I’d never watched this before and inwardly groaned, preparing for 1967 colonialism and othering tropes a plenty. But this is a Bond with a difference — he is the other, the stranger in the midst and this theme is played with throughout the film. Even in the Nancy Sinatra title song.
The plot is preposterous, the setting modernist and impressive. The sets are gorgeously stylish, complete with teams of coloured-costumed minions and a mono-rail. Rather than othering when the film heads to Hong Kong and Japan, it celebrates both tradition and modernism — in the traveloguey way of its time.
Technology is made much of here as we’re in space for part of the story and Blofeld has many a screen to observe his dastardly plans working through. Then there’s also spying from above with portable Little Nellie (and her father). Though it is not perfect — there is a moment of cringe when Bond and his companion in espionage Tiger Tanaka (Testurô Tanba) are bathed by women in ‘traditional’ style. Yet, simultaneously, going a bit Skyfall — will Bond run off with Tiger instead?
Overall, Sean Connery’s Bond is very much the eye candy here and frequently put into the role of ‘Bond girl’, rescued and protected by Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). Aki and Bond make a terrific team — she roars up in her delightfully sporty Toyota 2000GT convertible to sweep Bond off from danger at significant moments in the plot. They fight together, for a time, in searching out a warehouse location and it is Aki who makes the ultimate sacrifice — sleepily ingesting poison meant for Bond. Both smart and stylish (and an impressive runner), Aki literally gives Bond a run for his money.
With terrific pacing, the film jumps between locations — space, Hong Kong and Japan. Some of our astronauts are missing — and it is up to Bond to find out why, probably before the Cold War gets colder — and nuclear. There are also nefarious industrialists. Mimicking 2001: A Space Odyssey, an astronaut is left adrift in space as others are snapped up by ‘alien’ vessels. Austin Powers has quite done for me here and I can only see Dr Evil, such is the power of Mike Myers sniggersome homage. Be that as it may Donald Pleasance makes a fantastic villain as Blofeld, with all the menace and Bond villain quirks in one. He also has the ultimate Bond villain accessories — swivel chair, big screens, teams of Andre Courrèges look-alikes, a pool with a button operated bridge and a white fluffy cat. The cat is a feature in itself — note it being very, very unhappy as the base explodes in the background and Blofeld carries it calmly to the escape pod. (Where it appears to ditch everyone).
There is also the infamous Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) who scampers around a mountainous island in a Ursula Andress style bikini — and frankly deserves an award for this. She climbs up and down mountains, swims, evades being shot at by a helicopter and escapes an exploding base — in a bikini. She does, at one point, get a small cover-up — but kudos to her for doing all this practical espionage work in minimal clothing!
Thankfully her name never really gets mentioned and she rebuts sexism — ‘marrying’ Bond and being likened to having ‘face of pig’. We learn that’s she’s convivial — greeting local people, a trusted confidant, having a friend who cooks for them, and is mourning loss — both her parents are dead. (Perhaps recent World War Two history is hinted at here, the focus of the movie is very much on rebuilt Japan). Ofcourse she isn’t hideous — and as a fellow agent, keeps Bond in his place.
Rather than racist imperialism, the plot is merely absurd. A tall Scotsman is ‘transformed’ into a ‘Japanese’ man, ‘marries’ an island girl and scouts out a cave full of gas, which is the secret concealed entrance to Blofeld’s layer. (Men want to be him, women want to marry him is an ongoing theme here). And then there’s a volcano base with a fake lake top leading to a helicopter. pad and lots of screens and computers…and kidnapped astronauts..and rockets - (and a convenient mono-rail car for Bond to hide on).
Roald Dahl’s script ramps up the fun and silliness of Bond. The action is fast paced, matched by Freddie Young’s terrific cinematography — such as a lone Bond fighting off everyone on a roof top, a cultural object destroying fight, a shoot-out around pillars or a screechily fast car chase. Instead of othering or being sexist, it’s mostly ridiculous — a villain hides in a modernist volcano base creating havoc amongst the world powers, agents infiltrate fishing villages, Bond penetrates the base as a climbing frogman and everything ends with a massive explosion, and for some, a sticky end in a piranha filled pool. Mono rail drivers and police never look under tarp or behind doors! Bond drily puns away throughout. Although he can never evade authority for long as he’s ‘found’ by a British submarine in a satisfyingly over-the-top ending.
In rebuffing imperialism and cultural boorishness, we have a refined and cultured Bond. He doesn’t need Moneypenny’s helpful beginners guide to Japanese, having studied oriental languages at Cambridge. Clearly socially and culturally literate, he appreciates Saki served at the correct temperature. He even appears to appreciate cultural traditions — removing shoes as he enters a room, using indigenous language, watching sumo wrestling. Rather than a blinkered Bond, this suave Bond is outward looking, positively embracing different cultural and social groups and sophisticatedly engaging in equal terms, rather than shouting loudly in English. Noteworthy too is how many actual Asian people are on the screen in significant roles — there is very limited yellowface here. For a change, the Asian actresses are less sexualised than normal — if anything, Bond is the one who is sexualised — and almost treated like an ornament. There are the unfortunate bikini clad ‘serving’ masseuses/spa workers, but comparatively, there are less stereotypes and racist tropes than I’d expected to find. Starting with Bond’s ‘death’, this movie is also here for you if you do think Bond is sexist and racist, allowing a revenge moment!
Very much enjoyed the volcano base announcer (essentially providing a count-down and ongoing monologue for a rocket launch), with his big moment of ‘stop the astronaut!’ and later getting everyone to flee the base! Moneypenny and Bond have some lovely banter too. Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) also made a fun and dynamic female villain. In her mission for information, she glamorously seeks to seduce/smother Bond and then annihilate him, parachuting out of a pilot-less plane, leaving him trapped inside. Frequently shot applying lipstick, you have to wonder if it contains truth-telling properties (or is merely product placement)? Her ending — dispatched into the piranha pool — seems unfair and arbitrary, I’m not sure how or why the chemical baron got to survive. Though she missed her mark, she seemed to have done her job. Justice for Helga!
To conclude, whilst Bond has garnered a reputation as sexist, misogynist, racist, colonialist dinosaur over 60–70 years, You Only Live Twice disproves this and is well worth a watch.