How the James Bond Franchise Wobbled With ‘You Only Live Twice’
You Only Live Twice is mostly notable for being the movie where the cracks in the James Bond series begin to show.
The 1967 project was beset by problems from the beginning, including a screenwriter who thought the source material was Ian Fleming's worst book, a reluctant star in Sean Connery and a plane crash that would have killed the producers, director, production designer and cinematographer except for the fact that they decided at the last minute to attend a ninja exhibition. The film did fine at the box office, but it heralded some of the problems that would threaten to derail the franchise as it moved into the '70s.
The fifth of the Eon Productions Bond movies, all of which had starred the redoubtable Connery, You Only Live Twice takes place almost entirely in Japan. (It was on a trip to scout locations that director Lewis Gilbert and the rest of the crew decided to see the ninjas instead of getting on the airliner that went down.) It opens with a NASA spacecraft being approached, and then swallowed, by a strange spaceship; the incensed Americans think the Soviets are behind the nefarious maneuver, but the British suspect that someone else is involved, because the strange spaceship seems to have come back down to Earth somewhere in the vicinity of Japan.
In a desperate attempt to head off a shooting war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the British fake 007's death – he gets folded up in a Murphy bed that is then machine-gunned by some toughs – so he can sneak into Japan. There, he meets a beautiful agent named Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) and her boss, the secretive head of Japanese Intelligence, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba).
With their help, Bond infiltrates the headquarters of a chemical company looking for connections to a mysterious group using rocket fuel. He's briefly captured by a beautiful and dangerous woman (Karin Dor) who tries to kill him by locking him into a small plane as it crashes. Bond narrowly escapes and continues his search for the mysterious group in a miniature helicopter.
When he finally figures out that this group is ensconced on a volcanic island off the coast, 007 makes a plan to sneak onto it, supported by Tanaka and 100 ninjas. He discovers that the island is more than a volcano – it also houses a massive base operated by the evil group SPECTRE, masterminded by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance). Blofeld's plan is to capture both American and Soviet spacecraft until the two superpowers decide to go to war over the missing ships. Bond and his ninjas arrive just in time to foil this plot, stopping the latest missile launch and dispatching Blofeld's henchman by hurling him into a pond full of piranhas, but Blofeld manages to escape.
Watch the Trailer for 'You Only Live Twice'
If the this all sounds somewhat lackluster, that's because it is. The screenwriter who disliked the novel is Roald Dahl – famous for books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach – and his script is rather lackluster. There are few great Bond quips, and the plot veers between slow-paced and silly. The action scenes are so uninspired that the most interesting fight in the whole film is between two sumo wrestlers in a match Bond attends in order to meet his Japanese contact.
The movie also suffers from its presentation of the Japanese. Portrayals of exotic cultures in Bond movies are sometimes charming, sometimes condescending and sometimes ridiculous. You Only Live Twice is one of the worst, with its nadir coming when Tiger Tanaka intimates to Bond that in Japan all men are bathed by two or three women in bikinis, because "in Japan, men come first, women come second," and that "your English girls would never perform this simple service." In a better Bond film, this sequence would come with a wink; here it manages neither humor nor titillation, making the country of Japan feel like an enormous, seedy massage parlor.
The main culprit of this malaise is director Gilbert. As flat as the script is, it could have been saved by more imagination on the ground, but Gilbert doesn't have the chops to pull it off. The fight scenes feel almost performed by rote – for the ninja training sequence, one wishes Gilbert had at least tried to summon the approach of the great Japanese samurai directors of the late '60s, like Hideo Gosha, Masaki Kobayashi or Akira Kurosawa. And even the best kind of Bond moments, like the reveal of Blofeld as the head of SPECTRE or the introduction of the piranha pond, feel flat.
Watch James Bond Meet Blofeld in 'You Only Live Twice'
Beyond Gilbert's somnolent direction, one can also feel the its own success weighing on the Bond franchise here. In the five years since it had begun, the series had already spawned innumerable imitators. Some of these were more serious, but the majority were comedic spoofs - from direct parodies like Our Man Flint to more referential fare like The President's Analyst to the actual James Bond comedy Casino Royale. By the time You Only Live Twice came out, all of this mockery seems to have taken its toll; maybe the saddest part of the movie is that it doesn't seem to have the courage of its convictions. It feels more like a timid retread of things already covered in the first four installments.
If there is a saving grace in You Only Live Twice, though, it comes in two forms. The first is production designer Ken Adam, who created the massive sub-volcanic lair of SPECTRE, big enough that an almost realistically sized rocket could land in it. Although pedestrian by today's standards, in 1967 the size of the set was astounding, and it lends the film's ending a bit of the visual bombast Bond movies are known for.
The second great element of the film is, of course, Connery. He was initially hesitant to sign on to the project because – as strange as this may seem in retrospect, given the breadth of his talent – he was worried about being typecast. But once he committed, he did so fully, and his presence saves a good deal of the movie. The self-awareness, sense of humor and lazy charm he brought to the part would never be matched by the other actors who portrayed Bond, as good as those actors were in other areas. And although the flaws in You Only Live Twice are indicative of on-and-off struggles the series would undergo in the following decades, it's still worth watching if only for Connery's presence.