You Only Live Twice (Ultimate Edition) Review

Do you know what the main problem with CGI is? It isn’t real. Not the most insightful observation you’ll ever read on DVDTimes, but true nonetheless, and one I always find difficult to get past. The fact that much of what one sees in big effects movies these days is almost totally artificial always, I find, detracts from the spectacle on offer, with the result that the images on screen have the exact opposite effect on me than intended, making them seem less extraordinary rather than more. The battle scenes in Lord of the Rings? Meh. The Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter? Shrug. Virtually everything in the Star Wars prequels? Yawn. That's why the epics of yore, the Ben Hurs and Lawrence of Arabias and so on, always enthrall far more, the idea that what's being seen on screen is actually there. That tangibility makes a film seem more alive, more vital, and less calculated somehow. It's also one of the things that made pre-CGI Bonds so special, the idea that that car really is turning three hundred and sixty degrees over that bridge, that that chap really is skiing off the edge into the abyss. Sadly it seems these moments will become increasingly rare, if Die Another Day is anything to go by, and, as the now infamous wind-surfing moment proves, it's not necessarily a step in the right direction. (DAD was a disaster on pretty much every front anyway, but that was, if you will, the icing on the glacier). True, for the superior entries in the 007 franchise, these "real" stunts are one of the many highlights - as the Bond author Raymond Benson puts it, there’s always at least one moment in a Bond film that will make you draw your breath - but for the lesser films, like You Only Live Twice (hereafter to be known as YOLT) it’s their saving grace. YOLT is a deeply flawed film, the least successful Bond in quality made up to that point, but its redemption lies in the spectacle offered, its scale and grandeur, topped off by the extraordinary SPECTRE base set by Ken Adams. Nowadays, YOLT would be completely unremarkable on every level. But back then, it's a film that manages, by its very size, to overcome its many problems and establish itself as one of the most iconic Bond films of them all.

Originally, the fifth film in the series was going to be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, for reasons not readily apparent, considered that novel’s plot too similar to the last film made, Thunderball. Instead they changed it to YOLT, the penultimate novel Fleming wrote, a decision that proved a key moment in determining the development of the Bond franchise over the next decade and, arguably, beyond. The problem for screenwriter Roald Dahl (replacing regular Bond-scribe Richard Maibaum who was unavailable) was that Fleming’s book is a direct follow-up to OHMSS, and sees Bond looking for Blofeld to exact revenge for the killing of his wife. One of the best novels, it has a dark, dour atmosphere with an obsession on mortality that reflects Fleming’s own state of health (he wrote it after his first heart attack) but not one that would easily translate to the screen, especially given the problem cinema audiences hadn’t actually seen Bond’s wedding. To get over this, the decision was made to ditch virtually everything from the book, with Dahl receiving the instructions that he could do anything he liked with the film as long as it was set in Japan and featured the villain's lair being in a volcano. It’s frustrating to think how things might have been if OHMSS had been made first; we could have seen a movie franchise maturing, as the books did, instead of the descent into juvenilia that it did over the next few films - with the honourable, and ironic exception, of OHMSS itself - and sadly the rot started here.

Dahl, who confessed he had only seen one Bond film before his commission (“the one with the crazy motorcar” as he described it), decided to go hell for leather. Almost entirely ignoring the relatively sober approaches of the first two films, he took the “crazy” aspects of Goldfinger and Thunderball and magnified them, creating an action-packed spectacle rather than a sensible movie narrative, positively relishing the freedom Bond seemed to offer for mad set pieces and outlandish events. The plot, such as it is, sees naughty old Blofeld and SPECTRE being engaged by China (not specified on screen but plainly insinuated) to provoke war between the United States and the USSR by hijacking first one and then the other nations' spaceships and making it appear as though each was to blame for the other’s disappearance. He does this by launching his own rocket from his volcano base in Japan (a place none of the countries involved think likely to be causing trouble), a rocket that physically swallows the country’s space vessel whole before returning it to the base. Bond, acting on a tip-off, heads to Japan and teams up with the head of the Japanese Secret Service “Tiger” Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) to find out what’s going on and attempt to avert WWIII. All very relevant, given that in reality in 1967 the Space Race was nearing its climax.

