Background: the original plan had been to make On Her Majesty's Secret Service as the 5th Bond film, but was put back due to the extensive scouting required and the difficulties of filming in snowy alpine regions. Due to the fact that it was nearly all set in Japan and that they hadn't yet done an Asian Bond, they went with You Only Live Twice.
You Only Live Twice was a bit of a reboot for the franchise really. I don't think it was due to reaction to Thunderball (it grossed over $140,000,000 and was relatively well received, although people did complain about the length and confusion with the underwater scenes), but there was a definite shift after that film. A new director: Lewis Gilbert, was contracted and they made the master stroke of hiring Roald Dahl as the script writer. Dahl was a friend of Fleming's and while he's best known for children's work he was a far better writer, he largely rewrote You Only Live Twice, keeping only some characters and the location, he later did say it was in his opinion one of Fleming's worst and dullest books.
Shooting in Japan had a couple of problems. One was finding locations. Fleming had his villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld running his operation from a castle on the coast. The producers and director were unable to find any coastal castles. They were told that due to fear of tsunamis no one ever built a castle on the coast. Fleming never really bothered with inconvenient things like research. They had to instead set the base in a dormant volcano and build a massive set at Pinewood to double for it. This would later prove to be a really good move. The other problem was the popularity of the films in Japan, which made moving around for the cast and shooting on location problematic. It probably helped to make Connery's mind up about leaving the franchise, which he had already stated was his intention following this film. They also had to recast the villain late in the piece and deal with a crisis involving two of the girls. More on that in Casting.
Story: it sounds quite ridiculous. Someone is 'swallowing' US and Russian rockets, complete with crews. The Americans blame the Russians and the Russians blame the Americans. Neither super power wants to listen to the voice of reason in the form of the UK who states that their findings are that the aggressor seems to originate from within or near Japan. Dahl's writing and Gilbert's assured direction makes it work. It has SPECTRE's fingerprints all over it, the best man for the job is James Bond, Agent 007, but to do his job it's better if SPECTRE think he's dead.
Bond is brought back to 'life' in a submarine under Hong Kong harbour. As they're on board a ship, M, Moneypenny and Bond himself are all in uniform. I wasn't aware that Moneypenny actually held a naval rank, but the uniform tends to indicate that she does. M is, of course, an admiral.
I liked the view of Japan they used in this film, it's a good mix of the traditional: sumo wrestling matches, katana wielding ninjas and picturesque fishing villages and the new: neon signs, wealthy chemical manufacturers and bullet trains.
When Bond's first local contact is killed mid briefing he finds himself relying on a wild and mysterious female Japanese agent and she leads him into the secret lair of Japanese intelligence, under a train station. The head of Japanese intelligence is an urbane and daring character by the name of Tiger Tanaka, he's rather like a Japanese Kerim Bey, and he and Bond hit it off as well as the Turkish spy did. Heading up Japanese intelligence obviously has it's perks as Tanaka has his own private train so that he doesn't have to expose himself to danger outside of the base or at his ninja training school.
Bond and Aki (the mysterious saviour) investigate Osato Chemicals because they're convinced that the company and it's dodgy owner (he possesses some truly magnificent eyebrows) are involved. Apropos of nothing Bond is seduced by Helga Brandt (also SPECTRE's No 11) and manages to escape her clutches. I'm honestly not sure why they did this. Perhaps Bond had a quota of women he was meant to sleep with per film and she made it up.
Tanaka claims that the area near a fishing village and a dormant volcano are of interest and Bond calls in Q and one of his inventions known as Little Nellie and investigates. The aerial battle between the baby helicopter and SPECTRE's full sized ones is quite well done and revolutionary for the time.
The investigation will require Bond to pretend to be a Japanese fisherman and 'marry' one of the diving girls, who is agent Kissy Suzuki (she's never actually named in the film, but is credited as Kissy and is analogous to the character in the book). This puts Aki's nose out of joint as she's fallen for the suave British agent. The feeling seems to be mutual on this occasion.
When you want to amp things up in anything just add ninjas and that is what they do. The intention is to give Bond a crash course in ninja'ing and it allowed them to show a bunch of action scenes with 'ninjas' kicking, punching, slashing and jumping all over the place.
