‘You Only Live Twice’ at 50: Expert Intel on James Bond’s Japanese Mission
Team of Bond authors dissect the final Sean Connery film of the '60s in detail.
When James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice premiered in U.S. movie theaters on June 13, 1967, it was like no other action movie that had ever crossed the silver screen before.
For one, it had to somehow top the previous Bond film, Thunderball, which had featured groundbreaking underwater cinematography and a fantastic plot focusing on a stolen nuclear warhead. Its creators also had to write You Only Live Twice (or YOLT, to fans) from scratch; it’s the first Bond film to stray completely from Ian Fleming’s original novel. Furthermore, it had to compete with another authorized Bond movie, the original Casino Royale, which was released at the same time by another movie studio. But most importantly, it had to be worthy of what many believed at the time to be Sean Connery’s swan song. (He would bow out after the film, only to return in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever.)
So YOLT‘s producers had a lot riding on it and pulled out all the stops to make sure it was a hit with audiences. Part Cold War thriller, space-age adventure, and kung fu movie, YOLT would bring the franchise to new heights of excess—villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s volcano lair set, constructed by production designer Ken Adam, cost $1 million to construct alone, more than the entire Dr. No budget. It would also be shot in Japan, an exotic location at the time. So YOLT‘s producers enlisted a dream team for the mission.
One of those people was its screenwriter. To pilot the entirely new script, British children’s book author Roald Dahl (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame)—who also had a flare for the adult novel (see: My Uncle Oswald)—was brought in. To take place in the Far East, of course, the cinematography had to be second-to-none, so the producers hired two-time Oscar-winner Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) as director of photography.
Lewis Gilbert, who had recently shot Alfie, starring Michael Caine, was installed as director.
And Bond was given some of his best vehicles and gadgets ever—including the mini-helicopter “Little Nellie,” which plays prominently in a heart-thumping chase scene; the Japanese Secret Service’s white Toyota 2000 GT, one of the sleekest Bond cars ever; and a cigarette holder that fired a rocket-propelled cigarette missile, which Bond uses to destroy Blofeld’s command center.
Lastly, the supporting cast was top-notch, too, including Donald Pleasance as villain Blofeld; and the stunning Bond girls, two played by Japanese actresses, Akiko Wakabayashi (Aki) and Mie Hama (Kissy Suzuki), and another, the German actress Karin Dor (Helga Brandt). Even Bond’s man in Japan, “Tiger” Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba) is as likable as they come. Not to mention the holdovers, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), Q (Desmond Llewelyn), and M (Bernard Lee) from the previous films. Even Burt Kwouk—the Pink Panther movies’ Cato—makes a cameo.
Despite its bloated, $9.5 million budget, the movie raked in $43.1 million at the U.S. box office alone, according to IMDB.com, with an additional $68.5 million in sales from the rest of the world.
But its legacy eclipsed even the successful box office haul of its day. The film has since become one of the most revered chapter’s in the Bond saga.
So to honor You Only Live Twice‘s 50th anniversary today, RealClearLife assembled an international panel of James Bond experts to dissect the movie’s every angle—the book, food, fashion, collectibles, filming locations, and more.
Our panel includes an number of international men of mystery (genre experts): Fergus Fleming, nephew of James Bond creator Ian Fleming and author of The Man with the Golden Typewriter; Matt Sherman, director, Bond Fan Events and author of James Bond’s Cuisine; Grey Smith, director of vintage posters, Heritage Auctions; Matt Spaiser, founder and editor of The Suits of James Bond; Martijn Mulder, author and international Bond travel guide for On the Tracks of 007; Nick Bennett, the Guinness World Record holder for largest James Bond memorabilia collection; and Doug Redenius, honorary board member and Colin Clark, Midwest Coordinator of the Ian Fleming Foundation.
Fergus Fleming, Nephew of Ian Fleming and Author, The Man with the Golden Typewriter
In November 2016, Fergus Fleming, the nephew of James Bond creator and author Ian Fleming, published The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters, a book featuring many of the correspondences his uncle had written throughout the writing of his famed novels—many of which had their own revealing details in them about how the books came together. (The golden typewriter in the title was Ian’s gift to himself after publishing his first novel, Casino Royale, in 1952.)
