Thursday, February 23, 2017

Better In Your Head?--YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE

Ian Fleming

"You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face"

The end of the "Blofeld Trilogy," You Only Live Twice was also the last James Bond novel published before Ian Fleming's death on August 12, 1964.

Morbidity and mortality are draped over the book like a wet towel on a shower rod. The action picks up eight months after the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, with the widower Bond sinking deeper into his own private morass, blowing assignments and resisting medical treatments. A doctor suggests to M that rather than shitcan the poor guy, MI6 should promote him. This is how 007 becomes 7777 in the "Diplomatic Section."

His new assignment: go to Japan and convince Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese Secret Service, to share radio transmissions that his spies have captured from the Soviets. Tanaka agrees--with a catch.

Dr. Guntram Shatterhand and his wife are horticulturists who arrived in Japan with an interest in opening an exotic garden. Given a ten year residence permit by the Japanese government, the Shatterhands selected the island of Kyushu, where they live in a castle and cultivate what has come to be known informally as the "Garden of Death." Full of lethal plants, fish and landscape, it has become a mecca for the sick of mind, body and soul, claiming in excess of 500 lives in merely six months of existence. It is, politically speaking, a bad look. If Bond could help take the Shatterhands down, the Japanese secret service would gladly hand over the transmissions.

Prep work includes a new identity (mute coal miner Taro Todoroki), skin dye and a hair cut. Tanaka takes Bond to his ninja training school, Bond writes a haiku and both men board a boat for the island where Bond will enter the next phase of his mission. En route, Bond pores over relevant documents, which include photos of the Doctor and his wife.

Or, more accurately, photos of Ernst Blofeld and Irma Bunt.

An invigorated Bond settles in with the Suzuki family. Daughter Kissy briefly left for Hollywood as a teenager, but returned home not for need, but for want. Now 23, she takes Taro out on fishing expeditions. Before long, he convinces her to take him to Kyushu. Once there, Bond scales a 200-foot wall, drops down into the Garden of Death and then…waits.

Moving cautiously, Bond makes his way inside the castle, but guards exist for a reason. Bond is taken to Dr. and Frau Shatterhand. The transformation is apparently quite convincing; Blofeld has no clue whom he's just captured. Irma Bunt, however, voices doubts. Off to "The Question Room," where the prisoner is forced onto a seat located above a volcanic geyser that blows every fifteen minutes. With one minute remaining, Bond confesses his true identity. Blofeld, rather than have such a nemesis offed, switches on "bloviate" mode, reminding 007 of his psychotic super-brilliance before justifying his garden as a public service.

Finally it happens, what thousands had been waiting for: a duel between Bond and Blofeld, best against worst, wooden staff versus samurai sword. Bond wins and has to make a video game style escape because the castle has begun to explode.

Bond breaks a window, grabs hold of a nearby helium balloon--I know, I know--and gradually begins floating away from the site of his greatest personal triumph. Then some flying debris knocks Bond in the noggin, sending him down into the sea, where Kissy finds him.

The blow to the brain has done a number on 007; he can't remember a damn thing. Kissy tells him he is her lover Taro, and they return to the village.

Away from the spy world, and its concomitant hazards, Bond-as-Taro begins to piece himself back together emotionally (while still experiencing some physical difficulties). Intelligence officials visit the village but Kissy has sworn its inhabitants to secrecy. Thus, the Ministry of Defence must craft an obituary for one Cmmdr. James Bond, a written farewell that proves touching and idiotic all at once.

A newspaper clipping sends Bond into a tizzy. The article mentions the Russian city Vladivostok. Bond fixates on Vladivokstok. He must travel to Vladivastok. There, only there, can he recover his memories and restore his true self. He asks Kissy--who had just been considering when, precisely, to tell him she was pregnant--for help.

Ian Fleming was clearly in the throes of ambivalence with the series that made him--a mere writer!--a household name. The exclamation points persist; Fleming feared the reader might doze off without them, I suppose. His gifts are still present, if not in abundance; his description of the Death Garden is worth the price of admission, even if he is just a little too besotted with flora.

