The Bond formula has now been run into
the ground and only requires a headstone.

- Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard (June 1967)

You Only Live Twice

Film: 1967 (#5)
Book: 1964 (#12)

Bond goes to Japan to stop space shots from being mysteriously captured by a diabolical mastermind in gray with a white cat. There's a lot of other stuff one could say, but this is the one that takes place in Japan with the villainous headquarters concealed in a volcano crater. Other than "Best Performance By An Autogyro," what else do you really need to know?

Book vs. Film

This is the last Bond book to see publication in Fleming's lifetime. Fleming suffered from heart disease and acute depression, and he knew his clock was ticking, which I like to think explains some of the downbeat tone of the final four books. The book begins with Bond on the verge of being cashiered due to letting both himself and his job performance go to hell after Tracy's murder at the end of OHMSS. It ends with him having lost his memory and getting ready to go to Russia to find out who he is, spurred by a newspaper article he's found. Its tone is morose the entire way through, including much speculation on the decline of Britain as a world power. I'm careful about when and where I sling around the word "racist," but a large chunk of this book is devoted to discussion of Fleming's ideas of the character of the Japanese ... which, even when they aren't outright wrong and insulting, are often very strange. So is the rest of the book.

Bond is given a diplomatic assignment to Japan as a last chance to redeem himself. His number is changed to 7777. He has to convince the Japanese intelligence service to share information intercepted from the Soviets, offering a British information route in exchange. After Henderson (who in the book is Australian) introduces Bond to Tanaka - Henderson is not killed - Tanaka reveals that the Japanese have long since cracked the British system and Bond has nothing to bargain with. Bond and Tanaka having become friends, though, Tanaka offers to share the Soviet intelligence if Bond will clean up a mess for him.

A Dr. Guntram Shatterhand has been keeping a "garden of death," full of poisonous plants and other delights such as a pool of piranhas, and Japanese have been flocking to it to commit suicide. It has become a political embarrassment. Tanaka wants Bond to kill Shatterhand. Bond identifies Shatterhand as Blofeld from a photo, but does not tell Tanaka this. Bond is disguised as Japanese - yes, it's in the book too - and given an identity as a mute coal miner. With help from former film star Kissy Suzuki, who grew up as an Ama diver and has returned to that - he infiltrates Blofeld's castle, kills Blofeld, and blows the place up. But he is injured in the explosion and suffers amnesia. Kissy, who has fallen in love with Bond, doesn't reveal his identity as she doesn't want him to leave. Bond is thought dead by the rest of the world.

I describe this at greater length than usual so you'll be aware that, however bizarre the movie may be at times, the book is even weirder.


Not as bad as you might think. In general Bond's problem in this film is less his own character (although he has some wince-inducing lines) than the ridiculous situations the film insists on putting him in, culminating in what must be the worst yellowface in a history of unfortunate film yellowface (which is saying a lot). He doesn't get many opportunities to be suave, and he shows off annoyingly a couple of times, but he's clamped down on both the rudeness and the worst of the loose-cannon aspects from Goldfinger and Thunderball a fair bit. Not too much physicality, but does manage to get in a nice spot of burglary. The Little Nellie sequence shows that only Bond is allowed to pick on Q; if anyone else does it, Bond rises to Q's defense immediately.

Really, the biggest problem with Bond in this film is that Connery's exhaustion and disgust with the role is completely obvious throughout. In the moments where he perks up, he's pretty good.

The Women

Again perhaps surprisingly, the three main women are handled in a way that shows they're all competent, and Bond respects that, in his own peculiar way. He recognizes Helga Brandt as being dangerous, although it doesn't stop him trying to strategically irritate her any way he can. He quickly moves Aki up to fellow-agent status (her death, and his genuine upset about it, is the most disturbing scene in the film) and treats Kissy fairly well ... albeit with some petulance, when he realizes she won't go to bed with him. Most of the worst sexism in this film is found in conversations between Bond and Tanaka. Tanaka is considerably more sexist than Bond is, although he doesn't seem to hesitate at using female agents ....


