You Only Live Twice, the fifth entry in the James Bond franchise, was the first of two Sean Connery swansongs (three, if you include 1983’s unofficial Never Say Never Again). With Connery visibly tired of the role, You Only Live Twice plays out as if it could serve as a final entry in the series, finally pitting Bond face-to-face against the evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), in an epic showdown inside a hollowed out volcano base. And “epic” is the optimum word here. From ninja armies and aerial helicopter battles to outer space intrigue, this is the first truly grandiose Bond film – for better and worse!
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Personally outed as an MI6 agent due to his victories against the evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. crime syndicate in Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball, You Only Live Twice kicks off with James Bond (Connery) faking his own death in a Hong Kong love shack – but not before commenting on the savory delicacies of Chinese girls vs. Western girls with an odd metaphor about traditional duck preparation.
Now incognito, Bond is instructed to track down the source of mysterious orbiting spacecraft disappearances that have prompted the United States and the Soviet Union on the brink of WWIII. Working on a tip, Bond travels to Japan where he quickly uncovers the evil gambit: S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has been covertly deploying spacecraft of their own out of an impressive hollowed out volcano fortress.
Teaming up with Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurō Tamba), head of the Japanese secret service, Bond begins training in the ways of the ninja, undergoing a bizarre plastic surgery transformation as they both work to discover the location of the hidden base.
After a brilliant helicopter battle, reminiscent of an aerial Aston Martin car chase from Goldfinger, Bond and the ninja army embark on a full out assault on the fortress with 007 ultimately confronting his arch-nemesis, Blofeld (Pleasence), head of the evil organization who had up to now remained in the shadows in previous films.
Released in the same year as the unofficial spoof Casino Royale, You Only Live Twice is a sweeping departure for the Bond series which had up to this point remained fairly grounded in pragmatic fantasy. At times, it practically rivals Royale for outright lunacy. I mean, which sounds more credible: a secret cliff-side villain lair serving as a UFO landing port guised as a respectable casino and vulnerable only to an experimental bomb; or, a massive fake volcano serving as a spaceship-swallowing-spaceship landing port and vulnerable only to a ninja army? Which brings me to a plot point I omitted: S.P.E.C.T.R.E. practically achieves WWIII by sending up its own spacecraft to literally swallow U.S. and Soviet vessels causing both nations to blindly suspect the other.
This venture into insanity was scripted by the most unlikely of screenwriters – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/James and the Giant Peach author Roald Dahl! The first Bond adaptation to have little to do with its source novel, You Only Live Twice, as you may have already surmised, takes abundant bouts of over-the-top fancy, many of which having little to no bearing on the plot. At worst, they deprive the film of any compelling drive and, at best, they enamor with pure imagination (natural for the Wonka creator).
Examples of the former would be a Tokyo car chase that is ended abruptly when Tanaka sends out a helicopter that clamps down on the villain’s ride with a giant magnet before being unceremoniously dropped in the middle of Tokyo Bay! Very covert of the Japanese secret service to stage a multiple murder in the face of one of the world’s most bustling cities – let alone the blatant act of marine pollution!
Even many of the smaller scenes don’t make much sense, such as one where Bond tells Japanese agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) to escape an ambush at Kobe dock as he literally stands agape watching her get halfway across the dock before trying to run away himself. Why didn’t he join her? Because the plot demanded that he should get captured?
More dismaying is the ruse of Bond’s death. What’s the point of the plan if Bond still goes about as usual, especially with his obituary, featuring his name and picture, published in every major worldwide newspaper? And then they send him to Japan where he stands out as a giant Scotsman towering over the entirety of the populace!
To top it off, he is eventually given away by the very fact that he still carries his particular weapon of choice, the Walther PPK. When evidenced to Blofeld, it immediately compels him to unequivocally declare that it must be Bond back from the dead! Really? Is James Bond somehow the only secret agent in the world that carries that specific brand of gun? Hell, in Dr. No the PPK was presented as standard issue for the entirety of the 00-section!
Add to that the bizarre and ludicrous Japanese transformation scenes and his long ninja training sessions. The world is counting down to hell and James Bond, the deadliest assassin in existence, is spending days on end ninja training in a Japanese garden! Not to mention the entire day wasted so they can stage an elaborate Japanese wedding serving as an exclamation point to Bond’s disguise.
Seriously, would no one buy his masquerade otherwise? After all, his cover is instantaneously blown as there are already henchmen lurking all over the ninja training camp trying to murder him anyway!
Yet for all its flights of fancy, there is much to enjoy in You Only Live Twice. For one, it is a rare 007 film where Bond primarily stays and experiences one main location (other than a pre-credits side trip to Hong Kong). In many ways, it plays like a travelogue to Japan and Japanese culture, the only major similarity between the film and Ian Fleming‘s novel (other than character names and a few odd tidbits). Although dated, it is a unique snapshot of Japan in the late 60’s with Bond playing the everyman conduit to the Land of the Rising Sun (by 1993’s Rising Sun, Connery would be a connoisseur). From lush sunset landscape shots to the neon glow of Tokyo nights, Japan gets a grand portrayal along with some of the best cinematography in the series.
