Tuesday, 10 May 2011

BlogalongaBond #5 - You Only Live Twice (1967)

(Here is a link to a revised version of my IMDb review of You Only Live Twice, May 2003)

The You Only Live Twice OST LP cover
The BlogalongaBond project has been bowled one or two googlies already. No sooner had the idea got traction than John Barry died, and then earlier this month Angela Scoular, an actor in Bonds both official and spoof was reported to have taken her own life.

These are indelible, sobering hiatuses to anyone with any interest in the Bond franchise at its broadest, let alone franchise aficionados. Such fantasy/reality ruptures affect not only those who study the music or performers seriously, but also those who are aware of the ephemeral, galvanising power of the cultural phenomenon of the series. Naturally, the personal sadness of these events is that which has the power to unite all this unwitting diaspora - as well as those with no interest in the films whatsoever.

Trying to read (I've been reading the source material novels in tandem with viewing the films) and watch You Only Live Twice at exactly the moment that Japan suffered a biblically-propotioned tragedy two months ago may seem something of a stretch in this respect. After all, whereas the composer and actor referred to above had their careers significantly affected or defined by their involvement with the comparative trifle of the franchise, the long, rich cultural history of Japan was, conversely, doing Bond a favour by allowing him to work out one of his episodes on its soil (and of course, the scale of the cumulative personal tragedies defies comparison).

However, it's true that a global cultural phenomenon, which is what the Bond franchise had become by the time of this, the fifth film, has a strange telescopic power, the ability to concentrate attention and to fix people and place in time. The vicarious experience of Japan that we have in the West is significantly informed by populist pieces like You Only Live Twice. Consequently, at moments such as the natural disaster visited upon the shores and so people of Japan, such a film (and, indeed, the novel) make up some of the ephemera with which one frames a personal reflection on the situation.

The volcano from the film
But here's the double-blow, and I know I must be delicate here but I think it's worth careful consideration. You Only Live Twice, film and book, is particularly concerned with death, where pursuit and annihilation of the antagonist involves journeying across the inhospitable, volcanic landscape of the Japanese coast. The Stygian allegory, woven from the violent, faceless terrain in the Fleming-Broccoli fantasy turns uncomfortably familiar reality in recent fact.

Yet there is a simple but important disconnect. Fleming's novel of 1964 is a disparaging, occasionally racist work. Even accounting for the generally nihilist climate of the tale (Blofeld, on the run having set Bond existentially adrift by murdering his wife, is also listless, having taken to manufacturing fatal toxins almost as a hobby) the book is fixated by the alleged national obsession with honour and its demonic partner suicide. This is emphatically not the cultural impression one gets from the film.

In fact, the film shows a modern, sophisticated Japan. Ken Adam's designs for Osato's office and Tanaka's underground HQ & train are entirely believable. The port is an up-to-date hub of industry, not a Junk harbour. There is a reference to Fleming's impression of Japanese cruelty as Bond is taken to be tortured - but his assailant becomes the only Cold War figure, Karin Dor's East German henchwoman Helga Brandt. If the film has a genuine failing then, for me it's in the central section in which Bond is assimilated into parochial Japanese culture, partly as a way of introducing the idea of the martial arts. It becomes boring, drifting from its thriller tracks and trying too hard to ingratiate itself by reproducing a hackneyed Japan, rather like trying to capture something of the now-stale sense of the book. It also gives Connery's Bond his least flattering hairpiece.

No, the film isn't a meditation on the existential desert of the hitman and his insane quarry, as Fleming's is. Indeed, practically speaking it can't be - the novel's predecessor, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, was yet to be made so the back story of Bond losing his wife had to be excised in its entirety. You Only Live Twice becomes a gripping, almost exotic thriller pitched just inside the believable boundary of science fiction, effevescent with the growing 1960s sense of progression and possibility. The women are no longer the passive butt of jokes (or simply butt) but combative field agents. The camera takes off on occasion to invest the moving image with a fresh dimension of dynamism - an aerial view of the port fight and a mobile tracking shot of the fight in the basin of the volcano lair are the most memorable. Even the title song (with the titles design, a masterpiece) is trusted to the de jour-cultishness of Nancy Sinatra, instead of the populist operatics of Bassey/Jones or their ilk.

Perhaps above all, the film loves Japan, glorying in all manner of wide shots that make the very most of the locations. Telescoping between the drama of the foreign vista and the face, the traditional and the new, the global and the individual, the film is rarely barren or broody like the book. It's arguably one of the very best of the franchise overall and an overwhelmingly optimistic panacea to the heartbreak of television pictures with which one was confronted just prior to seeing it for this blog post.


The Incredible Suit said...

Amazing. Heartfelt, sensitive and bang on the money. Thank you.

Framescourer said...

Thanks suit.