Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘You Only Live Twice’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
Very seldom does one character define a subgenre. But that is precisely what James Bond 007 has done with spy/espionage fiction. Since making his film debut in 1962, Bond has appeared in over 20 movies. Moreover, the character has only been portrayed by a mere six actors (officially, anyway). Now that the 25th (official) Bond installment, No Time to Die, is finally slated for release on April 10th, I think now is a better time than any to look back at 007’s dossier. I’ll be examining the James Bond franchise to see how these pictures evolved over the decades with each new leading actor. Today’s mission: You Only Live Twice (1967)!
For the first time since its cinematic inception with Dr. No in 1962, the James Bond franchise took a year off following the fourth installment, Thunderball (1962). During the interim, Sean Connery (The Untouchables) made it clear to EON heads, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman that the next 007 picture they all did together would be his last. The producers didn’t want to lose their leading man as he was a key to the series; but, there was also no love lost between them and Connery as the actor had tired of the role. At the time, EON Productions had intended for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be the next 007 adventure. However, that fell through, and You Only Live Twice was ultimately chosen to be the subsequent Bond adaptation for the silver screen.
Published in 1964, You Only Live Twice is the twelfth Bond novel and the final one to be released in Ian Fleming’s lifetime. Initially, producers hired seasoned TV writer Harold Jack Bloom to pen the script for the film. However, most of his draft ended up being rejected. Following that, fellow author and friend of Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) took on the task of adapting You Only Live Twice into a screenplay. Now, I should note that the film is markedly different from its source material. Why? Because Dahl hated the book, dubbing it Fleming’s worst work and comparing it to a dull travelogue.
The film adaptation of You Only Live Twice begins with an incident that nearly incites World War III. A NASA space shuttle is virtually swallowed by a Russian spacecraft. Not surprisingly, the countries involved in this incident place blame on one another. However, the British government suspects that the ever-present S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is responsible. To get to the bottom of it all, MI6 sends its best special agent, James Bond (Connery), to Japan. There, Bond is supposed to work in conjunction with Japanese intelligence to find the persons responsible for this unearthly incident and avert an all-out war.
But, someone would need to bring Dahl’s disparate screenplay to fruition. After the respective directors of the previous Bond films declined, journeyman director Lewis Gilbert (The Slasher) was offered You Only Live Twice. To the surprise of the production company, Gilbert initially passed on the gig. Undeterred, like any talented producer, Cubby Broccoli managed to change the director’s mind. Cubby cited, accurately, that Gilbert would be remiss not to helm the picture as James Bond attracts the most massive audience.
Once Gilbert took the picture on, he brought a mostly new crew with him. (A decision I’m sure was also logical as this entry takes place in only two locations: Japan and the British territory of Hong Kong.) The only mainstay of the crew was composer John Barry (Deadfall). But, like the expert craftsmen from the previous pictures, You Only Live Twice is a beautifully realized entry. It was also pricier as the volcano set alone was equal to the production budget of Dr. No: $1.1 million. Not surprisingly, this flick manages to maintain the look of Bond while applying some new flare based on the Japanese location. The same goes for Barry’s score, whose love theme derives inspiration and utilizes influences from Japanese instruments.
A change of locale and the influence of Japanese culture are what make You Only Live Twice feel fresh. This sense of newness is even untarnished by Connery’s growing distaste for the role. The man may have put on the suit because of a contractual obligation, but he’s undoubtedly sleepwalking through the performance. Thankfully though, Connery’s co-stars are putting in the work. Lead actress Akiko Wakabayashi manages to be genuinely charismatic and emphatic as her role — a compliment I cannot bestow on every Bond girl. Then, of course, there is the first full appearance of big-bad Ernst Stavro Blofeld; portrayed for the first and only time by legendary character actor Donald Pleasence (Halloween), who is always entertaining.
Alas, the aforementioned breath of fresh air that cast and locale bring cannot save You Only Live Twice. Frankly, I found the story to be somewhat ridiculous. The film and its narrative jump the shark with ninja battles, “turning Bond Japanese,” and having him engage in a sham marriage for the mission. Outside of the action sequences, which are all impressive, I simply could not reconnect with this film after these events in the second act. Moreover, once You Only Live Twice enters its third act, all I could think about was Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), and how much it lampoons this picture.
You Only Live Twice gets a Franchise Expansion, but only by the skin of its teeth! The quickly-waning novelty of this film is what gets it by.
You Only Live Twice is available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
James Bond Will Return For Another Installment of Franchise Expansion or Implosion with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)!
007’s Newest Mission, No Time to Die, Will Be in Theaters on April 10th!
Read About Bond’s Past Franchise Endeavors-