You Only Live Twice is a Japanese 007 extravaganza, filled with gyrocopters, piranhas, and ninjas.
The fifth film of the Bond franchise, You Only Live Twice is where tensions between star Sean Connery and producer Albert R. Broccoli were at their highest. Connery had grown bored with the role by this point, a lack of character development and salary contributing to his frustration. In understanding the film would likely be Connery’s last, Broccoli and fellow partner and producer Harry Saltzman had to make this Bond film “the most spectacular yet,” giving You Only Live Twice the biggest budget of the Connery films (excluding the non-eon Never Say Never Again), $9.5 million; the set of Blofeld’s volcano headquarters alone costing the same amount of Dr. No’s budget entirely.
Thunderball may have impressively brought the Bond franchise under the sea, but You Only Live Twice ups the ante and goes to space…sort of; 007 never actually leaves the atmosphere. After an American spacecraft disappears mysteriously from orbit, Cold War tensions flare up as the U.S. points a finger at the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Great Britain attempts to be a neutral ally, trying to divert the attention of the rival nations to the Sea of Japan, where they believe the alien ship that stole the spacecraft has landed – they say a British official is already on the case.
And where is that British official you may ask? Hong Kong, where Bond is having a romantic endeavor with a Chinese woman. However, while together in their room, the woman presses a button which launches the mattress they were sharing into a wall and Bond with it. Then, two gun men enter the room and fill the mattress with lead – unlike From Russia With Love, there is no nameless victim wearing a Bond mask – 007 is dead.
The Nancy Sinatra theme that plays after the scene is a perfect combination of her voice and the high-pitched strings of the violin, making for a hauntingly beautiful sound with a Japanese flourish. The instrumental riffs that composer John Barry supplied the song with are utilized throughout the film, giving You Only Live Twice one of the best scores of the Bond films.
“You only live twice, or so it seems”
“One life for yourself, and one for your dreams”
After news of Bond’s death, he is buried at sea. When his casket hits the sea floor, MI6 agents recover the casket and bring it onto a submarine. When the lid of the casket is removed, out pops James Bond, alive and well; it was all a ruse. Bond now has three weeks to find whoever is responsible for the disappearance of the American spacecraft, before the U.S. launches another rocket which if stolen will be considered an act of war and force them to retaliate against the Russians.
If the opening line to my review didn’t get the point across, You Only Live Twice is a lot of fun – it’s a cartoonish effort that settles for being nothing more than a dumb popcorn blockbuster.
The art direction for the film, under the guise of Sir Ken Adams, is one of my favorites so far, meticulously designed and full of a vibrant Japanese aesthetic. The trend of ambitious visual effects during the mid-late 60s is also evident within the film (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey releasing a year later), an example being the pre-title sequence depicting one spacecraft swallowing another which produces quite the spectacle; the scenes set in space hold up relatively well today, an impressive achievement considering the era of the film.
Another example of You Only Live Twice’s grandiose practical effects is a helicopter dogfight that occurs in the middle of the film. Bond calls for Q to bring him something called “Little Nellie,” which turns out is a gyrocopter (helicopter with a propeller in its rear) that can be constructed like an IKEA item. In a five-minute sequence that follows, Bond takes out several enemy helicopters with the yellow toy copter; Little Nellie “defended her honor with great success.” At this point, I believe the directors were just showing off what they could do with the budget they’d been afforded.
After teasing us throughout the first four films regarding the identity and face of the leader of the villainous organization SPECTRE, all is finally revealed in You Only Live Twice – the man that holds the iconic white cat is none other than Ernst Blofeld, played by a menacing Donald Pleasance with a large scar intersecting his right eye. While his appearance is brief, the significance of his first introduction leaves a mark on the film and the Bond franchise as a whole (Pleasance’s Blofeld also being the biggest influence on Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers series).
However, You Only Live Twice is not without its flaws. Sean Connery’s weariness of the role shows through his performance, his one-liners not quite landing the way they had been. When meeting with a British intelligence official, the official offers Bond a martini saying it was “stirred, not shaken” and Bond responding, “Perfect. Cheers.” I read his response as passively sarcastic, not wanting to offend the official, but the potential goof also may symbolize Connery’s disenchantment with the role.
For those bothered by the misogynist undertones of the early films, You Only Live Twice is likely to anger you the most. At one point, Bond’s ally Tiger Tanaka (played by Tetsuro Tanba) literally states, “In Japan, men come first, women come second.” Add racial stereotyping of Asians to the mix, such as the inclusion of every possible Asian cliché (sumo wrestling, sake, ninjas, etc.) and the infamous transformation of Bond into “a Japanese man”, and You Only Live Twice becomes one of the most dated Bond films in terms of language and cultural incorporation. I will admit, I did enjoy the ninjas though. You Only Live Twice is ridiculously over-the-top, visually striking, and represents yet another entertaining 007 adventure – but it also necessitates a mild refresh to the Bond formula for the future success of the franchise. 7.5/10
Abrahams, Stephanie. “James Bond, Declassified: 50 Things You Didn’t Know About 007.” Time, Time, 1 Oct. 2012, entertainment.time.com/2012/10/04/james-bond-declassified-50-things-you-didnt-know-about-007/slide/the-production-designer/.