For story reasons they had to remove Aki and this leads to her being poisoned by a fast acting and quite effective poison being dripped down a string suspended above her. The intended target was Bond, but he rolled over at the wrong time (or right time depending on your point of view) and Aki got killed instead. Another blatant 'fridging'.
On the SPECTRE side of things viewers have finally seen the mysterious No 1. He is Ernst Stavro Blofeld. I'm sure at the time people were wondering exactly what the evil mastermind would look like and they did not disappoint in making him look rather unpleasant. As bald as an egg, with a large scar running down one side of his face and this distorts the lid and socket of one eye. A truly unsettling appearance. He also disposes of those that displease him by dropping them into a pool filled with savage piranha's. Helga Brandt meets that fate. The fact that he himself is running this one indicates that it's of great personal interest. I'm not sure entirely what he gets out of it, other than the mayhem he and his organisation can create if war breaks out between Russia and the US.
Rather laughable attempts were made to turn Bond into a Japanese fisherman. They altered the roundness of his eyes with plastic and rubber inserts, put a wig on him and supposedly shaved his chest (which they didn't. He was just as hairy when seen shirtless later in the film). He doesn't look at all Japanese, he does look rather ridiculous.
After the 'wedding' Kissy spends most of her time in a bikini. I assume this was to detract from her almost non existent acting ability, and the fact that whoever dubbed her voice did not sound at all Japanese. She and Bond find Blofeld's lair and quite by accident realise that the 'water' covering the volcano, isn't water at all, but a metal roof, painted to look like water from above.
Bond infiltrates while Kissy goes for help. What follows is a completely over the top battle as Bond, Kissy, Tanaka and his ninjas battle Blofeld's troops and try to stop him from snatching up a US spacecraft that will kick off WW III. They destroy the base in the process. It's probably the most elaborate closing sequence that the franchise had done to that point. It makes Dr. No's final battle look rather tame by comparison.
Kissy and Bond find themselves snuggled together in a lifeboat as Blofeld's volcano explodes in the distance. Blofeld himself escaped, though.
Director: I'm not sure why they needed a new director. I'm glad they made the choice because Lewis Gilbert was excellent, one of the best directors the franchise has had. He made his name directing what were called 'kitchen sink dramas' like Alfie, the film that launched Michael Caine's career. He brought something different to the table with Bond. He was quite artistic at times, worked well with Dahl and dealt with a more diverse cast than other directors had had to. He was a fusion of Young and Hamilton, but had a style all of his own.
James Bond: the franchise had made Connery into a star and now he wanted to spread his acting wings and not run the risk of being typecast. He was also finding the demands on his private life tiresome and intrusive and that went to extreme levels in Japan. If he wasn't going to walk before You Only Live Twice, he was definitely going to do so after the film. Despite his disenchantment he was better than in Thunderball (although some of that may have had to do with a better script and direction), although his accent was even more noticeable.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld: Audiences had been teased about Blofeld from the start. I always thought the unseen villain giving directions to Professor Dent in Dr. No was Julius No himself, but it could have also been Blofeld. In You Only Live Twice he's finally seen and it has to make an impact. Czech actor Jan Werich was originally cast. Werich was rather roly poly and had a white beard. He resembled a rather sinister Santa Claus in the rushes, so British actor Donald Pleasence was instead given the role. It was the right choice. Pleasence was a rather scary looking individual at the best of times, shave his head, add the scar and the damaged eye and he's downright terrifying. Three actors played Blofeld and it's telling that the Dr. Evil character from the Austin Powers movies looks like Pleasence's Blofeld.
Peripheral roles: Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn all returned again. M and Moneypenny were taken out of their office setting and instead placed in a submarine. I have to say Lois Maxwell looked very fetching in her naval uniform and probably should have been filmed wearing it more often. She may have also been more appealing to Bond in uniform.
Q: had to work in the field again. Delivering the helicopter Little Nellie to Bond in Japan. He was clearly none too happy about it and if possible was grumpier than normal. He tells Bond that he's in no mood for 007's tiresome tomfoolery and shows him Little Nellie and her enhancements with the air of a cantankerous schoolmaster lecturing a particularly dense pupil, which was largely the dynamic between Q and Bond for most of their association.