It’s a film that is alternatively brilliant and terrible. This paradox is well shown in the first few minutes; the pre-titles sequence, in which the first ship is captured and then Bond is apparently killed, is the weakest in the series thus far, but then along comes the sumptuous title sequence. Master designer Maurice Binder create a marvellously atmospheric introduction, rich with oriental suggestion and tradition which lays the scene for the film perfectly. These visuals are complemented by John Barry’s wonderful music and title song, sang by Nancy Sinatra. Arguably the best Bond score ever, it is in turn quietly sensual and expansively epic, exactly what a Bond score should be, tinged with the eastern influence and positively saturated with emotional ambience. It’s seductive music designed to get the pulse racing and it does just that; in the many mediocre moments that follow, it lends a gravity and credibility to scenes which would otherwise fall completely flat.

That Oriental flavour is used to full effect during the film's first half. One of the strengths of the original novels is what some critics refer to as “the Fleming Sweep,” his ability to evoke the atmosphere and culture of an exotic locale, and at times YOLT feels like the most blatant attempt yet to capture that essence, at the expense of a rational or logical plot. The screenplay is full of longueurs designed purely, it appears, to show off an aspect of Japanese life that would intrigue western audiences. A lengthy sequence at a Sumo match, for example, feels like so much padding while the scene in which Bond pretends to get married to a local girl to blend in is utterly pointless, an excuse for a quick gag at the character’s expense and a showcase of oriental fashion which has no bearing on the plot at all (not least of which because the wife in question appears to blow the cover in the very next scene in which she refuses to sleep with Bond, despite the fact all the villagers they are meant to be fooling can see plainly their domestic arrangements.) But, as with so much else in this schizophrenic film, this weakness can also be seen as a strength. Cinematographer Freddie Young, David Lean’s regular collaborator who had just won an Oscar for Dr Zhivago, manages to capture the full flavour of Japanese life, from the gaudy, neon-lit nightlife in downtown Tokyo through to the dignified splendour of its ancient buildings and verdant beauty of the country complete with its string of ancient volcanoes (Bond says at one point, “There’s nothing here but volcanoes,” but that actually comes as a recommendation). In one of the extras on this disk, Alan Whicker pops up for a tour around the set; the famous sightseer couldn’t have provided a more attractive or appealing travelogue of the country himself.

It’s just as well it looks as good as it does because there’s precious little else to distract one’s attention in the first hour. As implied, the screenplay is pretty terrible, full of plot holes you could pilot a rocket through. I have in front of me three pages full of scribbled questions I made while watching the film again for this review, but as it would be tedious to list them all, here’s just a random sample: Who is filming the footage of the helicopter carrying the villain’s car by magnet, the feed of which Bond and girl agent Aki are watching? Why don’t the two main SPECTRE lackeys of the film, Mr Osato (Teru Shimada) and Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) recognise Bond on first meeting him, given his picture was in all the papers following his faked murder? And, for that matter, why does Helga adopt such a ridiculously convoluted way to kill Bond off? (The excuse this is a Bond film doesn’t cut any ice here). What’s the point of disguising Bond as Japanese (and I’ve seen drag artists with more convincing disguises) when, it seems, he can be recognised anyway, for shortly after the operation he’s set upon by an assassin? And where did that assassin come from anyway? And so on, and so forth. Much of the film consists of dull plodding around as Bond and Tanaka slowly piece together what the rest of us know already and, despite a couple of inspired moments - the car magnet, the fight on the rooftop at the docks - it's all a bit perfunctory and tedious. There’s the occasional moment that reminds one this is a Dahl-written piece - such as Bond agent Henderson’s aside about the doorman at the Russian Embassy - but sadly his more subversive side is completely missing. At the half way mark, the film is struggling.