As a spy thriller, You Only Live Twice has very little to recommend it. As a story of rebirth, of sending James Bond along the path of being Bond again, it has undeniable appeal. But prepare to be let down. As I will discuss later, Fleming fails to stick the one landing he could not afford to flub.

Director-Lewis Gilbert
Writer-Roald Dahl

"They told me you were assassinated in Hong Kong."
    "Yes, this is my second life."
    "You only live twice, Mister Bond."

U.S. and Soviet spacecrafts are disappearing whilst in orbit. Blofeld is to blame, wouldn't ya know. Don't drink, don't smoke, what does he do? He plots. Ceaselessly. Maniacally. SPECTRE, in aid of an unnamed Asian country, has a big ol' cannibalistic spaceship making the Americans and the Soviets play the blame game until inevitably Dub-Dub-Tre breaks out.

The Brits suspect the Japanese are actually the culprits, since one of the crafts landed in the Sea of Japan. James Bond's new assignment: fake his death and travel to Japan. Tidy! I feel like doing the same at least once a week! He meets up with Aki, assistant to Tiger Tanaka, the biggest cheese in the Japanese Secret Service wheel, who directs him to local MI6 operative Dikko Henderson. Poor guy takes a blade to the back before uttering anything too helpful, though. Bond proceeds to kill the assailant and take his place in a getaway car headed for Osato Chemicals.

Driver dispatched of, Bond sneaks into the office of Mr. Osato to filch some documents. His escape is other than smooth, and only the presence of Aki saves him. She leads him to a secluded subway station, where Bond falls down an trap door into Tiger Tanaka's office. He's very interested in what Bond pilfered from Osato, especially a picture of the cargo ship Ning-Po.

Posing as a prospective buyer named Mr. Fisher, 007 pays Mr. Osato a visit. The old guy has an X-ray screen built into this desk, which enables him to see the Walther PPK underneath Bond's suit jacket. The men part pleasantly. Osata then orders his henchwoman, Helga Brandt (the poor woman's Fiona Volpe), to take Mr. Fisher out and show him a bad time.

The assassins wait till Bond's outside before opening fire, since they'll receive more XP for kills outside the building. Unsurprisingly, Bond and Aki evade the bullets. Together, they go dock-sniffin' and discover that the Ning-Po has been delivering the elements required to make rocket fuel. Again, at least for 007, departure proves rugged. He's taken to Helga Brandt's cabin on the Ning-Po, where he bribes her for a flight to Tokyo--successfully, he thinks--but she bails on his ass, trusting that the flare she sets off on board the plane will be sufficient to bring about Bond's demise. Naturally, he lands and emerges unscathed.

Suspecting that the enemy base is near the unloading dock, Bond returns there via the "Little Nellie," a sweet gyroplane born from leather cases and loaded with all the ways to shoot all the projectiles.

Meanwhile another Soviet spacecraft has been snatched while in orbit. The mystery cannibal craft lands in a base hidden inside an inactive volcano that doubles as Blofeld's lair. Cat in the cradle, he feeds Brandt to the piranhas and orders Osato to finish what she could not.

Tanaka's spacious seaside villa features a ninja compound where Bond trains after undergoing a makeover intended to help him pass as a Japanese fisherman. He will also have to marry a student of Tanaka's named Kissy, rather than the much lovelier and formidable Aki.

A SPECTRE assassin somehow infiltrates a ninja compound and Aki winds up ingesting poison intended for Bond. Bye-bye to a good Bond Girl who coulda-shoulda been a great one.

Bond and Kissy get fake-married and for a honeymoon notice a humble funeral nearby. A young girl had died mysteriously while sailing along a cave near the shoreline. Bond and Aki decide to check out the cave, jumping ship once Bond smells poison gas.

