Friday, August 18, 2017

You Only Live Twice (1967)


Sean Connery was back as James for the fifth time in 1967. Spy-mania had gripped the world and you could even argue that the popularity of the genre had already reached saturation point. But things were only going to get more intense, because not only did producers have to worry about making a good movie, they had direction competition, from another film featuring James Bond! It was the first time Bond vs. Bond happened in the theaters, and it wasn’t the last.


Super British secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is given his most impossible mission yet. After a space capsule form the United States disappears in orbit, the Americans start shouting at the Russians convinced it is foul play. But British intelligence believes that the source of the trouble is in Japan. So Bond is dispatched to do some digging and find out what is going on.

Turns out the diabolical leader of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) has created a monstrous space capsule of his own that can capture smaller capsules and bring them to earth. His goal is to start World War III and then take over the planet in the aftermath. Bond finds himself in constant peril as Blofeld’s minions attack in cars, helicopters and even as mobs of dock workers. Luckily Bond has the entire Japanese secret service on their side. That means ninjas… lots and lots of ninjas. Will Bond save the day, or will he find out what the proverb You Only Live Twice really means?

Good Points:
  • Some gorgeous location shooting in Japan
  • One of the most amazing sets ever used in a Bond film
  • A beautiful song and score composed by John Barry
Bad Points:
  • Is all spectacle and not much substance
  • Sean Connery is a bit flat in his portrayal of Bond
  • For being an iconic villain Blofeld doesn’t do too much

Every time I watch this film, I always hope I’ll like it more than I do. But in the end, I’m entertained, but also a little bored by it. As visually impressive as the film can be, it just lacks urgency. It reaches for some impressive set pieces, but all the connective tissue just never really clicks. When is all is said and done this is probably the weakest of the Connery Bonds of the 60s, but it is still a good time.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into orbit.
When you take a look at the James Bond films featuring Sean Conner in the 1960s you see a trend. Dr. No starts out as a fairly low-key affair. It is certainly a thriller, and a well made one too. But the blockbuster status that transformed the series with Goldfinger isn’t really apparent. By the time you reach 1967 and You Only Live Twice everything has changed. James Bond isn’t the only game in town, every studio in the world has gone spy crazy. The market was so saturated with spy films that there were actually two James Bond movies due for release in 1967. That’s right, the crazy Casino Royale featuring Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and Orson Welles was in direct completion with the Sean Connery and company with their take 007.I think it is important to understand the world You Only Live Twice debuted in, because it really explains why the movie is the way it is.

Banzai! It is raining ninjas!
So this film is the fifth of the official franchise. It had an established base to start with, including the cast, much of the crew and all the expectations that go along with a James Bond film. In an effort to stand out from the crowd of imitators and the direct completion from Casino Royale, the creators of You Only Live Twice decided that visual spectacle was going to be the main attribute that distinguished them from the pack. Thunderball was a massive success, and it had featured some really impressive visuals, especially that underwater battle scene between two armies. The creative team decided to up the stakes even higher. The final battle here would be massive, and it would explode against one of the most impressive film sets ever crafted for James Bond film.

Secret lair on a rare ninja-free day.
Production designer Ken Adam returned to work on this movie, after giving the series his distinctive stamp way back in Dr. No. This time he outdid himself. He created a massive secret lair inside a volcano, complete with working doors, helipad, rocket gantry, monorail and plenty of room for extras to run around and get thrown over railings. The set became iconic, not just to the 007 series, but also to film in general. Anytime you had a mad super-genius in a lair of any kind, chances are it would look uncannily like the volcano lair form You Only Live Twice.

7... thousand samurai at Himeji castle.
In addition to the amazing sets constructed for the film, you also get some really impressive location shooting. The film takes place almost entirely in Japan. It is the first time in the series that James Bond has journeyed to the Far East, and the producers wanted to make sure that the audience understood that this production wasn’t faking any of it. In some ways, this turns the movie into a travel log for Japan. You get to see the brilliant neon of Tokyo, the grungy docks of Kobe, a flyby Tokyo tower, the grand castle of Himeji and of course the lovely volcanic islands and beaches.