But then comes the reveal of the volcano lair, the film’s saving grace. It is, in a word, magnificent, an immense achievement and one symbolic of the decision Broccoli and Saltzman seemed to be making even as they watched events unfold on set, that is to stuff fidelity to their source material and just give the audience an extravaganza of the first order. When Ken Adam designed it he wondered whether he’d gone mad. When he showed his designs to others they wondered whether he’d gone mad as well. When he told the producers how much it would cost - one million dollars, a full third of the budget - they didn’t blink once and just told him if he believed he could do it go ahead. (There’s a legend that he only got away with it because those he showed the designs to believed his measurements were in feet, not meters). And he did believe he could, and he did, and it works. It more than works, it’s awesome in that word’s literal sense. Even on the small screen one can feel its scale, its size, its ambition, its achievement. The first time director Lewis Gilbert reveals it to his audience, it gathers collective gasps - when we see tiny little people scampering around at its base, we know that they are really there in this gigantic structure. That monorail system - it actually works! That helicopter landing there, it actually is a helicopter and it actually is landing there! Those ninjas abseiling in - they really are dropping from that height! (Well, okay, they’re not ninjas but Richard Graydon and his regular stunt team, as the ninjas, bless them, got scared of the height). When it blows up at the end, it really is blowing up! (And see those villains flying about under the force of the explosions? One of the first uses of trampolines for such stunts, there). This is the place that makes the film memorable, and iconic. It set the standard for all future villain’s bases, even more so than the earlier prototype of Dr No’s base which is to this what Agent Cody Banks is to Mr Bond himself. It makes everything that has gone before seem worthwhile. How Adam wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, let alone win one, for this I have no idea - I imagine the BAFTA nomination (nomination mind, not win) was scant consolation.

Sadly, the dragon at the heart of this lair is not nearly as awe-inspiring as his surroundings. The reveal of Blofeld in all his glory, after the tease of earlier films, was an important moment for the film, and the makers manage to make an almost farcical mess of it. Donald Pleasance wasn’t the actor originally cast in the role; Czech actor Jan Werich was, and accounts differ as to why he was replaced, with the official reason being ill health. Whatever the truth, replaced he was, by a figure who comes across not so much as a criminal mastermind but rather an old, petulant version of Billy Bunter, one with a peculiar line in exotic pets. It says something about the lack of dignity Pleasance brings to the part that a comedian like Mike Myers is able to spin an entire film franchise out of his characterisation (and, to be fair, out of the rest of the film), and it’s difficult to know what’s worse: his complete lack of authority, his comically exaggerated make-up, complete with silly monocle and melodramatic scar, or the fact he’s possibly the only actor in the history of film who manages to give an absurdly over-the-top performance while speaking in a monotone. That James Bond’s nemesis - the man who, despite subsequent events, effectively manages to destroy Bond when he kills his wife - should be portrayed like this makes me cross to this day, and I don’t want to think about it any more. Thank goodness he isn’t actually in it for very long.

But then this is a film full of disappointing characterisation. Blofeld’s two underlings Osato and Helga Brandt, who for the vast majority of the film carry the weight of responsibility as prime baddies, are both unmemorable and, worse, unthreatening. If Blofeld is extreme, they are trivial, and seem like small fry even before the revelation of the volcano and their monocled boss. Brandt is just a rerun of Fiona Volpe from the previous film (although, to be fair to Dahl, this is just part of the Bond formula the producers insisted on) and Dor’s playing of her is neither seductive nor manipulative enough to be noteworthy. Shimada as Osato is just as bad, a man who has no discernable personality at all - surely the greatest crime a Bond villain can commit. It’s not just the villains who let the side down, either: the leading man does as well. Connery was in a grumpy mood throughout the making of the picture, bored of the character and aggravated in the extreme by press intrusion during his time in Japan, and just wanted to be done with the whole thing and move on from Bond. This comes across on screen with a lacklustre performance lacking the sparkle of his former adventures, only coming to life once at the rage of the death of his amour Aki. This leaves, almost by default, the best of the male principals being Tamba, a noted actor who, while not setting the screen alight here, does infuse his character with an amused twinkle in his eye, making it seem like he’d be a much more fun boss to have in the secret service than old M.

