I was, perhaps, only six years old. In those days, in the late nineties, with a proliferation of audio cassettes and Hindi film posters around us, there were still not too many films from the West to be found around. Digital Versatile Discs, and their cheaper alternative of Video Compact Discs, were still to fill up the shelves in numbers in music shops, otherwise filled with music albums. For a boy of six years old, the only respite from the song-filled romances and comedies playing in cinemas (Balcony tickets at Rs. 80 and Stall tickets at Rs. 40) lay between the covers of classic books - Robinson Crusoe, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, The Time Machine and Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories were what I devoured, along with fairy-tales and fables. There were masked men and women but they lay only in the pages of comic books; they had not become the annoying mass-manufactured entertainment that it has become now, as stale and flavourless as fast food.
It was on one of his business trips from Malaya (or was it Singapore?) that my father brought a whole pile of Video Compact Discs of films that I had never heard of before. One of them featured a handsome, clean-shaven and impeccably dressed man posing with a gun and the name of the film was You Only Live Twice. It sounded very intriguing and as the film begin to play in our humble (but at that time, expansive enough) Akai television screen, it surely did live up to its title.
James Bond films have been known, even the weakest of them, to set the stage rolling with a truly entertaining opening scene, as effective as the prologue of a thriller novel but nowhere for me has an opening scene tugged me so completely into a preposterous and even swashbuckling world of danger and adventure. An American rocket cruising the rim of the Earth is suddenly swallowed by what looks like a Soviet rocket emerging out of the blue; a few scenes later, our man in Hong Kong, canoodling with a pretty Chinese girl, is suddenly killed and the mesmerising opening credits begin to play, set to the sensual swells of John Barry's title song, sung by Nancy Sinatra.
That same spirit of blithe imagination and audacity carries over the rest of the film. One understands that director Lewis Gilbert and Messrs. Saltzman and Broccoli were intent on making this the biggest, grandest of Bond's adventures and yet the wonder lay in how the ambition translated into truly inventive and incredible pleasures. Bond is buried at sea but is then "resurrected" out of the gaze of his foes and is assigned on a top-secret mission to Japan, where it seems the stolen rocket must have been stashed away and thus, we are soon ushered into the Land of the Rising Sun with Freddie Young's beautiful photography, which brings even a monumental scale to the scenes of action and stealth fresh from his fruitful collaboration with Sir David Lean.
It is in many ways the most consistently startling of all James Bond films and to a boy of six years old, the exotic locations, inventive gadgets and vehicles (Little Nellie, that gay, yellow gyrocopter dispatching enemy helicopters over the volcanoes and villages of Japan), stylised violence and elaborate, astonishing sets (by Ken Adam, of course) would have appealed very strongly to the subconscious mind, as indelibly as a great story of adventure and peril. The fact that You Only Live Twice was only loosely inspired by Ian Fleming's considerably darker novel and was scripted by Roald Dahl, that legendary teller of children's stories, is also why the film feels so exhilaratingly young in its boyish wanderlust and wonder. Bond escapes certain death more than once in the fashion of the hero of Buchan's novels, disguises himself, a little unconvincingly, as a Japanese fisherman, even marrying for effect, and in the sensational end, infiltrates the lair of his arch nemesis - a rocket-launching base inside a volcano, as surreal an invention as the fictional military establishments in Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana, shaped like gigantic parts of a vacuum cleaner.
None of this lavish scale and imagination ever feels excessive or indulgent unlike today's Hollywood action films. There is a real sense of not only adventure but also real danger and peril to the proceedings; it retains even Fleming's flair for menace and dark suspense - be it in the pool full of piranhas or the drop of sweet poison dripping down a silken thread in the dark. And when, in between, Gilbert relaxes his hand and lets the gorgeous scenery and sublime romance seep in, the film even becomes as mesmerising as a memorable novel by any of the storytellers named above. Sean Connery is still flawless as Bond - witty, suave, heroic and tough, when required; Donald Pleasence' Blofeld is able, in a few scenes, to summon an air of sinister evil and I am still charmed by the spirited Aki and the lissom Kissy Suzuki, two Oriental beauties who offer a soothing, almost tranquil relief from the aggressive, almost distracting sensuality of the dangerous Helga Brandt.
There have been many James Bond films crowned as a favourite over the years; my father swears that Goldfinger is perfect, my friend believes that From Russia With Love cannot be matched and my cousin brother opines that Casino Royale is Bond's finest hour. For me, however, You Only Live Twice remains to be the most memorable of James Bond's adventures, not least in how it shook and stirred a six-year old boy drinking it all with as much relish as vodka or even a cup of sake.