"Can you explain why there is no color in this room?"
There is a strange thing that occurs in You Only Live Twice that makes it a little less visually dynamic than other films in the franchise. With all the metal, concrete and volcanic rock in the film, the actual color pallet of the movie tends to be rather drab. Even the costumes trend towards grey, white or black. Blofeld’s henchmen stand out so well because of their primary colored outfits, but they are the exception to the rule. It is strange because Japan is bursting with color and yet the film doesn’t really capture that too much. I do wonder if the crew knew that Casino Royale was going for a more colorful psychedelic feel, and decided to go against the grain in that case.

Yeah I don't think Connery feels like he is flying.
The visual effects in the film are pretty impressive for the time. This movie probably has the most special effects of all the 1960s Bond films. You’ve got plenty of action in space, with lots of rockets hurtling through the atmosphere. They do a pretty good job capturing those moments. Some of the rear projection is a bit dodgy, but that has always been a problem with these older films.

The sound effects work is solid for its time. You get the typical gunshots and squealing tires during car chases. But this film features a full-blown helicopter battle, a full-blown ninja attack and rockets taking off. The sound supports the action pretty well and certainly keeps up with the more spectacular moments.

Wedding March for Bond? John Barry is there.
Once again John Barrpy composes the film’s score. He wrote the song You Only Live Twice and Nancy Sinatra provides a lovely rendition of the song for the opening and ending titles. Barry uses the theme throughout the film. It works as a great romantic piece for the three ladies that Bond encounters. But Barry also uses the tune to support some of the travelogue moments, capturing the setting sun over the islands, or boldly erupting as the neon flashes in Tokyo. He even gives us a brassy rendition during the Kobe dock fight. You get a rendition of the classic 007 theme that is primarily used in these 60’s Connery films, and was introduced in From Russia with Love. This time it is given a full workout during the Little Nellie sequence, much more spry and fun than the slow version used during the underwater battles in Thunderball. The famous James Bond theme gets very little air time in this film. It shows up a few times, but is understated. Its biggest performances are for the gunbarrel and finale sequences. Last but not least is a nice tense theme for the space sequences. It is a slow piece that builds in tension as it moves along. It adds weight to the visual effects of those scenes. Barry’s score this time around is less brassy and bold. It has many lovely restatements of the main theme, and really focuses on that as its main identity. It works great in the film, but it lacks the diversity that would come in the next score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Relaxed, or just kind of bored?
By the time You Only Live Twice rolled into production Sean Connery was pretty tired of the character and the celebrity it had brought him. Filming Thunderball had been tough, with fans crashing the production and creating issues where he was staying in the Bahamas. Filming You Only Live Twice was even more trying. It got so bad that Connery would be mobbed if he so much as showed his face outside his hotel. I have to say, you can tell in his performance in this film. He seems less engaged in the part. He does fine in some key scenes like when Aki is murdered. But other times he feels a little flat, especially in the big final battle scene at the end of the film, where Bond becomes more of a spectator (like us) to all the mayhem around him. His performance in Diamonds are Forever is much worse (he really didn’t want to do that film at all). But you can tell Connery just isn’t having fun in the part any more.

"No seriously" [snicker] "It looks really good on you
Bond-san." [snicker]
Luckily the supporting cast is solid. Tetsuro Tanba is excellent as the Japanese spymaster, Tiger Tanaka, who helps Bond on his mission. He has an authoritative but warm demeanor. I bet you could have made a whole series of Japanese spy films featuring Tiger and they would have been great. I also really like Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki. She is a spy working for Tanaka and helps Bond out a few times with her skilled driving and great sense of timing. It’s a shame she is killed off halfway through the film. Kissy Suzuki is very cute (or kawai if you prefer), but her character doesn’t have too much to do in the film. Supposedly Kissy couldn’t speak much English and her accent was very thick, so she is dubbed for the entirety of the film. I should also note that Charles Grey shows up as Bond’s English contact in Tokyo. It’s a fun performance with Grey playing the proper British gent who is about to go native. Grey would appear in the Bond series again in Diamonds are Forever in a much different role - but oddly, almost the same performance.