Fergus was only happy to discuss his famous uncle and the original You Only Live Twice novel, which its Hollywood producers completely ignored in their script, with RealClearLife by email:
“YOLT was written after Ian’s heart attack in 1961. Given his poor health it has extraordinary energy (as does OHMSS). He had often wondered whether he should kill Bond but it is interesting that, as his own death approached, he chose instead to kill Blofeld—the man to whom he had given his own birthday.”
As for the movie straying entirely from his uncle’s original idea? “The movie is great, albeit of its time,” notes Fergus. “That it departs from the original storyline doesn’t affect its quality.”
Matt Sherman, Author, James Bond’s Cuisine
“There is no Bond at his worst….Bond is an ideal, a utopia that everybody wants to be involved in,” the foodie said before serving up some interesting morsels on the movie.
Oysters on the Half Shell – On Bond’s wedding night, his “wife” (Kissy Suzuki) serves him the dish (see above). When she implies that she will not be sleeping in the same bed with him—a rare turndown for Connery’s Bond—he pushes away the plate and says, “Well, I won’t need these.” Sherman notes that Kissy is “uniquely delicate and feminine for [her] culture, but also Bond’s equal”—also a true rarity among Bond girls of the era.
Lox – In YOLT, Roald Dahl works a great pun on lox—i.e. the brined salmon bagel topping—into the script. “Where else are you going to get a nice deli item mentioned in a Bond film?” quips Sherman. When Bond and his Japanese Secret Service counterpart, “Tiger” Tanaka, are reviewing secret documents Bond stole from the bad guys, Tanaka asks him: “This is an order for naval stores. 500 kilos of butter. 50 containers of lox. What is lox?” To which Bond replies, “Oh, it’s the American name for smoked salmon. But, it’s also the technical name for liquid oxygen—which makes rocket fuel.”
Suntory Whisky – Sherman also notes the famed Japanese whisky that makes an appearance in the film. When Bond has a drink with Tanaka at his home outdoors, a bottle of Suntory Whisky can be seen on the table. Suntory was the first whiskey ever produced in Japan in 1929, and that’s the “white label” (or Shirofuda) that Bond’s being served.
Poison – One of the truly hair-raising moments in the movie is when Bond and Kissy are sleeping and a ninja tries to kill Bond by sending a single drop of poison down a thread and directing it into his mouth. At the last minute, of course, Bond rustles, moving out of the way, and Kissy drinks it and dies. “My book was not only every piece of food, but everything ingested,” explains Sherman. “Yes, this counts as a drink,” says Sherman, and doing his best Connery impression, “No, she didn’t care for the aftertaste.”
Matt Spaiser, Founder of The Suits of James Bond
Spaiser, who has put together an incredible website, The Suits of James Bond, on the subject, tells RCL he launched it to set the record straight on Bond’s many styles—because there was just so much misinformation circulating the web.
Combing through every frame of every movie, looking at behind-the-scenes photos, movie books, and other source material, Spaiser produces mini style books. He’s even consulted tailors and costume designers who’ve worked on the films. RealClearLife asked him to tease out the most important way YOLT sets itself apart from all the other Bond films:
“It’s the first Bond movie where James Bond doesn’t wear a dinner suit or black tie, which is his signature look,” says Spaiser. “The second, and only other one, is Live and Let Die.”
With our tongue firmly in cheek, we also wanted to know whether Bond’s volcano-climbing gray mock polo neck would ever go out of style (see above). Spaiser played ball, saying, “I think it kind of goes in and out. The mock polo neck was something Steve Jobs was so well-known for wearing. And Daniel Craig has now brought it back to James Bond in Spectre. His are much nicer looking, though.”
Grey Smith, Director of Vintage Posters, Heritage Auctions
“I’m always looking for the next James Bond collection, because it does well for us,” said Smith.