The two decide to snoop around the volcano above the cave. They notice the mouth of the volcano is also the hatch to a rocket base. Bond attempts to board SPECTRE'S spacecraft ("Bird One") before takeoff, but a small mistake alerts Blofeld, who demands that the astronaut inside be brought to him for questioning.  

Bond at last gets a glimpse of the bastard SPECTRE boss himself, a man with a bald head, a nasty scar, and Dr. No's wardrobe.

With the USA prepared to make good on their threat to go nuclear on the Soviets, Blofeld's dream of world domination is closer than ever. He orders his guards to shoot Bond, which is super-smart, but he accedes to Bond's request for  Ninjas descend upon the base! Bond scurries into the control room and activates Bird One's self-destruct mechanism. Blofeld goes one better and activates the self-destruct mechanism of the entire base.

Spoiler alert, no one important perishes.

Sean Connery so clearly did not want to star in Bond #5. He underperforms nearly every second he's on screen. Where's the smart-assery? Where's the carnality? Where's the paycheck, more like. But I suppose even insouciance has its charms, and I'm not claiming Connery's bad here. He's just not really Bond.

As a Bond Girl, Kissy is friggin' hideous. Devoid of sensuality, lacking ingenuity, indeed, bereft of any outstanding qualities. Aki was in every way her superior, so of course Aki had to die.

If Dr. No was a pair of unblinking eyes, then From Russia With Love was a pair of clenched fists. If Goldfinger was a puffed-out chest, then Thunderball was a rigid back. You Only Live Twice? Slouching shoulders. The fight sequences provide sorely-needed absorbing action, the lair is one of the best in the whole series, and the soundtrack is criminally overlooked, but on the buffet of life, YOLT is a sad slice of pizza, rubbery and bland.

I mean...I'll still eat it, of course. It's pizza. But there's so many tastier slices out there.

You Only Live Twice was the first Bond film to disregard most of the source novel's plot. Scriptwriter Roald Dahl (a friend of Fleming's, mind, not just a colleague) considered YOLT to be the worst Bond book, a plotless travelogue with little entertainment value. Dahl used his ample gifts to produce a Dr. No rehash: Cold War backdrop, Bond on an island, chicanery with spacecraft. Just the sort of flash-bash craved by the popcorn-chompers. And honestly, "Head of terrorist organization SPECTRE  aims to start the next great war, leaving the fate of humanity hanging in the balance!" is a hell of a lot more thrilling than, "Former head of terrorist organization SPECTRE is ensconced in a castle, content to reign as the world's laziest genocidal overlord!"

Both book and film are preposterous, but I don't think that word should be an instantly damning one. The "Little Nellie" is goofy as a mouse and a dog being best friends, but it's so cool! Ninjas! Volcano lair! Yeah, the movie has some moments of silliness unimaginable in the nascent days, but the stakes are the highest yet.

The book is really a revenge story, with some existential digression. One could argue that the victims of Dr. Shatterhand's botanical death-trap are not worthy of sympathy. Indeed, a solid case could be made that choosing to discontinue one's life is the most intensely personal decision a human being can make, and thus should not be interfered with, by friend foe or foreigner. (The Japanese government seems less bothered over the 500 lives lost than the subsequent bad publicity.)

There's very little debate concerning nuclear annihilation. Only the insane are in favor of it.

But, Bond isn't too interested in bringing down the garden itself; after all, those who sincerely desire to die have a wealth of options. Blofeld killed his wife. Bond must kill Blofeld. Moral dilemmas are for the reader, should they choose to indulge.

Bond vs. Blofeld is a classic allegorical fight between sworn adversaries--good vs. bad, past vs. future, life vs. death, order vs. chaos. But it left me unsatisfied. Firstly, it's a fluke; Bond had already agreed to infiltrate the castle before he knew Shatterhand's true identity. It's not as though he hunted Ernie and Irmie down and meticulously assembled the recipe for just desserts. That would have made for a maddeningly engrossing story.