The two Bond girls, too, aren’t among the series greats, and indeed their their off-screen antics proved far more entertaining than anything they do in character. When the Japanese actresses Akibo Wakabayashi (Aki) and Mie Hama (Kissy) were cast they spoke not a word of English so were flown over to Britain to soak themselves in the culture and hopefully pick up enough of the lingo to get by. Wakabayashi quickly picked things up but Hama struggled, so much so that the producers began to have serious doubts about her suitability and decided to recast her. It would be fair to say that Hama did not take kindly to this, and promptly threatened to throw herself off the nearest tall building rather than return in dishonour to Japan. Suddenly it turned out that maybe she would be rather good for the film after all, but would she possibly mind, once she came down from the roof, if it wasn’t too much trouble to her, if they swapped her character with Wakabayashi’s, possibly? Originally Hama would have played Aki but, as it was a far more dialogue-intensive role it was felt Wakabayashi’s command of the language would be more suitable. Thankfully Hama decided this was acceptable and so all was resolved peacefully, with minimum splatter on the London pavement. As it turns out the recasting works well: Wakabayashi makes an attractive lead for much of the film and, despite Connery’s indifference to the production of a whole, builds up a reasonably good chemistry with the actor, so much so one is rather saddened at her untimely end. Hama doesn’t get that much to do, is fine for what she is, but is realistically just another actor in the production who fades from memory very quickly after the final credits have rolled.

Threatened suicide wasn’t the only near-death new director Lewis Gilbert had to contend with on a notoriously troubled production. Aerial photographer John Jordan was badly injured in an accident while filming the Little Nellie fight sequence, eventually losing his foot. (Although Jordan made a full recovery otherwise, and subsequently contributed to OHMSS, he died in another freak accident while making Catch-22 two years later). Together with a stroppy lead and the swift recasting of Blofeld, coupled with the scale of the picture he was faced with, it all conspired to make a tricky Bondian debut for the director, who had just come off a far more low-key hit with Alfie. Still, he makes a good job of it, making some sensible decisions (most notably the hiring of Young) and doesn’t make a mess of the big sequences, taking particular advantage of Adam’s set. That said, his only truly innovative contribution is the rooftop chase, in which, instead of focusing tightly on Bond’s set-to with assorted heavies, he chooses to fly the camera right out to give a panoramic view of Bond’s escape, one of the few truly memorable moments in the film. Gilbert obviously enjoyed working on this film, as he virtually remade it with Moore’s Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me, a film with many striking similarities with YOLT, as well as going on to make Moonraker, another film which preferred spectacle to narrative success. Gilbert’s work epitomises the excesses of the Bond franchise, and he lays the groundwork here. Whether you like or loathe the style of his three films, you can’t help but admit he gives Bond much of his bigscreen baggage, with large action set pieces and exotic locales replacing coherence.

And that’s really what appreciation of this film comes down to: how do you like your Bond? Do you prefer the more literal incarnation of the hero, as seen in From Russia With Love, Oh Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights or are you one who likes his Bond to come with a cheeky wink, a witty one-liner and fisticuffs and explosions every ten minutes? YOLT is arguably the first overt outing for this latter version of the character, an outing in which Bond becomes merely a catalyst around which thrilling things happen. It’s not a version easily dismissed either; there is much entertainment to be had from allowing yourself to sit back and just allow the nonsense to wash over you in a tidal wave of visceral pleasure, rather than sitting forward - as, er, I did - and making a note of every little plot inconsistency. This is a film designed to appeal to the senses rather than intellect, the heart rather than the brain. It’s daft, silly, fundamentally rubbish but lots of fun at the same time. It’s a very strange dichotomy, in which every flaw - the weak performances, the paltry plot - is counteracted by something fantastic, such as the film’s score and the Japanese setting. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it now (when I was little it was my favourite Connery, and as such I used to be able to recite much of it word perfectly) and I still can’t decide whether its positives outweigh its negatives or the other way round. It’s far better than most of the Seventies films, not in the same class as the true greats, but still emerges as one of the most iconic Bonds in the franchise. Curious.