Tiger Tanaka: Tetsuro Tamba took on the role of Japanese intelligence head. He and Gilbert had worked together before and worked well. His voice was dubbed by Robert Rietti (also the voice of Emilio Largo in Thunderball) and he played the role with a deep gravity. He was also good in the physical scenes, which as an active ninja, he had to be.
Helga Brandt: SPECTRE's No 11 was played by Karin Dor. She resembled Fiona Volpe and was the same sort of seductress character. She was also a redhead. Blofeld seemed rather partial to them, makes one wonder if before he lost his hair he wasn't a ginger.
Dikko Henderson: he's Bond's local contact in Japan and has lived there for nearly 30 years, yet retained his public school, upper crust British accent. The role was played with humour by Charles Gray, who was better known as The Narrator in cult musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Aki & Kissy Suzuki: I'm going to put the two together. The Japanese film industry at the time specialised in monster films. When the Bond franchise wanted a girl they put out a casting call and were overwhelmed with the response. It came down to two girls: Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama. As actresses there wasn't a lot between the two, and as Wakabayashi picked up English better they decided to give her the Kissy role. They asked Tetsuro Tamba to take Mie Hama out to dinner to break the news to her. He turned up on set rather glum the next day and when asked what had happened the previous night said that she was preparing to commit ritual suicide because she had shamed her family. At a hastily convened meeting between Cubby Broccoli, Harry Saltzman, Lewis Gilbert and the two girls, Akiko Wakabayashi floated the idea of increasing the Aki role (initially this didn't even exist in the book and she was called Suki in the screenplay) and making the Kissy role smaller, but giving Mie Hama the greater credit. This met with approval from all parties. I felt Akiko Wakabayashi did a great job with her role. Mie Hama is one of the worst actresses I've seen in a Bond movie. Blofeld's cat could have done a better job. She has two facial expressions, one is surprise and the other is naked terror when Bond kisses her. The dubbing was awful in that whoever did the dialog did not sound at all Japanese. It's a shame she wasn't better as while it's not covered in the films, in the books it's indicated that Kissy is the only of Bond's many conquests who actually bore him a child; a son, also called James.
The Curse of the Bond Girl: both Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama had plenty of Japanese monster movies to their credit before being cast in You Only Live Twice. I felt Akiko Wakabayashi was a pretty handy actress, but she didn't do a lot, even in the monster movie field, after the Bond film. Mie Hama went back to the monster movies after You Only Live Twice and kept that up throughout the late 60's and even early 70's before disappearing from the screen. I assume after this they required her to act and judging from what she did with Bond this was beyond her. I saw a poll not all that long ago that listed the worst Bond actresses and Mie Hama featured surprisingly low, I can only assume that this is due to her starring in an earlier film that not many modern audiences have seen or remember clearly.
Gadgets: fittingly for a film set in fast paced, technology obsessed Japan, there are gadgets in this film. Most of them are installed on Little Nellie. The code name for a one person helicopter that fits into four suitcases, until he sees it in operation Tanaka insists that it is a toy. As well as being highly manoeuvrable and quite light it's also fitted with: machine guns in the nose, flamethrowers on either side, aerial mines, rockets and heat seeking air to air missiles. It's like a miniature Apache on speed and Blofeld's full size helicopters are no match for it.
Pre credit sequence: compared to the previous two it's rather tame. We see an obviously faked space sequence with Blofeld's rather phallic looking craft swallowing up an American spaceship, managing to cut off the air supply and kill an astronaut performing a spacewalk outside the ship. The various nations discussing it and then we see Bond in bed with a Chinese girl, who allows him to be shut up in a wall bed while assassins pump it full of bullets. Yes, they killed Bond again. This one looked far more authentic and it was done so that SPECTRE wouldn't know Bond was coming for them. It related far more to the actual film than the sequences at the start of Goldfinger and Thunderball had.
Music: after two hits, they had a miss. Nancy Sinatra moans her way through a song with the same unwieldy title as the film. Sinatra was nervous during the recording and it shows. She didn't have the right voice for a Bond song and I don't think her profile was ever that high. There's a comment by Bond in Goldfinger that there are certain things that one does not do: one is drink Dom Perignon at room temperature and the other is listen to The Beatles without earmuffs. Broccoli and Saltzman could be behind trends, especially musical ones, and I think the choice of Sinatra to do this song and that comment illustrate this tendency.
James Bond will return in Her Majesty's Secret Service, but just who will he be?