Tuesday, December 20, 2005
After raking Die Another Day over the coals a few days ago, I thought it would only be fair to take another look at the earlier Bond films I love so much and see how well they hold up under scrutiny. It is REALLY HARD for me to pick a favorite. Obviously, it must be a Bond film with Connery. I enjoy Roger Moore's Bond films and I did like Goldeneye a lot, so Pierce Brosnan is A-OK in my book, despite my hatchet job on Die Another Day. But, sorry, guys, Sean Connery IS James Bond.
When I was a kid, I really loved Goldfinger. It seemed to be on TV all the time, and I watched it a bunch of times, and it was my favorite back then. Later, I saw From Russia With Love, and that was my favorite for a long time. But wait! Dr. No has Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, and Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever are both pretty awesome as well.
The last few years, though, the one I like the most, the one I keep going back to, is You Only Live Twice. The opening is very likely the very first Bond scene I ever saw. Bond’s death before the titles is a very early memory from my childhood, but the rest of the movie was a complete blank to me when I saw the whole thing years later.
Nostalgia aside, I love the Japanese setting. Bond girl Akiko Wakabayashi is one of the most beautiful women in the world. And then there's Donald Pleasance as Blofeld, with his piranhas and his volcano hideout and his Angora cat and his intricate schemes. This movie really has all the great iconic images of the secret agent genre before they became clichés. (Or maybe they became clichés simultaneously with this movie. After all, the 1967 spoof Casino Royale came out two months before You Only Live Twice was released.)
This is one of the major Austin Powers influences. A deformed villain with a distinctive pet, a vast, underground cavern housing a secret base for world domination, the Free World at bay! Thirty years later, it was easy to make fun of. But Austin Powers leaves out lots of great stuff when he starts stripping You Only Live Twice for gags.
I tried really hard to find some stuff to make fun of in You Only Live Twice, trying to be fair to Die Another Day. I have a couple of things that might do, but it would be forced and insincere. (I'll mention them when they show up in the narrative.) This movie is darn-near perfect and it has everything you expect from a James Bond film. I was at a Bond fan site and one correspondent said that all James Bond films are outdated within a few years. I'm kind of baffled by that. How is You Only Live Twice outdated? Because the fashions are 35 years old? Because Nancy Sinatra is singing the title song? Because every scene isn't an over-the-top idiocy fest? If you don't get what's so great about this movie, fine. Just admit that you don't get it. Don't claim it's out-of-date just because you lack the sophistication and depth to appreciate it.
The plot: American and Russian space capsules are being captured in orbit along with their personnel. The major super-powers are blaming each other, tensions are rising, and the Cold War is about to turn hot! The British (the voice of reason, wot) are leading international mediation efforts to prevent a nuclear war until the real culprit can be found.
An unlikely scenario? Maybe. Far-fetched? Nope. It was 1967, only five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the United States had been rattling its sabers and sending combat troops to Vietnam for two years for reasons as unconvincing, self-serving and irrational as the reasons for the tensions in You Only Live Twice. In our own time, we have seen a major war started and lives lost senselessly for similarly lame pretexts. (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would make great Bond villains. If the Bond franchise had any GUTS, it would send 007 after the Bush Administration for a good trouncing! But NO, the next Bond film will be another version of Casino Royale, a story that was so outdated by 1967 that the only way to film it was to make it into a farce.)
Back to the movie: James Bond is trapped in a Murphy-bed in a bordello in Hong Kong and the bad guys run in and machine-gun him to death! A doctor comes in an confirms his death.
Oh, no! Who will save the free world now?
The titles start and we are immediately reassured by the soothing voice of the fabulous Nancy Sinatra, who had appeared in the spy spoof The Last of the Secret Agents? only the year before. Nancy reminds us that "You Only Live Twice," so the death we saw was Bond's first life and he'll be back, healthy and randy, when the credits are over! Hurrah!
Which is exactly what happens. I don't really know how MI-6 pulled it off, but it's a cunning plan. If all his enemies believe Bond is dead, then he will be free to investigate the disappearances of the space capsules. At this point, there is pretty much only one clue: the British have detected an unidentified spacecraft that landed somewhere in the Sea of Japan.
So off Bond goes to Tokyo to meet with the Japanese Secret Service. Sitting in the audience at a sumo wrestling match, he waits for his contact person, and in walks Akiko Wakabayashi.