His advice for the serious collector: The British format for movie posters is called a “quad,” a horizontal poster measuring 30″ x 40″ (since YOLT is a British movie, it’s the U.K. posters that do best on the secondary market); whereas the American “one-sheet” is a vertical image, measuring 41″ x 27″.
Smith says Bond posters do well, with Connery faring better than Moore or the later Bond stars. “I think the Daniel Craig rendition has put some spark back into the market,” he said. “It’s all about rarity, plain and simple. [YOLT was] kind of the last of the real Bond Connery films. A lot of people don’t consider Diamond Are Forever a very good or serious film. And certainly not Never Say Never Again. It’s almost like that doesn’t really count.”
Of the YOLT posters, the quad that is most popular is the Style C quad, which is the one that shows Bond in the bath with all the girls around him. That will command anywhere from $1,200–$4,500, depending on condition. There’s an A (Bond walking in the volcano), B (“Little Nellie” style), and C style to the quad. They mimic the U.S. one-sheets.
Below, take a look at Styles A, B, and C of the U.K. Bond movie posters.
Martijn Mulder, Founder/Tour Guide, On the Tracks of 007
In his travel guide, On the Tracks of 007, Mulder wrote:
“Of all the locations in the Bond films, Japan still stands firmly as the most exotic ever used….Back in 1966, it was definitely considered exotic. Unspoiled and unknown enough to send Bond there on his latest mission.”
Mulder tells RealClearLife: “As usual with filming locations, those in the big cities (Tokyo, Kagoshima) changed beyond recognition. At the more rural ones (off the beaten path), time seems to have stood still, though.”
Below, find more photos taken by Mulder on his 50th anniversary YOLT tour.
Nick Bennett, Guinness World Record Holder for Largest James Bond Collection
Bennett dug deep into his collection and provided RealClearLife with exclusive photos of some of his favorite YOLT collectibles from the era. He told us:
“Each Bond film had grossed more than the last [by YOLT], and the expectation for merchandise was high but ultimately disappointing. It was all to do with the success of Goldfinger and Thunderball. [By] the time You Only Live Twice came out, suppliers were happy to carry on selling previously made merchandise. It was not like today’s market; they kept producing the same items for years until they did not sell. The result is that You Only Live Twice has some of the poorest amount of memorabilia compared to Goldfinger and Thunderball even though the film was more popular.”
Below, scroll through some exclusive photos from Bennett’s award-winning collection he shared with RealClearLife.
Colin Clark, Midwest Coordinator; Doug Redenius, Honorary Board Member, the Ian Fleming Foundation
Besides that Toyota 2000 GT, many of the original vehicles used in YOLT are either stowed away in private collector’s collections or haven’t survived the test of time.
The most famous gadget from the film is without question Bond’s autogyro, which Q has his team assemble like an erector set (it’s in the permanent collection of the London Film Museum‘s “Bond in Motion” exhibit). Watch Q walk Bond through its weaponry below.
When Bond takes it on a reconnoissance mission over Blofeld’s territory, the bad guys’ armed chase helicopters try to knock Bond and Little Nellie out of the sky.
Clearly, this was primitive movie magic at best, and those chase helicopter? All models—but produced by the actual helicopter company, Bell. One such original chase helicopter model was purchased by the Ian Fleming Foundation, an organization founded in ’92 to enjoy Fleming’s legacy and collect/preserve some of the vehicles used in Bond films.
“The Foundation purchased our YOLT Bell 47 Model directly from Bell. They supplied a lot of advice, guidance, and parts for the building of the Bell-47 Models,” says the Ian Fleming Foundation’s Doug Redenius.
“The one that was used in the film was given to the Bell [Aircraft] Museum in Indiana to be placed on display after completion of the film’s production. Bell also provided all four full size helicopters for the film….In the film there were two models actually destroyed in film crashes. Two others appeared to crash completely but survived with repairs to follow.”
Below, take an exclusive look at the actual model owned the foundation (the pictures were taken and provided by Colin Clark). Compare it to the video above. Look familiar?