“Make one dream come true; you only live twice…”
I was only lucky enough to get to see some Bond movies again after growing up and leaving home. You Only Live Twice is not one of them. There are only a few things I remembered about it prior to watching it again: a scary opening sequence as a spacewalking astronaut has his lifeline cut when his space capsule is swallowed up by a strange ship. A heavily-armed gyrocopter. Someone getting dropped off a bridge over a piranha pool. James Bond pretending to be an astronaut, unsuccessfully. (I was always so disappointed he didn’t get to go into space until Moonraker.) Dozens of ninjas invading a base inside a dormant volcano. And, of course, James Bond getting seemingly riddled with bullets, only to turn up alive inside a secret military intelligence office inside a grounded ship. (Turns out after the fact I was mixing that up with The Man with the Golden Gun, which also starts in Hong Kong.)
Even though it has a reputation as not one of Connery’s best efforts, I was still excited to see it again. And thanks to this Blu-ray set, I was able to do exactly that.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
The second ‘scope Bond movie, this one takes full advantage of the widescreen vista by traveling to scenic Japan. Perhaps most remembered for the little gyrocopter Bond takes scouting and the ominously scarred Blofeld, this movie sees Connery in the role for what he believed would be the last time.
With previous Bond movie scribes such as Richard Maibaum unavailable, Broccoli and Saltzman turned to a good friend of Fleming’s to adapt his book You Only Live Twice—none other than famous children’s author Roald Dahl. Given that Fleming himself wrote a famous children’s book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I find the symmetry amusing.
International tensions mount after a mysterious spaceship swallows up an American Gemini capsule. In Hong Kong, Bond is seemingly killed by assassins, then buried at sea—but he turns out not to be as dead as expected. (Thus, You Only Live Twice is the second Bond movie in a row to open with a fake funeral. I wonder if Bond appreciated the irony considering what happened to Jacques Bouver in Thunderball?) Radar tracking suggests the ship came down somewhere in the vicinity of Japan, so Bond goes there to sniff around.
When the British Secret Service’s local man, Henderson, is assassinated, Bond follows the assassin to a local chemical manufacturer’s office and uncovers clues that lead him to a remote island where the rocket is based. Bond tangles with femme fatale Helga Brandt (who later feeds the fishes), undergoes some brief ninja training at the hands of Japanese Secret Service chief Tiger Tanaka, loses one Bond girl, Aki, but gains another, Kissy Suzuki, and finally infiltrates the base and has a showdown with Blofeld, saving the day at the last possible moment.
You Only Live Twice is the first classic Bond movie that has failed to live up to my recollections of it. It’s still quite good, but not as good as I remembered. It has a few fairly obvious problems.
Some of the problems can be laid at the feet of the production team. Unlike the previous four movies, You Only Live Twice had a brand new (to the franchise) director and a brand new (to the franchise and in terms of experience) scriptwriter.
Lewis Gilbert would go on to direct two of Roger Moore’s better Bond movies (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) and do fairly well with the additional experience under his belt, but it’s worth noting that his editor’s original cut of the movie came in at almost 3 hours and didn’t do well in test screenings. Fortunately veteran Bond editor Peter Hunt was available to recut the movie. Even then, there were apparently limits to what he could do. There are a number of little inconsistencies and plot holes that the previous movies didn’t have.
Consider the astronauts Bond frees from the cells in Blofeld’s base, who help disguise him as one of Blofeld’s astronauts and then vanish completely from the narrative. Was their fate chronicled in the extra hour of material Hunt pared away? And when Bond drops Blofeld’s blond henchman into the water and says “Bon appetit,” how does Bond know there are piranhas in it? He hasn’t seen anyone being fed to them.
As for the writer, Roald Dahl, who had never completed a movie script before, he was explicitly told to work to a formula. There have to be three main Bond girls: a good girl who dies, a bad girl who dies, and another good girl Bond ends up with. As a result, this portion of the plot comes off as, well, formulaic.
The bad girl, Helga Brandt (played by Karin Dor), is a pale shadow of Thunderball‘s Fiona Volpe, neither interesting nor all that menacing. It’s really hard to care when Blofeld feeds her to the piranhas. And there is no real narrative reason to kill off Aki and replace her with the plot-identical Kissy Suzuki apart from the necessity of cleaving to that formula. Aki’s death didn’t move Bond to do anything he wasn’t already in the process of doing anyway. The movie would have played out exactly the same if Aki had stayed with Bond all the way through the rest of the film.