Lewis Gilbert was selected to direct (reportedly convinced to after declining), and Freddie Young was hired as director of photography. Both of these were considered hiring coups at the time; Gilbert was a veteran director with a ton of good credits, including Alfie, which had put Michael Caine on the map the year before; Young had just gotten an Oscar for his work on Doctor Zhivago to accompany the one he already had for Lawrence of Arabia. John Barry and Ken Adam would reprise their usual functions.

Peter Hunt did second unit direction - he was disgruntled about not being allowed to direct, and was given this as a consolation prize - then, in post-production, was brought in as editor to replace Thelma Connell at EON's express request. Hunt did so, but (reportedly) on the condition that he get to direct the next one.

Harold Jack Bloom was originally picked to do the screenplay, but after his first draft the job was given to Roald Dahl. Dahl, not really a screenwriter and not a very nice person, is an odd choice, and I tend to assume he reintroduced some of Fleming's nastiness to the script, but obviously I can't verify that. Dahl did not appear to have much love for or interest in the material. He dismissed the formula for Bond's women in a Playboy interview, which I paraphrase for brevity: Girl #1 is pro-Bond, sleeps with him, and gets killed; girl #2 is anti-Bond, sleeps with him, and gets killed; girl #3 is pro-Bond, not allowed to sleep with him until the end of the film, and lives. The fact that Dahl's summation has often been absolutely correct doesn't for me excuse his obvious contempt when he discussed it. Respect your material, even when you think you're writing trash.

Veteran Toho Studios players Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama were originally cast as Kissy and Suki respectively, but Hama's English was very shaky, so they changed roles (Kissy has fewer lines), and Suki was renamed "Aki" after the actress playing her. There is a story that Hama was going to be sent home until Tetsuro Tamba (Tiger) informed EON she intended to commit suicide because of this "dishonor." I don't think I buy it. IMDb says she was dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl, which I also don't buy (or what was all this fuss about?) and none of my other sources claims so. Tamba, by the way, was known to Gilbert and Young from his performance in their film The 7th Dawn; he was dubbed here by Robert Rietty. Teru Shimada, an expat Japanese, was lurking around Paramount when found for Osato. Those were the easy casting jobs.

For the part of Dahl's "second girl," Helga Brandt, a general casting call was put out - possibly with urging from the BBC camera crew who were filming a making-of for the show "Whicker's World" and wanted some good footage. "We are trying to do something different with the Bond girl," Gilbert told Alan Whicker. "This time, we'd like to find somebody who can act." Whether Karin Dor - chosen from some sixty women who auditioned - can act is a matter for individual judgement. You may find it difficult to see more of her films for comparison; most of them are C-grade exploitation films, save for Hitchcock's Topaz.

The other tricky part, but for different reasons, was Blofeld. This is the first time we actually see Blofeld's face, at which point we realize that no actual casting of Blofeld can possibly live up to the image created by the disembodied voice of his two previous appearances. Certainly Donald Pleasance is not going to do it. However, in his defense, he was a last-minute replacement; Czech actor Jan Werich took ill shortly after filming Blofeld's scenes began.

Jan Werich.

Werich might have been even worse. At this stage in his life, based on the pictures I've seen, he looked like a cross between Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus. Director Lewis Gilbert's commentary on one DVD edition seems to imply that Werich was punted for this exact reason, and not for his health. Believe what you will.

The volcano set, possibly Ken Adam's most famous bonkers masterpiece, occupied three separate camera crews. For a time it was the biggest film set ever made in Europe. It had taken months to complete, with a crew of 250 plasterers, carpenters, riggers, etc working seven days a week. ("The nightmare," Adam said, "is suddenly realizing every now and then that you have designed something that has never been done before in films .... You wake up at night wondering whether the thing will work.")

The Little Nellie sequence was filmed by Hunt's second unit, with its owner/pilot Ken Wallis doubling for Connery. In addition to the helicopters in the scenes, there were additional helicopters filming the sequence, primarily the one containing cinematographer John Jordan. Shortly after the beginning of this filming, one of the in-shot helicopters flew too close to Jordan's; its rotors clipped off the camera copter's skis and nearly severed Jordan's leg. This accident cut the shooting short and the bulk of the sequence was redone in Spain months later.