And now a big hand for our supporting villains!
Opposing Bond is a set of baddies that features one of the most memorable villains of the entire franchise. But first let’s talk about the supporting evildoers. Teru Shimada plays Osato who runs the company front for Blofeld. It’s a lightly written part, but Shimada handles it well. Karin Dor is his sexy assistant, with a voluptuous figure and red hair. She seduces and then tries to kill Bond. She’s good too, but I always get the feeling that producers were trying to give us another Fiona Volpe from Thunderball. But Volpe’s character had way more impact to the plot and Luciana Paluzzi had more to work with. But really when you are talking about You Only Live Twice you can only be talking about one villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, portrayed by Donald Pleasence.

"Oh I assure you, I'm evil."
Now we’ve seen Blofeld’s hand and cat all the way back in From Russia with Love, but this is our first glimpse of the man. Pleasence gives us a calm, cold and creepy mastermind. His scarred face and gentle voice are a great contrast, and it is easy to see how he became iconic as he sits there stroking his evil cat and plotting World War III. But that said, his outfit and attitude are really very close Dr. No, and that does make him a little less distinctive in the villain department. I actually really like Telly Savalas take on the character in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, more urbane, less creepy and just as calculating.

The rest of the London crew are back. M (Bernard Lee) has a couple short scenes to set up the plot. Moneypenny (Louis Maxwell) flirts a bit with Bond. But it is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) that gets a bit more to do here. His whole scene with Little Nellie is very amusing. He’s just as exasperated with Bond as usual, and once again he is forced to into the field to do his job. I say!

Yeah, this scene isn't in the book.
So there are some minor issues here and there, but why don’t I like this movie more? I mean it is James Bond and Japan – two great tastes that should go great together, right? Well the main issue with the film is the story and the over the top spectacle unleashed on the viewers. You Only Live Twice is based on the novel by Ian Fleming, but only in the loosest sense of the word. The novel takes place in Japan, Tiger Tanaka is in it, and Blofeld is behind the evil plot. But there are no rockets, no volcano lairs, no ninjas, no helicopter battles, and no Sumo wrestlers. It is actually a very dark book, focusing on death and how that locks Bond and Blofeld together. The book actually occurs shortly after the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so James Bond is an angry man, and that anger drives him. It’s not the kind of story to adapt at this point in the 1960s, and I can understand why the producers went in a totally different direction with the plot.

Turning Japanese? I really don't think so.
They brought in Roald Dahl (yes that Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach fame) to come up with something a bit different. And yeah, I think he went there and more. Spectacle is the name of the game here and Dahl embraces the idea. He has rockets gobbling up other rockets. He has James Bond die, come back to life, turn Japanese and get married. He throws in buckets of ninjas attacking a volcano lair full of guys with machine guns. Yeah Cold War paranoia is the source of the tension in the plot, but that is about the most realistic thing in the film.

"They are not grey pajamas, Bond-san. Ninjas. We
are ninjas! Don't ruin this for me!"
Here’s the thing, Thunderball went about as over the top as I think the 1960s series should have gone. The pool full or sharks and the ship that transformed into a speedboat were fun and kind of silly, but the whole film was build on legitimate tension and thrills. You Only Live Twice actually takes the comic book mold from Goldfinger and ramps it all up to 11. Bond is once again invincible, always right and pretty much a one man wrecking crew… until he needs to get saved by a squad of ninjas or Aki. The movie is going for silly fun, and while it seems like it worked overall, the movie gets really close to parody mode. The thing is, I don’t think Connery is suited for that kind of approach to the character. Connery can do humor, and his dry wit works really well. But with his underplayed performance You Only Live Twice kinda falls flat. Give Roger Moore a similar script in The Spy Who Loved Me and suddenly you have one of the best James Bond films of the franchise.

