bond is wed to another of Tiger’s agents, Kissy (Mie Hama) who accompanies him into the volcano, which turns out to be the cavernous lair of the notorious Nehru-jacketed Blofeld, his face revealed for the first time in the personage of actor Donald Pleasence (in an interesting aside, Pleasence was a last-minute replacement after it was concluded that the first actor looked too much like Santa Claus to be believable as a supervillain, hence Blofeld also acquiring his signature facial scar to double down on his evilness). It’s up to Bond and a squad of ninja allies to stop Blofeld before a third spaceship can be captured, thus igniting World War III.
The plot is Dr. Strangelove territory and a clear step in the direction of science fiction given what’s come before, but the direction is solid and the film’s aesthetic choices keep it a surprising ride, my sole complaint the overly lengthy Japanese wedding scene. Only in Bond can you have an enemy vehicle disposed of by a helicopter with a giant magnet, or a henchman vaulted into a pool of ravenous piranha. The movie feels enormous, successfully managing to re-up the ante every time you think you’ve seen everything, and spending every spare penny on spectacle and showmanship. As a result, Sean Connery, blasé, perhaps, towards the ever-expanding set pieces, doesn’t seem quite so engaged in the proceedings this time around. This is in fact, the only movie in which James Bond doesn’t get behind the wheel of a car, and the image of Connery driven around wildly by someone else is an unfortunate yet timely representation of what he must have felt Bond was becoming. But he still manages to project his usual charm, even stuck playacting in front of a rear-projection screen for the sequence involving Little Nellie, Bond’s miniature helicopter able to take out a group of enemy Hueys with its arsenal of rockets, flamethrowers and aerial mines.
In an era when a lot of Hollywood productions were still casting white people in bad makeup jobs as Asians (Connery’s mid-movie Japanese makeover included), it’s refreshing to see such positive use of native Japanese actors in major roles, even if most of them are dubbed (Tanaka was voiced by the same actor who did Largo in Thunderball, so they sound identical.) And the extensive location shooting showcases both cityscapes and landscapes of Japan in a way that reinforces the international flavour without becoming a tedious travelogue. Of course, the most amazing location is Ken Adam’s set of SPECTRE’s hollowed-out volcano, built at good old Pinewood Studios back in England. This visually sublime creation, built at three times the cost of the entire budget of Dr. No and so enormous in scope that no soundstage at the time could house it, remains impressive even after repeat viewings (one does wonder how, in the Bond universe, SPECTRE could have engaged on such a major construction project without outside notice). Nowadays, where almost every major set is digital bluescreen fakery, it stands as a testament to the true art of the production designer, and something that the recent Bond films have lost. Nancy Sinatra sings the lush title track with its sweeping strings (recognizable to fans of Robbie Williams’ song “Millennium”), another change of tone from the brassy stylings and blow-the-roof-off vocalizations that had characterized the last two entries. John Barry’s score both enhances the Japanese flavour and provides a stirring, suspenseful theme for the outer space scenes, one that would be borrowed, sampled and remixed decades later, most notably by his spiritual successor as 007’s composer-in-residence, David Arnold.
The Japanese press were merciless hounds toward Sean Connery while the movie was in production, photographing him in the bathroom and printing articles with out of context quotes suggesting that Connery didn’t find Japanese women attractive, souring the notoriously hot-blooded Scot on the idea of being forced to be Bond off-camera as well. Enough was enough, and he announced finally that he would be stepping away from the role after filming finished. You Only Live Twice would turn out to be, however, the end of only the infancy of the James Bond film series, and awkward puberty was soon to follow, with new actors and creative personnel struggling to redefine a man who was very much a 60’s hero for the changing decades to come.