The biggest thrill of You Only Life Twice are some of the most exciting, well-executed action set pieces in the Bond canon. Highlights include a brutal office fight involving katana swords and battering ram couch attacks plus the aforementioned Kobe dock ambush which concludes in a sweeping overhead tracking shot which, coupled with John Barry‘s incredible score, amounts to one of my personal favorite moments in the series.
Nevertheless, the two stand out sequences are undoubtedly the Little Nellie helicopter chase and the ninja assault on S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s volcano base. Provided by the ever exasperated Q (Desmond Llewelyn), Little Nellie stands up with Goldfinger‘s tricked-out Aston Martin and The Spy Who Loved Me‘s submarine Lotus Esprit as one of the most memorable classic 007 vehicles. An autogyro equipped with flamethrowers, machine guns, and heat-seeking missiles, its aerial helicopter dogfight is absolutely breathtaking from camera dodging angles to propeller blade near misses (save for a poor cameraman who unfortunately lost a leg while filming). Despite a few poor explosion effects and back projection (not to mention the ridiculous idea of a “covert” bright yellow toy helicopter), the sequence is as gripping as it is vicariously alarming.
The assault on the volcano base is on a scale heretofore unseen in any Bond movie. Filmed on the largest set constructed at the time, it is an elaborate exhibition of excellent stunt work and whimsy – a ninja cirque du soleil, if you will. Ken Adam’s award-worthy sets are impeccable and layered, providing an ambitious foundation for the film’s denouement. Of course, what evil lair would be complete without an extravagant monorail system?
There has been an overall observation over the years that Bond girls are nothing more than hapless conquests for Bond to enjoy – a generalization that could be argued as a bit unfair. You Only Live Twice features two of the strongest ladies in the series – Aki and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Aki not only saves Bond’s life on a few occasions displaying that she is a capable agent, but she also forms a genuine connection to him making it all the more tragic when she is killed towards the end of the film in a disturbingly creepy poison drip assassination. Kissy, Bond’s faux wife, outswims murderous helicopter raids and joins the ninjas on the assault herself! Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), the evil red-headed S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent, on the other hand, is nothing more than a poor clone of Thunderball‘s Fiona Volpe only far more incompetent.
Oddly enough, the weaker links here are Bond and Blofeld! Sean Connery, plainly weary of the roll, lacks the charming spark that brought life to his previous performances. Even after the two year hiatus, it is quite apparent that he was ready to hang up his holster. Blofeld, after a multi-film build up, is underwhelming. Donald Pleasence, though an interesting choice, is an unimposing figure. Perhaps that was the intention – the quiet, meek genius capable of manipulating global markets and bringing the world to his heels. However, Pleasence’s high-pitched demeanor coupled with the insipid stupidity of allowing Bond access to his personal items (one of which is a rocket-shooting cigarette), drops him down a peg or two. This, after all, is supposed to be the megalomaniacal genius who is only seconds away from plunging the world into Armageddon (again!)? One would, and should, expect better (a fallacy that would be thankfully addressed in the following film).
Despite its monumental set pieces and practical stunt work, the film is one of the most dated in the Bond series due to some poor outer space special effects work and back projections. Coming out the year before Stanley Kubrick‘s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, You Only Live Twice seems cartoonish by comparison – especially one scene featuring the evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. vessel returning to earth. It doesn’t help that the evil vessel looks like it features a strange elongated face!
Heck, it’d be downright pornographic if this landed on the moon à la 1902’s A Trip to the Moon.
Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice
Up until You Only Live Twice, all the Bond films had been fairly faithful to their original novels. With this film, the trend deviated wildly. One wonders how Fleming fans reacted to the very first shot of the film featuring a spaceship in orbit! What a twist!
The final part to Fleming’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trilogy that began with Thunderball and continued in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the novel finds a broken Bond wasting away following the wedding day homicide of his bride under direction of Blofeld. Pitying him, M hopes to reinvigorate Bond by reassigning him as 777 and sending him on a difficult diplomatic mission – to convince Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service, to provide Britain with Soviet communications in return for valuable British intelligence. Upon learning that Tanaka already has his own sources within British intelligence, he offers Bond a different trade: in exchange for the Soviet communications, Bond would have to infiltrate the Garden of Death, a notorious Japanese suicide hot spot, and assassinate its caretaker, the mysterious Dr. Guntram Shatterhand (as a side note to the Bond producers, you have to make a Bond film titled “Shatterhand!”).
Upon discovering that Shatterhand is a cover for Blofeld himself, Bond sets out for vengeance. Aided by agent Kissy Suzuki, Bond disguises himself as a Japanese fisherman (albeit without the plastic surgery) and is retrained by Tanaka in the secret art of the ninja – an art that includes a passage dedicated to the ancient practice of testicle retraction! Bond survives Blofeld’s Garden but is captured and tortured atop a hot lava geyser (because what Fleming novel would be complete without a ritual torture scene?). He escapes and battles a Samurai-clad Blofeld, finally strangling him with his bare hands and plugging up the geyser which causes the lair to explode.