Akiko Wakabayashi is a goddess. She is not only a radiant, glowing beauty, she was also lucky enough to be in four movies in the 1960s that were definitive masterpieces of their respective genres. In 1962, she was in King Kong vs. Godzilla, a very silly Japanese monster movie that is nevertheless one of the greatest movies ever made for obvious reasons. It has King Kong. And Godzilla. In the same movie! Akiko has a much bigger role in 1964's Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, the greatest of all the guys-in-rubber-suits, giant-monster movies. (She is so awesome in this movie! She jumps out of a plane without a parachute seconds before it explodes and she survives! Fishermen pull her out of the sea and she is suffering from amnesia that makes her wear men's clothing and preach that the end of the world is near!) In 1966, she was in Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?, one of the movies that defined film comedy in the 1960s. And in 1967, she made … You Only Live Twice.
I love her. She's beautiful, she was in a bunch of great, goofy movies and nobody but me knows who she is. You're all mine, Akiko-san!
She only made one more movie after You Only Live Twice and retired from films. No explanation that I know about. And I have no idea what happened to her in later years. Sayonara, Akiko-san!
In You Only Lives Twice, she plays Aki, and she's in the movie a lot. She drives the car! A Toyota 2000. Bond is one step ahead of the bad guys and Aki drives up out of nowhere and saves him. Twice. She's in the movie for almost an hour, Bond's constant companion, and her death is one of the few Bond-film death scenes with any emotional impact. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
Little by little, Bond and Aki and Tiger Tanaka (Aki's boss) collect a few clues, put the information together, narrowly escape death, and finally figure out that the volcanic island of Ama is probably the key to the mystery of the missing spacecraft. Q shows up with a compact surveillance helicopter, and Bond scouts the island. He is attacked by four big helicopters, and they are no match for his weaponry. But he could not find any place on Ama Island where the spacecraft could be hidden.
(Blofeld has a few short scenes in the early part of the film, dealing with subordinates who have failed to kill Bond. Somebody should have said, "Could you do better, Baldy?" But nobody says that, they shiver and look around nervously. Blofeld activates his trick bridge and feeds Helga Brandt to the piranhas! Ouch!)
Tiger Tanaka starts training a ninja army for the eventual assault on the bad guys, and he also has a plan for a better reconnaissance on the island: Bond will become Japanese, have a fake marriage with one of Tanaka's agents who is from Ama Island, and he will be able to find the location of the secret base.
The plan has a flaw: Sean Connery does not look Japanese. They perform some cosmetic surgery, dye his hair black, and dress him up as a fisherman … and he still doesn’t look Japanese. Well, as long as he keeps his head down, nobody will notice. And nobody does.
This is kinda dumb. It's not a fatal dumbness, though. They find the secret base pretty quickly, so there isn't a whole lot of time for the rumors to spread across the island about the big Japanese guy who looks like Sean Connery. I can deal with it.
However, before they go to Ama Island, tragedy strikes! One of the bad guys is hiding in the rafters when Aki and Bond are asleep, and he lowers some fishing line or string or something until it's almost touching Bond's lips! Then, he puts a tiny drop of poison on the fishing line and it slowly slides down, down, down, until … at the last moment, he rolls over and Aki moves over just as the poison drips off into her mouth. She dies quickly, and Bond throws something and takes out the bad guy, but it's too late for Aki.
Bond gets over it pretty quickly, the cad, and he's ready to marry Mie Hama on Ama island. She's pretty cute too. She was in King King v. Godzilla and What’s Up, Tiger Lily? with Akiko, and she was also in King Kong Escapes. The DVD has a short feature about the making of You Only Live Twice that says the two actresses were taken to Britain for several weeks before filming began to learn English well enough for the movie. The producers decided that Mie wasn't working out because she wasn't learning English fast enough, but when they told her she would be sent back to Japan, she started crying and said she would kill herself! (Would she be dishonoring her family if she wasn't good enough to be in a Bond film?) Well, the producers felt bad and kept her on, but they switched the actresses: Akiko was supposed to be the girl who married Bond on the island, and Mie was supposed to be the girl in the Toyota 2000.
Bond and Mie (playing Kissy Suzuki) make a good team and they quickly find out that the bad guys are hiding inside a volcano. The ninja army is called in and Blofeld's plan to provoke a nuclear war which SPECTRE would use for its own ends is foiled. The volcano blows up, and Bond and Mie end up in an inflatable raft in the Sea of Japan.
The free world is saved! Huzzah!
How can you not love this movie? The only thing that bothers me is: Did Blofeld’s cat escape? I worry about that every time I see You Only Live Twice. I mean, the poor cat wasn't evil. (Well, not any more evil that a regular cat.) I hope he got out OK.
Next: Casino Royale is too much … for one James Bond!