Main unit photography for this film was a madhouse. Bond was very, very big in Japan, and an already logistically complex location shoot was hindered by masses of fans, photographers, scandal writers, and so on, crowding barricades and spoiling shots everywhere the crew went. While filming the cave sequence in Akime, the crew were chased by a motorboat full of press. The biggest problem, though, was Connery. Already very tired of the way these films were destroying his personal life, the crowds frantic to get at him in Japan were the last straw. Broccoli personally tried to run interference for him on several occasions during the six-week location shoot, but it was clear fairly early on that Connery had had it. It was time to find another Bond.

The Briefing

This is one of the Bonds that diminishes another tiny bit every time I watch it. Although it has plenty of good moments, everyone remembers the gloriously insane volcano set and doesn't remember what they have to sit through to get there. The Little Nellie sequence feels nowadays like "Hey, we can get an autogyro, we have to write it in somehow," and all the farting around with Osato - once you know where you're going to end up - tends to make one think, "Can we just get to Blofeld already?"

I've heard latter-day complaints that the film is racist, but - outside of Bond's despicable yellowface, and the opening scene ("I give you very best duck") - I'm not sure I agree. In general the Japanese in the film are presented without caricature or bias - mostly. And, I stress again, the film is far less racist than the book - although I grant that's not much of a defense. As one source notes, the film is all too aware of Japan's "economic miracle" of the time and its status as an industrial powerhouse, whereas Fleming depicts the nation as barely a step beyond still being semi-feudal.

One of the things that did suffer in translation from book to film is that there are not as many checks on Bond's ego and attitude in the film. In the book, Henderson is a red-faced sort of bloke who is routinely hung over - very different from Charles Gray's portrayal - who begins his relationship with Bond by immediately taking the wind out of his sails; Tanaka misses no opportunity to school Bond in why the Japanese ways are superior to those of Westerners (and in a few cases, such as why pocket handkerchiefs are stupid, makes good points); Kissy knows how to take care of herself, and, though she falls for Bond, initially is unwilling to deal with his bullshit. I have a tendency to think Bond needs all the puncturing he can get.

The space-capture plot is very much a creature of its time. Remember, in 1967 the "space race" was still very much a thing. We return to the idea of Bad Things Happening In Space several times in Bond films, but this one is very clearly the Cold War talking.


According to legend, the volcano set was decided upon during the location-scouting run, when the crew realized the Japanese have better sense than to build castles near the sea in typhoon country.

The domed building in the establishing shot of the crisis briefing is a radar station in Norway. Still there, I'm told.

Broccoli, Saltzman, Adam, Gilbert and Young all had one of those famous near-misses when they decided at the last minute not to take their scheduled flight home from that scouting trip. They went instead to go watch a ninja demonstration. The flight they didn't take, BOAC 911, did not go well.

This is the first Bond film to show Commander Bond in his naval uniform. It is the only EON Bond to date where Bond does not drive a car.

The Toyota 2000GT coupes were not convertibles. Their roofs were simply cut off. The reason is that 6'2" Sean Connery could not otherwise fit into them! Incidentally, Akiko Wakabayashi didn't know how to drive. Some reports say the car was towed for the few scenes where the character driving the car couldn't be faked; others say a stuntman in a wig. I am more inclined to believe the latter.

It is rumored that Mie Hama is doubled by Connery's then-wife Diane Cilento in a wig during the swimming sequences - either because Hama had stomach cramps, or because she couldn't swim, depending on who you trust.

Casting geeks take note: One of the two policemen who find Bond's body during the opening sequence is Anthony Ainley, one of several who have played The Master on "Doctor Who." One of Blofeld's mission controllers is Bert Kwouk, who appeared as a doomed Chinese liaison in Goldfinger but who is mostly known as Cato in the Pink Panther movies. Teru Shimada appeared in many films, but if your tastes are like mine and you experience a flash of deja vu when you see him, it's because he is the Japanese delegate to the "United World" headquarters in the 1966 Batman. Bond recidivist Shane Rimmer is a radar operator, George Baker (who would get a far more prominent role in the next one) is apparently a NASA engineer (of all things), and William "Heywood Floyd" Sylvester is a Pentagon rep during the initial crisis briefing.

Since it didn't actually make it in from the book: The title is from a haiku that Bond composes.
You only live twice;
Once when you're born, once when you
look death in the face.

Tiger calls it a "most honorable attempt," although he notes the syllables don't work out in Japanese.

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