Friday 27 May 2011

BlogalongaBond / You Only Live Twice:
Sets Appeal

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
Bond beats off nineteen Japanese dockers with his bare hands (which is odd, given that he had a gun in the previous shot) and a big stick he finds lying around, in an amazing 22-second aerial shot. It's not a particularly impressive scrap - most of the henchfolk opt for a nice lie down rather than fighting back - but it makes a refreshing change to the way most fight scenes are shot. Having done all that, Bond then gets whacked on the noggin by a bad guy hiding behind some sacks. Sloppy.

The assassination attempt
In one of the series' most unnecessarily elaborate attempts on Bond's life (he's asleep! Shoot him!), a SPECTRE type trickles poison down a length of string toward's 007's snoozing chops, only for him to roll over at the last moment and for obligatory sacrificial lamb Aki to taste the deadly juice. Perfectly shot (the lighting on the poison is key to making the whole scene work), edited and scored, it's moments like this that make the Bond films so memorable. Grosse Pointe Blank's loving homage to this scene thirty years later proves its iconicness, which is definitely a word.

The cinematography
Having shot the first four Bond films, director of photography Ted Moore was replaced on You Only Live Twice by genius cinematographer Freddie Young, still basking in Oscar glory from Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. He achieved the near-impossible task of successfully lighting the volcano interior, and romanticised the land of the rising sun to the point where, despite Connery's alarming Japanese "disguise" and unflattering turtle neck sweater, this may well be the most beautiful Bond film of all.

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:

Don't get the soap in my eye, will you?

And even more finally: Mie Hama, who plays Kissy Suzuki, took such a fascinating path to making You Only Live Twice that somebody wrote a song about her many years ago. It didn't make it into the charts and its creator now lives a sad and pathetic life writing about films on the internet for a tiny and long-suffering readership.

"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


  1. Not only do you pick out the best bits and make great points about the franchise as a whole, but there's a cracking cock joke. Bravo sir!

  2. The Incredible Suit exposes every aspect of movie making to his forensic eye. He is the CSI of film making (Cheerful Searching Incisive) and in this instance is demonstrating sets appeal.

    As to repetition in Bond films, I thought the whole bond that binds the Bonds was that you know exactly what to expect otherwise it isn't a Bond film.

  3. Jap's eye. The Duke of Edinburgh would be embarrassed!

  4. Am watching YOLT with my 13-year old son after many years. I think it stands up (certainly within the context of the series). I'm really enjoying it. Even Little Nellie, which I'd remembered as lumbering, is cool. And there are many more than just the one He Means His C**** single/double/triple entendres. (There's a thought, he should have been called double o-tendre.)

  5. Great song.

    Did you play all the instruments yourself?

  6. Thank you! Guitars and "singing" only; my friend Dave played bass and drums.

  7. Another well written and lovingly observed analysis of my favorite Bond films.

  8. Incredibles brought me here with it's volcano base.