By 1967, the James Bond brand was so phenomenally popular that even if someone had produced an unofficial spoof 007 film with ten writers, seven James Bonds, six directors, one Ronnie Corbett and absolutely no redeeming features, it would still have become one of the year's highest grossing movies. Of course if such a movie were to exist, we would not speak of it here at The Incredible Suit, so let's move on.
The problem with this success was that it led to complacency: You Only Live Twice's screenwriter Roald Dahl was literally given a formula to stick to by producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and Ian Fleming's macabre meditation on death was jettisoned in favour of a breezy Japanese jaunt that attempts to recapture all that was popular in the previous Bonds simply by lazy repetition. As a result, almost everything in the film is a faded copy of one of its predecessors:
Fortunately director Lewis Gilbert moves everything along with such a light touch and a sense of fun that it's easy to forgive the film's shortcomings. You Only Live Twice cheerily bounces from scene to scene being ludicrous and enjoyable, despite the best efforts of the script and cast to drag it back down to Thunderball-esque depths.
One man who didn't get the memo about kicking back, enjoying the sake and taking it easy, however, was the man responsible for You Only Live Twice's most memorable elements. Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for production designer Mr Sir Ken Adam OBE.
Adam's angular, modernist sets had already graced three of the first four Bond films, but it was on You Only Live Twice that he truly outdid himself. What's especially pleasing about his work on this film is that each of his sets is more impressive than the last, as if he was gradually building up to a grand, mind-blowing finale. Which, of course, he was.
I don't know about you but I can feel "a closer look" at the great man's work coming on.
Adam's first, simplest offering is the site of the antagonistic meeting between
stereotypes representatives of the USA (bullish, arrogant) and the USSR (sly, threatening), chaired by global peacekeepers from the UK (statesmanlike, measured). Note the latticework design, simultaneously dividing and uniting the three parties. I've no idea what the massive hole in the floor denotes. Subsidence?
Henderson's Tokyo apartment is a mix of eastern and western influences, as befits a westerner living in Japan. Zaisu seats (cushions with chair backs) can be seen in the dining area - sitting seiza-style, as the Japanese traditionally do, is probably tricky with a wooden leg - while the next room contains more comfortable plush armchairs and a four-poster bed. All of which are about to become completely useless to their owner. Serves him right for serving Bond's martini "stirred not shaken", the galloping ninny.
Tiger Tanaka, essentially a Japanese M, has a much more modern office than his stuffy British counterpart. And whereas M's office is only ever really seen in the background of a character's close-up, Tiger's is afforded lingering wide shots to ensure every penny is on the screen. Adam fills the room with his trademark obscure angles and cheekily sneaks a tiger rug (GEDDIT?) into the middle of the room. I'm not sure what the giant Jenga's for. Maybe that's how Tiger relaxes after a hard day's ninja-ing.
Minor villain Osato's office HQ is an explosion in a perspective factory. Film sets rarely include ceilings because it makes them tricky to light, but Ken Adam doesn't give a shit about "rules". And when the ceiling is this amazing, quite right too. The office also features a personal dream of mine, a walk-in drinks cabinet, conveniently large enough to store unconscious henchmen.
The undoubted star of You Only Live Twice is SPECTRE's ludicrously unlikely but eye-poppingly amazing secret base, improbably carved into the guts of a volcano, and is as audacious a villain's lair as it is an achievement of set design. Neatly, its dome shape reflects Adam's first, simplest set in the film, but whereas that was designed to bring the USA and USSR together, the volcano's purpose is to force them into war with each other.
More than this, though, the volcano represents the peak of extravagance that the Bond series had reached. With this ridiculously over the top set, the films erupted through the crater of believability they'd been bubbling up towards for five years. While earlier Bonds still stand up to scrutiny today, You Only Live Twice became the launch pad for a million spoofs, and the only way the series could survive was by paring down the nonsense, ramping up the tension and going back to Ian Fleming's dark literary roots.
James Bond was about to undergo the biggest change of his life.
The Kobe docks fight
The assassination attempt
And finally: The one thing Thunderball lacked the most is back:
In Tanaka's bath-house, Bond is attended to by a bevy of bikini-clad beauties, who lather him up with foamy bubbles. Bond glances towards his crotch:
"Face Like A Pig"
BlogalongaBond will return with On Her Majesty's Secret Service
What the hell is BlogalongaBond? I'll tell you.
Further BlogalongaBondareading here