Look at the girl, not the sumo butts.
Director Lewis Gilbert does a solid job with the film. The actions scenes are well filmed. As crazy as the ninja attack on the compound gets, we never lose track of where all the key characters are. But I actually like the one on one battle with Bond and the massive thug in Osato’s office. It feels brutal and Bond is outmatched physically, so he has to use some makeshift weapons to get out of it. Yeah it is an obvious nod to Oddjob’s final duel in Goldfinger, but it works almost as well.

This was a massive production with a lot riding on it. Gilbert keeps the whole thing together and coherent. Gilbert would do such a good job he would be invited back to helm The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. So they obviously liked what he brought to the table.

Even a mediocre film won't kill Bond, James Bond.
Unfortunately I always find You Only Live Twice to be one the Bond film from the 60s that I most often forget about. This is strange since so many iconic things happen in this film. Blofeld and the volcano lair are pretty much in every James Bond spoof after 1967. But I also run into casual fans of Bond who think all that happens in Goldfinger. In any case, the movie has its moments, and it shows us how HUGE James Bond had become by this point. But it also shows us how tired the concept was getting. In the end You Only Live Twice won the battle against Casino Royale. But all the other ripoffs like Danger Death Ray, In Like Flint, and even Operation Double 007 came out the same year. It was time for something different. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was just that.

"James, you're not doing the Moonwalk right."

"I can't teach you how to Moonwalk, but have you tried to
do the Timewarp... again?"
"007, your dancing is abysmal. We are going to work on
your Lambada skills."
Little Nellie is ready to dance with some big helicopters.
I always wondered. Is the cat evil too?
"Yes you've come to the right man. I can teach you some
excellent disco movies. I am Pleasance and I am funky."
White bikini is standard volcano climbing gear. Get
with it Bond!
Disco inferno? It was bound to happen I suppose.

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  1. Blofeld should have learned from Captain Nemo that secret lairs inside volcanos are not all they're cracked up to be.

    As evidence of my senescence, I remember the world in which “You Only Live Twice” debuted and saw both films in the theater – “Casino Royale” first, the silliness of which I better appreciate now than I did then. And yes, I think that’s exactly right: because of the competitive environment they did feel the need to go over the top with the sets, staging, and fx while avoiding parody. As a 14-year-old theatergoer that was more than enough. Today I can see the script could have used some work. That might even have stirred Sean’s interest some more.

    1. Yeah experienced the mini-spy-mania of the 90s, but that doesn't seem to compare to the insanity of the craze during the late 60s. One of the DVDs has a whole special feature on all the 007/Bond related merchandise that was available after Goldfinger became a hit. It includes photos of department store displays. It was really something else. The only thing that really comes close would be the pre-release frenzy before "The Phantom Menace" was released and shortly afterward. Star Wars was everywhere. Even as a fan I was getting sick of it. :)

  2. And not one "Yeah baby" in the whole review. I think this film may have been the one Myers used most for his shtick in Austin Powers although he borrowed from many. To tell you the truth I wasn't a huge Powers fan, and I'm still not really, they just seem so juvenile. But were pretty big box office draws, which I found somewhat amazing as there were so many penis jokes, sex jokes, and assorted toilet humor.

    I always liked You Only Live Twice though. The spy genre really took off then. We got Man From UNCLE, Get Smart, Mission Impossible, The Wild Wild West, It Takes a Thief, and several other spinoff on TV. For whatever reason that seemed the height of Playboy magazine as well. At least one could fantasize about the hot chicks and having a bit of the glamour offered in the films, whether you could afford a hot car or not.

    1. Yeah I like the idea behind the Austin Powers films, but they were really hit and miss for me. I like the first one the best, but even that one has jokes that just go on too long and moments that miss the mark. Once they introduced Fat Bastard in "The Spy Who Shagged Me" I lost interest. They keep threatening to make another one, I hope they just leave it alone.

      Yeah the rise of Playboy at the same time was in perfect synch with the increased sexuality in films in general. The James Bond series certainly capitalized off that. Something like "From Russia with Love" was really darn racy for its subject matter (and something that is a little more explicit in the book).