After becoming a household name in the course of just four movies, it was decided that the franchise would be taken one step further; this time to the far East.
Broccoli and Saltzman had wanted to adapt On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ever since they’d wrapped production on Goldfinger, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shoot Thunderball; which was a book they’d wanted to adapt since the very beginning, but couldn’t, because of the rights issues the book was tied into at the time. This time around it wasn’t possible either, because of the lack of suitable Winter locations to shoot the movie.
You Only Live Twice seemed like a good alternative, but it was a choice that would bring its fair share of problems.
The next Bond movie was due to be released on 23rd of June, which proved to be something of a problem, as the producers found themselves behind schedule, and without a writer and director to helm the project. Albert Broccoli thought it a good idea to offer the role of director to Lewis Gilbert, who was primarily known for directing small, low budget, character pieces, and who’d gained some notoriety for directing Alfie, which turned Michael Caine into a household name that very same year. Gilbert was reluctant to accept the role as he didn’t think he was suited for the material, but Broccoli made him change his mind about it. He, nevertheless insisted in bringing along his Cinematographer Freddy Young, who was renown for his work for David Lean in both Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Next step was to get someone to pen the script. The job fell on children’s writer Roald Dahl, who had no credit as a screenplay writer, but knew Ian Fleming, and was familiar with his work.
Having overcome those hurdles, it was time to get back some of the old faces who’d worked in the previous movies. Actors Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewellyn as Q were some of the familiar faces who were coming back to the fold, along with Production Designer Ken Adam, Peter Hunt; who, on this occasion, filled the role of Supervising Editor and Second Unit Director, Special Effects Supervisor John Stears, Composer John Barry, and Title Sequence creator Maurice Binder. Sean Connery was returning as James Bond, but the unprecedented media pressure to what he was being subjected during the shoot in Japan, and the fact that he was terminating his contract, made him consider abandoning the role, and moving on to something else.
Before the pre-production on the project started, producers Albert Broccoli, Harry Saltzman, Production Designer Ken Adam and Director Lewis Gilbert flew to Japan to scout for suitable locations where to shoot the movie. Broccoli hired an expert Helicopter pilot to fly them around the country, and they managed to explore 2/3 of the country in three weeks. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any of the locations described by Fleming in his book. The villain in the book, who as in the film, turns out to be Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, lives in a Japanese castle by the sea. They couldn’t find anything like it. What they did find where some striking looking volcanic formations on one of the islands, and viewing the size of some of the volcanic craters from the air, it was decided on the spot, by both Broccoli and Adam, that it would be an interesting idea to have Bloefeld’s lair inside a hollowed-out volcanic crater. That decision would turn into one of the most amazing Set Design feats in Cinema.
To play the part of Bloefeld, the producers had chosen Jan Werich, a Czech actor who didn’t quite fit the requirements that Gilbert was looking for, and after five days working on set, the decision was made to replace him for American actor Donald Pleasance. His proved to be a more threatening presence, even if his role in the movie is quite short. Being as it was a movie that takes places primarily in Japan, the idea was to cast professional actors from the country, and while the producers lucked out when it came to casting the Head of the Japanese Secret Service, “Tiger” Tanaka, who would be played by famous Cinema and TV actor; Tetsuro Tamba, who’d previously worked with Gilbert, and Teru Shimada as Mr Osato, one of Bloefeld’s minions; they wouldn’t be so fortunate when it came to the female casting. The producers couldn’t find an actress with enough experience; or knowledge of English, for that matter, to play the parts of Japanese secret agent Aki, or that of Kissy Suzuki; with whom Bond pretends to get married to go undercover as a humble Japanese fisherman on a small island where he suspects SPECTRE’s base of operations is. The casting director finally chose two actresses; Akiko Wakabayashi, who was going to play the part of Kissy Suzuki; and Mie Hama, who was going to play the part of Aki. Both girls were taken to England so they could rapidly learn to speak sufficient English to play their respective roles, and while Akiko proved to be quite adept at learning fast, the same could not be said about Mie Hama. Hama was informed by Gilbert, through Tetsuro Tamba; who acted as a sort of spiritual father to all the Japanese actors in the film, that she would be returning to Japan. Under the threat of suicide by the actress, the producers agreed that something could be done with her, but her role was reversed with Akiko’s, and she’d end up playing the part of Kissy Suzuki instead, as her lines of dialogue and time on screen were less. For the part of the “bad” Bond girl, the producers went with German actress Karin Dor to play the role of SPECTRE agent number 11, Helga Brandt. The lack of a work permit to work in the UK meant that she almost didn’t get the role. Regrettably, her presence on screen is way too brief.