There’s also the fact that this was the first Bond movie unable to rely on Fleming’s original story to any great extent; the novel was considered unfilmable and only a few minor plot elements made their way to the screen. So Dahl modeled the new story after Dr. No; Blofeld’s scheme of hijacking American and Soviet spacecraft hews very close to Dr. No’s scheme of interfering with their launches. That may be another reason the movie was less impressive all in all; we’ve already seen that story before.
Maybe it’s the fault of seeing it on such a small screen, but the extremely clear digital restoration has not been kind to this movie’s special effects. As with previous Bond movies, the rear projection scenes are all blatantly obvious, but the real kicker are the outer space scenes. Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize the special effects in a 1960s Bond film that still had a pretty low budget as film spectaculars go, but they’re some of the most unrealistic space scenes in the entire franchise. They don’t even look like miniatures, they look like bad animation. Moonraker had considerably better space effects, and those were created in-camera on a shoestring budget. (Of course, I might have a different opinion when I work my way up to Moonraker in my HD rewatches.)
But that being said, the interior of Blofeld’s volcano base is amazing—not least because they didn’t create it with miniatures, as I first thought. They actually built that whole monster set on Pinewood’s back lot, and flew real helicopters into it. As the documentary featurette points out, that single set cost more than the entire production of Dr. No.
There are plenty of other good things about the movie, too. The cinematography is quite good, showcasing the picturesque beauty of both rural and urban Japan. There are some great shots of fight scenes, too, including one extreme long shot showing Bond running across a roof and fighting off baddies. The fights are well-choreographed, and the pacing is good. It’s never too long before another bit of action or intrigue. It was also amusing, after my observations about Bond tossing his hat in Thunderball, to see them come up with a different variation on the running gag yet again (tossing his uniform cap in the submarine).
Overall, the story makes sense—Bond’s investigations proceed rationally, with one clue leading to another in a believable way. It’s just that there are a few silly bits of business that pop up for the first time, presaging similar silly bits that get taken to extremes during the Roger Moore years. The worst offender is all the nonsense about making Bond train as a ninja and then go undercover as a Japanese peasant, including wearing yellowface makeup. Yes, it’s one of few elements they actually could lift from the book, but it worked a lot better in print than on the screen.
And trapping Bond under a two-by-four in a careening airplane has to be the silliest “Why don’t you just shoot him already?” moment since that ridiculous tarantula from Dr. No. Bond’s “ninja training” allows him to do the karate-chop-a-two-by-four trick? Which he then never ever uses again? Really?
The actors all do good jobs for as much or little time as they have on screen. Charles Gray, “The Criminologist” from Rocky Horror, has a good but brief expiring scene as the agent Henderson; he’ll be back as Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever. (Did Blofeld decide to model a subsequent plastic surgery after the guy as a way of counting coup?) Japanese actor Tetsurô Tanba is excellent as Tiger Tanaka, granting that he nonetheless had to be dubbed for the Western audience. Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama are good (if largely interchangeable) as Aki and Kissy Suzuki, respectively. As with previous Bond girls, they both have considerably more agency than you might expect given the era. Aki saves Bond’s life a number of times, and is pretty good in a fight. Kissy takes part in the final assault on the base, including shooting someone about to attack Tanaka.
Donald Pleasence is suitably striking as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the mysterious man with the cat revealed at last. His scar gives him an ominous appearance, and he’s the incarnation of Blofeld everybody remembers, but it still feels like a step down from the spooky non-presence in From Russia with Love and Thunderball. He lacks that sense of menace. What you can’t see is always scarier than what you can.
All things considered, You Only Live Twice is perhaps not as good as I had remembered, but it’s definitely better than some of the later Bond movies. It has Connery, but more than that, it has largely the same production team who produced the earlier Bonds—especially editor Peter Hunt, whose bold new editing style made Connery’s earlier movies what they were.
You Only Live Twice has the usual great assortment of extras from a Bond Blu-ray. There are documentaries on the making of the film, a period TV special promoting it, and more, as well as the usual informative commentary track. They were all interesting and entertaining, though beyond that there’s not a whole lot more to say.
I’ll be watching Hunt’s last hurrah with the Bond franchise next, when he directed George Lazenby’s one shot in the role, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.