As the title of Sean Connery’s fifth outing as Agent 007 suggests, You Only Live Twice is ostensibly about a second life for James Bond. But the clever conceit of Bond faking his own death is inadequately exploited, while at the same time the filmmakers build up the production like there’s no tomorrow. It’s a case of both not enough and too much, and it all adds up to the most average of the first batch of Bond films.
After an American space capsule in orbit is swallowed up by a mysterious spaceship, the U.S. blames Russia at a meeting of world leaders and nuclear tensions escalate. Hoping to cool the situation down, the U.K. observes that their radar station in Singapore detected traces of the spaceship going down in the Sea of Japan. The British official explains, “Our man in Hong Kong is working on it now,” and the film cuts to Bond in bed with a Chinese woman in the third and last pre-credits scene. As the woman gets up, thugs rush in and gun Bond down. “At least he died on the job,” a police officer observes afterwards. A second officer adds, “He would have wanted it this way.” The innuendo behind “working on it” and “on the job” point to Bond’s tendency to mix business and pleasure, espionage with seduction. In the gorgeous title song (one of the best of the series, and the film’s best feature) Nancy Sinatra sings, “One life for yourself and one for your dreams,” but it would seem that Bond’s been living both lives at once.
The well-constructed three-part pre-credits sequence is about as tight as the film gets though, and the scenes and dialogue become less and less thematically and metaphorically rich as the film progresses. This is perhaps surprising, considering that the screenplay is by Roald Dahl. Yup, that Roald Dahl, the children’s author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame. A friend of Ian Fleming, Dahl was brought in to rework the story, yet despite being the only literary luminary to script a Bond film, the screenplay is surprisingly unoriginal. You Only Live Twice is also the first film to take little from the Fleming novel other than a few characters and story ideas. Even so, Dahl doesn’t do much beyond the formula established by the previous four films.
If Bond has never been to Japan before, as he himself explains, why even bother to have him fake his own death in order to escape unwanted attention? Furthermore, as soon as Bond strolls down the streets of Tokyo, a Japanese woman recognizes him and whispers into a handbag/walkie-talkie. Even if they turn out to be allies, the sudden recognition deflates the supposed freedom and advantage of a second life. Bond’s only real transformation of character comes much later, when he goes undercover as a Japanese fisherman. It’s supposed to be a major alteration of Bond’s looks, but the result is Sean Connery with a touch of yellow to his face and a bad wig. The whole operation is cringe-worthy, not only for its taint of racism, but also for its incompetence. Furthermore, his new identity comes fairly late in the film, and despite the time given to Bond’s ninja training and marriage to a Japanese wife, the whole scheme seems pretty unnecessary to the mission. So when Dahl finally gets around to exploring the motif of a second life, it interferes with the narrative’s progress. All things considered, this is probably the first really bad narrative move in the series.
The film’s not all missteps and missed opportunities though. The superior first half capably depicts Bond arriving in Japan, seeking out contacts, and tracking down who is behind the mysterious spacecraft. Then, similar to Dr. No, the espionage thriller transforms into an invade-the-villain’s-lair adventure. The sheer scale of SPECTRE’s volcano lair, which director Lewis Gilbert likes to capture in extreme wide shots, is impressive—especially since it was a gigantic set, not a matte painting, complete with a working monorail and launch pad!—but there is also an amusing toy-like quality to seeing little men in coloured overalls run around a big hanger and shoot at ninjas. It’s also hard to take the more outlandish aspects like the pool of flesh-eating piranhas seriously after spoofs like Austin Powers and The Simpsons’ “You Only Move Twice.”
Of the film’s many gadgets, Bond’s portable autogyro “Little Nellie” takes the cake, especially since it was mostly real. The weapons were mock-ups and relied on special effects, but the actual flying device was built and flown by Wing Commander Ken Wallis. I also enjoy the preposterous excess of eliminating an enemy car following you by having a helicopter with a giant magnet pick up the car and drop it over the ocean. Yes, the method is ludicrous, but it’s still freshly so.
That said, as I’ve been watching through the early Bond films again, it’s the rough and tumble brawls (there’s usually one per film) that most excite me. They just don’t make messy fights anymore where two men work hard at destroying each other and a room. Today, every fighter has technique, and every action is conveyed via shaky cam and extreme closeups. In the brawl between Bond and a Japanese henchman in the Osato Chemical and Engineering Company building, Gilbert cuts between wide shots that show the space and its destruction, and medium close-ups conveying specific blows, blocks, and facial expressions. The effect is neither incoherent nor slick, but rather pleasantly messy. After the brawl, Bond pours himself a tall glass of vodka, but then objects, “Siamese vodka!” Bond might be an alcoholic, but his taste never wavers.
Perhaps the most unique and appealing aspect of the film is its attention to the aura of Japan, which pervades the film more than most Bond settings. The exotic locations in Bond films sometimes serve merely as exciting backdrops. You Only Live Twice revels in Japan’s atmosphere at a time when the world was surprised and intrigued by Japan’s new economic ascendance, and Freddie Young (who shot Lawrence of Arabia) captures the streets and scenery gorgeously.
You Only Live Twice spends a lot of time showing Bond’s reactions to Japanese culture, revealing both his derision and admiration. As he reminds Miss Moneypenny, he took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge, and he impresses the Japanese secret service boss, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), with his knowledge about the correct temperature for drinking saki. Yet, Bond seems unimpressed with the slow interludes and ritual of the sumo wrestling match he attends. His discomfort is used interestingly though, as Gilbert intercuts the sumo match with Bond’s first encounter with the female Japanese agent, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). His scepticism and lack of knowledge about both the agent and the sport parallel each other. Not surprisingly, Bond also approves of how, according to Tanaka, men come first and women come second in Japan. Today, the scene looks bizarre, awkward, and offensive, but it’s also a revealing moment of Western male anxiety about the changing relations between the sexes during the 1960s.
During the filming of You Only Live Twice, Connery told the producers that this would be his last entry, and he seems much little less energized in the role. Sadly, Connery achieves neither the electric sense of lethalness and cruelty lurking just below the surface, which is so palpable in Dr. No and From Russia with Love, nor the spot-on dry wit of Goldfinger and Thunderball. Maybe he just didn’t like his bad wig.
You Only Live Twice is when we first see SPECTRE boss Ernst Stavro Blofeld in full person, but Donald Pleasance is a disappointingly flat Blofeld. The other baddies, Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) and Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), are not very memorable. Bond’s Japanese partner, Tiger Tanaka, is certainly the most memorable supporting character in the film—Tetsuro Tamba’s relish for each quip and each piece of equipment plays even stronger beside Connery’s deflated interest—while the Bond girls succeed in their roles, if they’re never allowed to exceed them. Thus, like the story, the cast is pretty standard overall.
After rewatching the first five Bond films, I’d have to say You Only Live Twice is my least favourite. I do still enjoy it though, but mostly for the first half. Apart from the Japanese setting and the sometimes beautiful cinematography, You Only Live Twice offers nothing that one of the previous four didn’t do better.
7 out of 10
You Only Live Twice (UK, 1967)
Directed by Lewis Gilbert; screenplay by Roald Dahl; starring Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Tetsuro Tamba, Teru Shimada, Karin Dor, Donald Pleasence, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, and Charles Gray.