Having taken a blow to the head, Kissy nurses a now-amnesiac Bond back to health and convinces him that he is indeed a Japanese fisherman and her husband! The novel concludes with Bond, wanting to recover his missing memories, leaving a pregnant(!) Kissy behind while he takes off to Russia!
Sadly, as this was the last novel fully completed by Fleming before his death, we never found out the canon fate of his unborn child (outside of a Raymond Benson short story, “Blast from the Past,” released 33 years later). If I was to venture a guess, I would say:
Just kidding, although, in hindsight, this would make a lot more sense than the Bond nephew that was featured in the short-lived 90’s animated series! In fact, the only dangling plot thread from You Only Live Twice picked up in the Fleming novels was Bond’s brainwashed return to MI6 in the posthumous The Man with the Golden Gun.
As a conclusion to the trilogy, Fleming’s You Only Live Twice serves its purpose well providing a merciless cap on the story. There are many interesting elements in the novel that were discarded from the film, including the linchpin for the story’s title – Bond’s poor attempt at haiku poetry:
“You only live twice:
Once when you are born,
And once when you look death in the face.”
Unfortunately, with Bond producers opting to film the trilogy out-of-order, the film adaptation loses much of Bond’s revenge driven determination – a primal purpose replaced with over-the-top spectacle that makes a Samurai-clad Blofeld overseeing a suicide garden seem banal by comparison!
On a side note, Kissy mentions in the novel that she is a fan of film actor David Niven who was not only the original choice for James Bond but one that would go on to play Sir James in the infamous 1967 Casino Royale! I wonder what Fleming would have thought had he seen it? Something tells me that the looking “death in the face” quote would be apropos.
Hungry Spaceships and Duck Dinners
You Only Live Twice‘s pre-credits sequence, unlike its complements inGoldfinger and Thunderball, kicks off the film’s overall plot directly. Unlike the more understated setup in From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice jumps around erratically from a spaceship hilariously being swallowed up in orbit, to an international meeting in what resembles Epcot‘s Spaceship Earth (appropriate, though chronologically unintentional), and finally, to Bond’s Hong Kong assassination ploy. Other than some dubious effects, especially one where an astronaut appears larger than the craft that housed him due to poor perspective, the only part that is memorable is the final third, as silly as it is – duck dinner association and all!
The credits sequence itself, on the other hand, is extraordinary. Maurice Binder updates the sequence once again in a style that would dominate much of his run for the next two decades. Featuring nude geisha silhouettes and dancing girls set against stock footage of lava flow, the sequence combined with Nancy Sinatra’s stirring title tune, is inspired and beautiful, marking a good epitaph to a “deceased” Bond.
Of particular note is the high contrast of colors, such as the electric blue fans conflicting with the deep layered reds from the lava flow producing an altogether vibrant and engaging opening to the film.
You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film produced that was actively trying to be a Bond film. Instead of presenting anything faithful to the literary source that birthed the franchise, this film dissects the “007 formula” that made up the previous entries down to the letter, delivering an end-product that feels more distilled than original. Beat for beat, with few deviations, this movie represents almost every cliche associated with the film series. Unfortunately, this approach works almost as often as it fails with only the film’s quick pace, out-of-this-world spectacle, and Japanese locations giving it credence or identity. When it blunders, it’s downright face-palming but when it does work, such as the autogyro and ninja assault scenes, it provides some of the most era defining episodes from the series.
On a brighter note, director Lewis Gilbert would more-or-less remake You Only Live Twice a decade later with the more down-to-earth (pun intended) though still fantastical The Spy Who Loved Me; but that’s a 007 story for another 7th…
I’ve always wondered why the scene in the gunbarrel iris suddenly switched to black and white in this film. It’s the same footage used in Thunderball, after all. What prompted them to change it?
Speaking of Indiana Jones, You Only Live Twice features an absurd murder attempt on Bond where he is fastened inside a crashing plane while Helga jumps to safety, similar to the attempt on the famed archaeologist in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Unsurprisingly, both heroes survive prompting the most obvious question: why not shoot them?!
Here’s something I bet you never expected to see: Bond bathing with another man – a man who comments midway about the thick, “fascinating” plume of chest hair James sports!
Already the Bond series suffered from somewhat poor continuity (let alone the legendary age factor that would become a topic of discussion in the coming years). For instance, Bond mentions that he’s never been to Japan despite musing about a certain experience he had with M (Bernard Lee) in Tokyo in From Russia with Love. Must’ve been one hell of a time they shared! Perhaps it too involved a Japanese bathing session?
No appearance of Blofeld would be complete without his precious white cat but something tells me said cat wouldn’t have minded sitting this one out as a nearby explosion causes the poor thing to go wild with panic during the film’s climax!
Forget Bond’s never-aging youth! In this film, his tongue is able to detect the exact temperature of Saki not only to the exact degree but to the very decimal point! He is a thermotic marvel of superhuman ability!
James Bond will Return
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
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