FREE from the underwater drudge of Thunderball, and with Sean Connery’s tenure in the role nearing its end, it’s time to examine one of the more awkward Bond films to view from a modern standpoint, and also one of the most parodied: 1967’s You Only Live Twice.
Daniel Abbott: I’m faced with the unenviable position of defending yellowface. While the ethno-political sensitivity of Sean Connery’s fifth outing as Bond doesn’t quite hold up – as Mr. Noel will elaborate – You Only Live Twice ramps up the series’ inherent ridiculousness to staggering lengths, providing plenty of creative scenarios for Bond and his suits to parade around in. Learning from the sluggish, aquatic pace of Thunderball, You Only Live Twice rattles along at a fierce canter, barely pausing for breath between exposition dumps and Bond-theme-backed helicopter chases.
The plot, what little there is, makes even less sense than usual. Tasked with foiling SPECTRE’s bizarre masterplan to incite war between America and the Soviet Union by swallowing their spaceships with a bigger spaceship (neither nation buying the other’s completely plausible denials), Bond pops over to Japan to engage in glorified sight-seeing and lady-straddling.
A newcomer to the series, Lewis Gilbert’s direction is assured and visually arresting, his striking aerial shots and command of pace a real credit; that he would go on to direct series favourite The Spy Who Loved Me and (personal favourite) Moonraker is an anorak’s bonus on top. As ridiculous as the plot is, Gilbert exerts full control over the film’s silliness, transforming it into a prop for creativity that later entries would find difficult to match.
Much of the silliness comes from its performances. Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld – the character’s first true appearance – certainly brings a slice of eerie camp, but this is initially offered by Charles Gray’s wry Henderson. Gray would later play (the superior) Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, but his cameo here is brief and humorous.
Tetsurō Tamba’s Tanaka is a precise mirror image of Connery’s Bond, sans the chest hair – a roguishly charming playboy spy brimming with disarming quips and cavalier wit. He also has an army of ninjas, so props there. Connery, for his part, looks less weary of the role than in either Thunderball or Diamonds Are Forever, retaining the more playful air of prior performances, though he has more chemistry with Tamba than with either of his female co-stars.
While rooted in the 60s – with plenty of double-fisted axehandles and judo chops – the action sequences have more weight, clarity and visual panache than many modern adventures. One fight sees Bond running along rooftops, trailed by several kendo-stick-wielding henchmen, a long aerial pan revealing more as the camera rolls across.
The Japanese locations are exquisite, with stunning blossom gardens and panoramic vistas. Gilbert also utilises Blofeld’s volcano lair – heavily parodied in Austin Powers – as a celebration in preposterous spectacle, bolstered by Ken Adams’ fantastic, slickly industrial set. The climactic ninja assault on the volcano is ridiculous, of course, but grandly extravagant for it.
The film even has one of the best title themes in the series. Sung by Nancy Sinatra and played through numerous variations in John Barry’s surprisingly restrained score, it’s a gorgeous, swelling track built on lush strings and Sinatra’s husky delivery.
It’s not one of the best Bonds, or entirely comfortable to revisit from a modern perspective, but You Only Live Twice is certainly one of the most memorable, chock full of interesting ideas that circumvent the plot’s blatant lunacy. Later films would depend on this balance for success, and would more often still be the barometer of their failure, but You Only Live Twice gets it just right.
Andrew Noel: You Only Live Twice provided an opportunity no other Bond film had yet: to break in the Japanese stereotype. That’s right, folks, this is going to be a race and sex-based criticism. You Only Live Twice is a film riddled with lines and scenes that make the modern viewer squirm with awkwardness. Scenes that take place in the bathing house, where ‘Tiger’ explains: ‘In Japan, men come first, women come second.’ ‘I might just have to retire here’ James quips before the two are sponged down by various assorted women. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s mild sexism in a James Bond film though, even if this example hasn’t aged well.
But then there comes the scene where they make Bond ‘Japanese’. Yes, the eye prosthetics and wigs are introduced, and James is given a slightly disconcerting makeover. Did I mention the place that gives him a makeover also doubles as a school for ninjas? It’s like a walking stereotype. Yes, I know, it was a different time and everything, but you would have thought the filmmakers might have paused for a moment to just think about what they’re doing.
Aside from this casual racism, the film isn’t particularly gripping, not for a Bond film anyway. The scenes jumps from lose action sequences to Bond somehow seducing yet another woman. The plot hops along, with a loose story that often loses the interest of the viewers. It’s surprising as well, considering how basic the storyline actually is. You can tell it was written by Roald Dahl, because of how ridiculous parts of it are. I’ve never heard the word ‘sexiful’ used in a film before.
When we finally meet Blofeld we’re met with a character barely given any screen time, with characteristics of an overblown joke. Pet piranhas? Please. Even his bodyguard Hans could have been given a really interesting persona. Alas, he’s given about five minutes of screen time. What a wasted opportunity.
You Only Live Twice is an incredibly two-dimensional film. The storyline is bland, boring and feels like it switches from grand seduction to dry action scene and back again. Bond is on top form when it comes to misogyny, and the lead bad guy features for about 20 minutes of the movie. Despite being in the prime of Bond movies, along with the likes of Goldfinger and Dr. No, You Only Live Twice fails to live up to the legacy left by its predecessors.