The Disks
The film is presented in its uncut format in the original 2.35:1 format.

The menus are extremely stylish. Featuring a background that mixes up a typical Binder opening sequence with a techno-chrome finish, complete with silhouetted girls and guns rolling by, they capture a perfect Bond atmosphere which, together with the movie’s soundtrack accompaniment, put one in the mood for the film immediately, as do the clips that run in gun-barrel-shaped logos that drift slowly across the screen. Each menu has its own entrance motif, from an X-Ray shot of a bullet entering the barrel of a gun through to the world itself, being danced on by, of course, another female. Disk One holds the film itself and commentary, Disk Two all other extras.

More pictures from the menus can be found here.

Gorgeous, as one might expect. Although the strained palate would never lead one to believe this is a movie filmed last week, it is still far brighter and more vivid than previous editions, and the transfer only has compression difficulties in some of the skylines, which aren't quite as smooth as a perfect image would demand. Detail at a distance is still a bit blurry as well but, other than that, fantastic.

Now here's a problem: there's no original Mono soundtrack. Sure, the new DTS sounds great, but that's not quite the point is it? Surely an Ultimate Edition - ie, one which includes everything a connoisseur of said film would wish for - would include the original track? For anyone not a purist about such matters this is a nice track, although curiously the enhancements only help to emphasise the extensive dubbing in the picture, which is not necessarily a benefit. I didn't find the problems here quite as bad as those Eamonn reports on Thunderball but it's certainly a distraction at times and takes one out of the moment.

For the purpose of clarity, I've divided the Extras on the disk into New Extras and Old Extras, the latter, obviously, having previously appeared on the SE DVD of the film. The extras have been divided up into certain subsections, namely Declassified: MI6 Vault, 007 Mission Control, Image Database, Mission Dossier and Ministry of Propaganda and are delineated accordingly below.

All extras are subtitled.

New Extras

Declassified: MI6 Vault

Ken Adam’s Production Diaries (13:57) “When I look back at it I think I must have been slightly crazy to try and attempt something like that.” So says Ken Adam about the design and construction of the volcano lair in his splendid commentary that accompanies these diaries. Grainy handheld footage covers all aspects of the production from initial location scouting in Japan through to shooting on the volcano itself and then back to Pinewood to see the construction of said base - which, in its skeletal form, with workers scrambling up and down scaffolding as they work, makes one appreciate even more the scale and ambition of the project. The footage shows all the luminaries of the production at work and play, with Connery fooling around for the camera (as well as looking grumpy when the Press turn up), Gilbert holding tight on a choppy boat ride and Mie Hama adjusting her bikini bottom all highlights. Together with Adam’s overlaid commentary that is both relevant and affectionate this is a treat.

Whicker’s World (5:19) Edited highlights of an episode of Whicker’s World which followed the production of the film. Why we only get highlights is not explained by Michael Wilson in his aural introduction to this section, and the black and white footage acts as a tease rather than a full piece on its own; with the highlight being Broccoli getting stroppy and Connery telling him to be quiet, one wonders what bits we haven’t seen. Also, watch out for a casually racist remark about the Japanese’s diminutive size and their subsequent worship of big tall Mr Bond. You’d never catch Michael Palin making a comment like that.

Welcome to Japan Mr Bond (50:02) Clip show made to publicise YOLT just before its release, broadcast on NBC. While yet another Bond clip show might not seem too appetising a prospect (really, is there any film series more cut'n'pasted through the years than Bond?) this is enlivened by the linking material, which sees Miss Moneypenny rather rashly sharing details from Bond’s files of the first four films with a strange girl, both pining away for the superspy as we see lengthy sequences of his conquests in the first four films. The second half sees Moneypenny heading down to Q Branch to engage with some rare banter with Q, who, as ever, despairs of 007’s mistreatment of his property, illustrated by some more clips. Some selections are a little random, but this is a genial way to spend fifty minutes, with Lois Maxwell playing her extended part for all its worth and getting some suitably catty lines about her rivals for Mr Bond’s affections (although I’m not sure how actress Luciana Paluzzi would have reacted to hearing herself described as “the little plump one”!) and it's nice to see her and Desmond Llewelyn sharing some screentime. It even comes with its own little opening sequence. Atrociously dubbed in places, mind.

