Thunderball was a huge commercial success, but suffered from its formulaic plot. Fearing that the rot was starting to set in, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman sought to make On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as the 5th franchise film, but weather conditions meant production was shifted to You Only Live Twice instead. Released at the very height of Bond mania, You Only Live Twice is one of the ‘kitchen sink’ films in the franchise. As a reaction to the tepid Thunderball, EON hired a fresh director, Lewis Gilbert, and set out to make the biggest Bond movie ever. There’s a great deal to love about this movie, and whilst not without its problems, it has to be said that You Only Live Twice is one of the most iconic 007 movies.The plot concerns the theft of a US spacecraft by a mysterious craft. This being the Cold War, America blames the USSR, but British Intelligence notes the craft landed in the sea of Japan, so have their doubts about the Russians (Russia actually borders the Sea of Japan but whatever) and send in their best man, James Bond (Sean Connery). Connery travels to Toyko where he meets the head of the Japanese Secret Service Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurō Tamba) and his agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) who help him track the stolen craft to SPECTRE.The pre-titles continue the running gag of killing off Bond before the movie starts, though the proceedings here are more brutal than usual and the results are shocking – though in retrospect, you do wonder which of Bond’s assassins are in on the plot (if they all are, what’s the staging for?). We get our first visit to space too, before falling into Nancy Sinatra’s soft and dreamy title song, one of the most memorable and soothing in the series. Maurice Binder too gives us a great titles sequence with girls and volcanos topped with a Japanese imagery; it serves to nicely summarise the tone of the movie. You Only Live Twice is one of the most atmospheric Bond movies; there’s an air of whimsy and fantasy throughout. John Barry hasn’t been mentioned enough in these retrospectives, but the score he crafts throughout You Only Live Twice, using the Sinatra score as a base, is some of his finest work and really supports the ethereal tone of the flick. The Japanese setting helps tremendously – Tokyo is a neon delight, but then there’s some beautiful aerial photography of mountains and oceans which is just great to get lost in. Japan really feels like an unseen world, and it taps into the exotic Bond vibe that audiences at the time craved. Remember, in the 60s, there wasn’t really any access to other countries and international travel was only for the elite. For many, Bond movies were as close as they could get to places like Japan. Nowhere is this better illustrated than You Only Live Twice; Japan makes for one of the best locations in the whole series and the film serves as a love letter to the country, bordering on a travelogue. The cinematography throughout is colourful and appealing too.The script was actually written by Roald Dahl, who gives us an unusual and surreal Bond movie which always seems to be disappearing down rabbit holes. It’s clear that after Thunderball, there’s been an attempt to return to the high energy of Goldfinger – You only Live Twice is a bold and confident movie, and the money falls of the screen. The action sequences are bigger and more elaborate than ever before, climaxing in a huge battle sequence, the biggest in the series to date. There’s a great aerial sequence involving ‘Little Nelly,’ too. If there was any criticism of the action, it’s at this point in the series when the fight scenes start to feel a little bit forced. The Little Nelly sequence for example, actually has no bearing on the plot, and even Bond’s reasons for flying in Little Nelly are a bit superfluous. Lewis Gilbert however is great at these big Bond movies and proves himself one of series’ strongest directors; Gilbert impressed the producers so much they brought him back for both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, both of which are essentially remakes of this film. Credit has to be given to Ken Adam too – his sets are incredible. Ken Adam, the 60s, and James Bond go together perfectly and he really cemented the look of their earlier films. Here, he actually manages to top his stunning Fort Knox set with the volcano base – which cost more to build than Dr No cost to make. The volcano base really is huge, as well as hugely impressive.
Connery seems more involved here than he was in Thunderball, though it’s getting clear he wanted out and he does look pretty bored. A private man, he couldn’t deal with the constant harassment from the press, and felt that he’d be typecast forever after playing the titular spy. With that in mind, Connery asked for more money – a cut of the profits – which Saltzman and Broccoli rejected. Had this been his final film, Connery would have left with a near perfect cinematic legacy. Unfortunately, he came back for one more film, which is one of the very worst in the series. Tamba as Tanaka is a good ally, one of the more memorable in the series, and Wakabayashi makes for a great Bond girl; she’s smart and on the ball but sweetly charming too. It’s a shame then, that Wakabayashi’s character is killed off towards the end of the film, and replaced with Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki, who being the final surviving girl should be seen as the main one. She’s cute and all, but can barely speak English and has next to no lines because of this, and even less personality on top of that – it says a lot that she’s not even named in the movie. Yes, the policy with Bond girls is the more the merrier and having two on a poster is better than one, but really, it’s senseless that Aki is killed off and replaced by a non-entity, especially when it has no bearing on the plot (Bond doesn’t even react to Aki’s death). Really, both characters should have been merged with Wakabayashi in the role. Charles Gray appears too.
Karin Dor plays Helga Brandt, a henchman who wants to bed Bond before killing him. She’s good, and gets an iconic send off in a piranha tank, but is a complete rip off of Thunderball’s more energetic Fiona Volpe – she’s even a redhead. It’s a bit strange to have these two characters appear in side-by-side movies; had Helga shown up twenty years later, she’d be a homage, it’s just a bit soon for her. But if Thunderball taught EON anything, it was that it was time to stop faffing around with Blofeld, and finally, four films later, we’re introduced to Bond’s nemesis. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is a great over-the-top villain and Donald Pleasence plays him like an icy lizard; the man doesn’t blink once in the whole film, and there’s just something so unsettling, and not quite human about the character. It’s a great performance, more proof that great actors make for great villains, though these days, ripe for parody – Michael Myers basically built his career on Pleasence here. Blofeld crops up played by various actors over the next few films, but it’s Pleasence’s performance that sticks in the memory.
You Only Live Twice shows how far the series has come since Dr No and From Russia With Love. Looking back, it’s surprising just how fast the series got to this point. Those early, more grounded movies have been replaced with volcano bases, space shuttles being stolen, and excessive gadgets. Blofeld’s scheme here for example is a mile away in tone from his From Russia with Love plot. This may come down to personal preference, but the more grounded Bond films tend to be the better ones; the sillier, over the top ones tend to age quickly, and You Only Live Twice falls into the latter category. Your tolerance for it will depend on which kind of Bond you prefer, but fan preferences these days have swung to the gritty side; From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale are generally considered the best films now. It doesn’t help that the plot can move a little slowly in this one too, and that when it does get going it falls into out and out silliness. The whole ‘turning Japanese’ plot is ridiculous now – the six foot two Connery pretending to be a Japanese fisherman complete with Scottish accent is laughable, and the film doesn’t even seem committed to the idea; Connery’s makeup inexplicably just vanishes when he reaches the volcano base. It’s one of the more cringeworthy ideas in the franchise. Lewis Gilbert would basically remake this film as The Spy Who Loved Me ten years later, and actually do a better job; The Spy Who Loved Me actually goes further than this, which makes it work in a pulpy, ‘boys adventure’ kind of way. It’s a better version of this film, but we’ll get to that one later. Some fans will love this one. It’s peak SPECTRE, peak Bond mania, and it’s got a dreamy atmosphere, great villain and wonderful location work. But there was a sense that going bigger and bolder wouldn’t last, and so things get really shaken up in the next one, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Which might actually be the best movie in the series.