I spent years under the impression that You Only Live Twice was the very best of the Bond films, because I had such vivid memories of its best scenes and hadn’t seen it in some time. Now, I can still say it’s very good, but it’s also the first film where the more fantastic elements are maybe a little too fantastic. In a Bond film you expect a bit of the outrageous, but there is a limit I think. In that respect, Goldfinger and Thunderball got it right, You Only Live Twice doesn’t. On the surface the ideas in Goldfinger don’t seem any the less absurd. But You Only Live Twice knows that we’ve been here before and wants to push things even further. Sometimes it pushes things a bit too far.
It’s still a great adventure yarn though, and takes full advantage of its Japanese setting. The location filming in Tokyo, for one, really captures the feel of the place. In some respects, You Only Live Twice is quite an exotic and unique Bond film due to its visuals, and it helps, as it doesn’t closely resemble the other episodes. There were, however, changes to be made. In the novel, Blofeld’s base is a castle, but the film goes even further into fantasy by having it in the heart of a defunct volcano. An awe inspiring set, by Ken Adam, which cost more to build than the entire of Dr. No cost to make.
Released in the summer of 1967, You Only Live Twice came some time after the previous adventure, Thunderball. Although that film had hit cinemas at the end of ’65, there was no new release in 1966. This film was the first Bond film not to have been released in consecutive years. But even at the time, 5 Bond films in 5 years was a remarkable achievement, especially considering the high quality.
You Only Live Twice is a big adventure and a lot of fun, but it does have a few bad points worth mentioning. If you can get your head around a plot involving spaceships swallowing up other spaceships and a rocket launch pad in an extinct volcano, you might be slightly let down by the effects work. There’s some appalling back projection in You Only Live Twice. I know this is a vintage Bond film, but come on! Easily avoided, surely!
The ‘unmasking’ of Blofeld is a bit of an anti-climax, and I can’t help but feel that it was far more effective to have his face out of view. It added to the mystery. As things are, Donald Pleasance is pretty good but he lacks the heartless chill of Anthony Dawson’s voice in the previous films. But I do like his scream of “Kill Bond! NOW!” A great outburst from a character that you suspect doesn’t lose his cool very often.
On the plus side, the pre-credits sequence (as mentioned) is intriguing with Bond being killed, or so we think. Maurice Binder’s title sequence is still one of his best, an Oriental themed collection of umbrella silhouettes and lava flows. It’s gorgeous. Nancy Sinatra’s theme song is also one of the very best, due in large part to its writers- John Barry and Leslie Bricusse. Barry’s all round score in this film is also up to quality, and is easily one of his best.
You Only Live Twice is a lavish adventure and as mentioned, the Japanese setting makes it a sumptuous watch. Also, with this film, producers Broccoli and Saltzman decided to take a bold step, and hire some new creative talent, instead of relying on the usual names. Lewis Gilbert was hired as the director, a Brit who had already crafted a big hit with Alfie (1966). Children’s writer Roald Dahl is responsible for the script. I have to admit the script isn’t the greatest and I suspect Dahl’s heart wasn’t in the job. It’s difficult to see his trademark dark humour and creative drive in this one, so perhaps it was heavily altered. Also on the negative side are some of the special effects. Although the model work is exceptionally good, things take a less pleasing turn when a full size space rocket replica has to appear in ‘real’ surroundings. Despite the best efforts of Ken Adam, those occasionally unconvincing special effects almost undermine his excellent production design. Still, Gilbert directs with a stylish flair and the whole package ends up looking very attractive, even if the story occasionally borders on the farcical.
You Only Live Twice is a film of firsts, and was quite influential on the series. It was the first to use an original story, borrowing only a few elements from Fleming’s original novel such as the characters and location. It was the first to be directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would return ten years later to helm the very similar The Spy who Loved Me. It was the first Bond not to be scripted by Richard Maibaum as well, although he would return for the next film. You can tell they where aiming for something different with this film. In fact, Bond does not drive in this movie, visit a casino in a tuxedo, and nor does he utter his signature line, “Bond… James Bond.”
The futuristic steel encased bases of future Bonds, seen most recently in Spectre, have their blueprint in this one. Yes, I know Dr. No and Goldfinger had them, but this really runs with the scale of the idea. As far as style goes, You Only Live Twice feels like the end of a cycle started by Goldfinger in 1964, and encompassing Thunderball in 1965. They are all big Bond adventures with lashes of excitement and ‘60s style. The next film would still have the usual guns, girls and gadgets but would be significantly different in tone. For Sean Connery’s Bond and the swinging ‘60s, the party was almost over. But what a party to end with. Sean would eventually return as 007, of course, but not until 1971. A new Bond would have to be found after this adventure. Sean Connery is as watchable as ever in You Only Live Twice, but this isn’t his best film, but perhaps that was down to his perceived boredom with the role at this point. There is some good dialogue in this outing, but Twice does action scenes better. The samurai fight in the office is exceptionally powerful and the scene of Bond running across the rooftops, pursued by heavies, is a masterstroke of direction. The climatic battle in the volcano base is grand and well choreographed. The film is quite novel at this point, as it features a ninja battle, long before ninjas were fashionable action staples. There’s also Bond’s “Little Nellie”, a mini-helicopter supplied by the ever-reliable ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewelyn in a wonderfully harassed cameo).
It’s not all action, of course, and some of the other performances deserve a mention. Tetsuro Tamba is quite good as Japanese intelligence boss Tiger Tanaka. Blofeld’s female agent Helga Brandt (Karin Or) is quite a challenge as well, although she does fall for James’ charms in the end. Alright, so she tries killing him afterwards, but she’s just doing her job after all. The main Bond girl is Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki, and she’s fairly forgettable. There’s nothing wrong with just being pretty, but I expect a bit more from a Bond girl. After all, 007 doesn’t just sit around looking handsome does he? My reaction to her is especially ironic as Aki is seen to be Bond’s secret service aid, and even drives him around her own car, but something doesn’t quite work for me there. Maybe the chemistry between Aki and Bond is a bit flat. The later appearance of Mie Hama as Kissy more than makes up for my disappointment in Aki. I feel Kissy has a bit more personality. On the dialogue side, I love the line “The things I do for England..” and “Japanese saying say ‘bird never make nest in empty tree’” when 007 defends his luxurious chest hair.
Even when faced with its shortcomings, I will always admit that You Only Live Twice is one of the most beautiful of Bond films. Some parts of the film seem to glow (but maybe that’s the bad back projection with the exploding volcano!) Cinematographer Freddie Young won Oscars for his earlier efforts outside the Bond series, and his talent is obvious here. Other than that it’s business as usual, with nothing really inspired beneath the gloss. Also, the more you question the wafer thin storyline, the more disillusioned with it you might become. The best way to enjoy You Only Live Twice is to disengage your brain and let your eyes take control. If you do that, you won’t miss much and you’ll enjoy it more.