The fun starts
The movie was shot on location in Japan with the cast and crew even taking over a Japanese castle to set up a Ninja training school, an island off the coast of Japan; which doubles as the small fishing village where Bond goes undercover, an underground train station that serves as the entrance to Tanaka’s underground Headquaters, Kobe Docks; which serves as the place where Bond finds the location of the Ming Po, and where the dockside fist and gunfight ensues, and some amazing exterior locations for the establishing shots of the volcano area where Bloefeld’s secret lair is hidden. This is the area where the crew attempted to shoot the aerial battle between Little Nellie; Bond’s retrofitted Gyrocopter, and Bloefeld’s squadron of helicopters. Unfortunately, due to an accident during shooting in which one of the aerial cameraman, John Jordan, was injured; the scene had to be postponed, and shot later on in Andalucia, over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, in Spain. Other scenes were shot on location in Gibraltar Harbour, Gibraltar, for Bond’s fake sea burial at the beginning of the movie, in the Bahamas; for the scene in which a couple of scuba divers pick up Bond’s wrapped up body from the bottom of the ocean, and off the coast of Bermuda; for the scene at the end where life rafters are thrown off the back of military aircraft to rescue Bond and his army of Ninjas.
The bulk of the sets, however, were built as always in Pinewood Studios. Amazing sets like Tanaka’s underground Headquaters, the NASA control room, the high-tech Japanese operating room; where Bond undergoes his physical operation to transform him into a humble Japanese fisherman…All of these, however, pale in comparison to the set design tour de force that was the recreation of Bloefeld’s underground volcanic crater lair. It was a feat of engineering, the likes of which had never been seen in British Cinema. The set was humongous, and occupied an entire soundstage. It even had a life replica of the Space Rocket that could be lifted out of the set using wires attached to a crane to simulate it being launched into Space. Even the retractable crater ceiling was a working prop that would open using a winch attached to steel cables. They even built a monorail track with carts that could move around the set!.
Bob Simmons, was again, the stunt coordinator for the show. Not only did he plan out and execute most of Connery’s fights in the movie; like the one between Bond and one of Sato’s henchmen in Sato’s office, but he also coordinated with the team of Japanese stunt men, especially brought over from Japan to act as Tanaka’s Ninja fight force in the movie’s climax. These were skillfully trained Martial artists that showcased some very innovative fighting styles and choreographies when it came to the action sequences. John Stears also threw everything but the kitchen sink at the scene, making use of some very spectacular pyrotechnics for the end of the movie. Even though the movie has lots of action set pieces, it’s not especially loaded with gadgets. The “Little Nellie” aerial fight scene was the exception to the rule. This retrofitted Gyrocopter was the brainchild of RAF Commander Ken Wallis, who accepted Broccoli’s offer to go to Japan and fly the Gyrocopter for them in the aerial fight sequence. Adam would, of course, make some changes to it; fitting it with all manner of machine guns and missile launchers, even giving it a new yellow and white paint job that would make it look like a bee.
You Only Live Twice is a fun movie. It was the first of three directed by Lewis Gilbert, and often considered one of the best. It is certainly a more entertaining and better paced movie than Thunderball. It’s got a very well put together script, and the action set pieces are even better than those from the previous movies; which is saying something. It’s got a wonderful score by John Barry; one of his most inspired and lyrical. The Wedding scene music is especially beautiful, with its enchanting oriental notes. A side note to the title song sung by Nancy Sinatra; one of the best and most recognizable of the entire series. It makes very good use of the Japanese exterior locations, giving the entire thing a travelogue feel. Ken Adam went far and beyond, delivering some truly remarkable sets. Connery plays the part effortlessly by this point. Not much else that could be improved there. As for the rest of the actors; it is unfortunate that most of them don’t get to shine as much as they should. Some of them; like Karin Dor, Teru Shimada, or even Donald Pleseance seem kind of wasted, in my opinion. This wasn’t the case with all the villains in the previous movies like Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger, Adolfo Celli’s Largo, or even Luciana Paluzzi’s Viona Volpe; in my opinion one of the best “bad” Bond girls of the franchise. Not even the Bond girls in this movie are that remarkable. Their lack of acting skills shows in more than one occasion. The same cannot be said about Tetsuro Tamba, who glides through the movie on pure charisma. Another gripe that I have with this movie is Connery’s silly Japanese makeover. The thing is so ludicrous and far-fetched, that not even harfcore Bond fans can swallow that one. A disguise that, “magically dissapears” as soon as Bond enters Bloefeld’s lair. All in all, a fun, entertaining and colourful entry to the series.
Thanks for reading.