007 Mission Control
Almost a complete waste of disk space. This feature consists of series of clips from the film, organised into various categories, namely 007, Women, Allies, Villains, Mission Combat Manual, Q Branch and Exotic Locations. Most of these main categories lead to a submenu, in which individual character clips can be selected - for example, the Allies category lists M, Miss Moneypenny, Q, Henderson, and Tiger Tanaka. Each character has multiple clips, but no collection lasts more than a few minutes. The majority of this is utterly superfluous: does anyone really need to see all of Tiger Tanaka’s finest moments collected together in one easy-to-watch package? Or all the fight scenes for that matter? Added to this the fact that some clips, such as the end sequence of the submarine interrupting Kissy and Bond’s romantic celebration, are repeated multiple times, and you have a section on the disk you can almost completely avoid. Almost: the two useful contributions being the chance to watch the opening sequence without any credits overlaid on them, and the Exotic Locations section, which is a four minute sequence of clips accompanied by a commentary from Maud Adams in which she disperses interesting trivia about the places we are seeing. These two aside, this smacks of padding the disks out.

Image Database
An awkwardly put together collection of galleries with different topics, namely Sean Connery, Donald Pleasance, Akibo Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Karin Dor, Tesuro Tamba, Under the Volcano, Glamour, A Drop in the Ocean, A Civilised Bath, Piranha Pool, Ama Island Behind the Scenes, Little Nellie and Behind the Scenes. Some only have a few pictures - such as, oddly, Sean Connery’s selection - and, while others have lots, one has no manual control over the images at all, and is forced to sit watching a slide-show (I confess, I fast-forwarded through the longer galleries). Added to that the full pictures aren’t shown as the frame is a rounded sphere and all-in-all this isn’t the best gallery you’ll have ever seen and is hardly, as the intro spiel says, death-defying.

Old Extras

Audio Commentary
Excellent cut'n'paste commentary which collects snippets from interviews with many contributors to the film, from the major players (eg Gilbert) to the minor (Shane Rimmer). Linked together by Bond expert John Cork of the Ian Fleming foundation, this is never less than relevant to the onscreen action (unlike some cut'n'paste commentaries) and is packed full of trivia, on-set anecdotes and background material.

Mission Dossier

Inside You Only Live Twice (30:21) These Patrick Macnee-narrated documentaries are surely mandatory inclusions on all future Bond releases. Featuring contributions from many of the production members still alive, including Gilbert, Adam, Peter Hunt and so on, this tells the complete story of the production, including all the various travails that afflicted the troubled filming. Shame Connery couldn’t have been persuaded to take part though; his dissatisfaction and ennui with the whole process would have made for some no doubt caustic comments from the forthright Scot. Still, very good.

Silhouettes: The James Bond Titles (23:22) Tribute to Bond title designer Maurice Binder, who of course designed all the opening sequences, aside from From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, up until his death in 1991. Featuring contributions from many friends and associates, this concentrates more on the personality of the man and the artistic thought that went behind his designs rather than the technical processes which went into physically making them, making for a nice piece about the man but not quite what one would expect it to be.

Plane Crash: Animated Storyboard Sequence (1:36) A collection of the watercoloured storyboards displayed sequentially, accompanied by the Bond theme and plane crashing sound effects. Nice, but you’ll have to be quick to read some of the hand-written captions, as each board is only displayed for a couple of seconds, no doubt to indicate the pace of the scene.

Ministry of Propaganda
“You only live twice, and twice is the only way to live.” A collection of three theatrical, one television and seven radio trailers for the film, all from the period, and all covering much the same material.

There’s no getting away this is one that divides people - myself included - but it still remains an essential Bond, and now has a release worthy of its iconic status. The extras from the SE are complemented with a small but significant number of new quality additions on this new release which, with the exception of the silly 007 Mission Control are all superb. Together with improved picture quality, this is a fine set.

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