The death of Blofeld should have left me cheering. I should have begun hallucinating fireworks. An Irene Cara song should have been blaring in my head, something super-inspirational with lots of synthesized strings and a rib-sticker of a chorus. Instead, a sensation of "there's that, then" settled over me like a ratty, cedar pine-stinking quilt.

The movie, for its myriad of faults, undoubtedly nails the climax. (Would have been nice to see 007 show off some of those ninja moves he apparently learned, though. In the book he scaled a 200-foot wall!) All praise to Fleming's legendary descriptive powers, seriously the guy's one of the better I've ever read in that regard, but production designer Ken Adam outdid himself.

 The decision to keep Bond's "makeover" in the film beggars belief. I understand the point of it, but the execution was never, ever going to be acceptable. The book is tolerable, since we never have to actually see Bond with skin dye and a haircut, but the movie gives us no choice. Eye makeup and an even shittier hairpiece for Connery to wear...not awkward in the slightest!

Blofeld in the book is different enough physically that a reader can envision a whole different person than appeared in any of the films, and salvage some of the character's magnificent malevolence. This is fortunate. Donald Pleasance's chrome-domed, scar-faced icon of cartoonish evil has provided material for countless gleeful parodies (Austin Powers being just the most exuberant example), retroactively robbing the entire film of a huge component--danger.

Tiger Tanaka and Dikko Henderson are both drastically different in FlemingVision: large and loquacious men, politically incorrect in the extreme, stupendous imbibers of whatever's handy. 007 has a rollicking time with each man. The movie simply cannot compare. Tiger and James engage in a sake-soaked game of "Stone, Scissors, Paper" (that the author felt required an entire explanatory paragraph) in between dick-swinging and insult-slinging. Film Tanaka spouts some stupid sexist crap but since he's rail-thin and smiling, I'm supposed to be amused?

Book Dikko? Funniest thing from Australia since the first INXS album.

Yeah, I don't think much of Kissy in the book either. She's supposed to represent Bond's salvation, but
proves no more than the docile means to an end. I've heard knock-knock jokes more substantial than Kissy Suzuki.

For raising serious moral questions and giving Bond closure, I'll rate the book higher.

Ian Fleming was so "child, please" at this point he wrote a scene where a cow is fed beer straight from the bottle.

Over fifty years since the publication of the novel, and no Bond film has utilized the name "Guntram Shatterhand"? For shame.

I'm hard on movie Kissy, but I have to credit her for not losing 85% of her cognitive abilities once she slipped on a bikini.

Telling a woman she tastes "different" will get you killed in real life.

Returning to the haiku…when, exactly, does Bond's second life begin? When he cradled his dead wife's body? When he watched Blofeld breathe his last? When he consents to a superfluous makeover? When he loses his memory, or when he leaves Japan?

The obituary mentions that the career of James Bond inspired "a series of popular books" penned by a colleague. "It is a measure of the disdain in which these fictions are held at the Ministry that action has not yet been taken against the author and publisher." So, Bond is a celebrity of sorts. I guess this revelation might not have annoyed me so much if it hadn't been made so late in the game. A grumbling aside from M, a wry crack from Moneypenny? Not even a begrudging acknowledgment from the man himself?

"Code word is imminent." Wait--does that mean the code word is coming soon, or that "imminent" is the code word?

Anyone interested in the spawn of Bond is encouraged to seek out Raymond Benson's extended universe short story, "Blast From the Past."

March 1966. Director Lewis Gilbert, producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, cinematographer Freddie Young and production designer Ken Adam were in Tokyo scouting locations for YOLT. Two hours before their departing flight, the men received an invitation to attend a ninja demonstration. Of course they accepted.

The missed flight was worth it, in more than one way. Twenty-five minutes after lifting off the runway, the Boeing 707 disintegrated--yes, disintegrated--near Mt. Fuji. All 124 people on board were killed.

Never refuse ninjas. Be in the presence of ninjas whenever possible.


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