You Only Live Twice was the fifth James Bond movie, and marked the (temporary) departure of Sean Connery from the leading role. Not everyone likes this 1967 movie but it works for me.
Ironically much of the criticism of this film centres on its silliness. If you want a taut coherent plot, in-depth characterisation and an intelligent commentary on Cold War politics then perhaps Bond movies are not for you. In some ways this movie establishes the template that made the later Roger Moore outings so much fun - increasingly outrageous and unlikely gadgets, spectacular action set-pieces and a generally high camp atmosphere. All those elements were there from the start of the franchise of course, but this one really kicks into tongue-in-cheek mode. Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay and throws everything into it.
The franchise would return to a more conventional and serious spy movie ambience with the next movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That movie did well at the box-office, but not as well as the previous three films, suggesting that the formula established in You Only Live Twice was in fact the correct one.
Someone is stealing US and Russian manned spacecraft. Both sides blame the other and war seems a distinct possibility. Right from the start Bond suspects that SPECTRE is involved and of course he’s right. SPECTRE is working for an unnamed power (clearly Communist China) but as usual SPECTRE is really working for itself. The idea is that a war between the US and the Soviet Union will leave a power vacuum which they can then exploit, becoming the world’s sole superpower.
The stealing of the spacecraft is done by another spacecraft which swallows them up. Whether it makes sense or not doesn’t matter - it looks cool.
The unknown spacecraft appears to have come down in the vicinity of the Sea of Japan so Bond is despatched to Tokyo. There he meets the first of the movie’s three Bond girls, the beautiful Aki. He meets M’s man in Tokyo, who famously offers him a vodka martini, stirred not shaken. And true Bond aficionado knows that Bond has his vodka martinis shaken, not stirred. Is it a mistake? Or some subtle (perhaps over-subtle) joke?
Bond is to receive assistance from Tiger Tanaka, the head of Japanese intelligence. The meeting comes about in classic Bond style as Bond is literally dropped into Tanaka’s headquarters. Bond suspects that Osato Chemicals is involved and breaks into their corporate headquarters. This sets the stage for one of the cleverest fights in a Bond movie, with sofas used as weapons! And it sets the stage for an attempt to kill Bond, an attempt that is foiled even more cleverly by a helicopter (I won’t spoil this great moment by giving any further details).
Bond then gets to use a very cool gadget indeed, a gunship gyrocopter, which leads to a fine aerial fight sequence. He discovers SPECTRE’s headquarters in an extinct volcano, which leads us to a set that is spectacular even by Bond movie standards. It was in fact the largest movie set ever built, designed by the great Ken Adam. And it’s the stage for one of the most exciting finales in any Bond movie with hundreds of ninjas assaulting the volcano.
Undoubtedly the biggest problem with You Only Live Twice is that the arch-villain Blofeld isn’t revealed until much too late and when he is revealed he doesn’t get enough to do. That’s a pity since Donald Pleasence certainly had the potential to be a great Bond villain. The idea of letting the audience hear but not see Blofeld at first is a good one but it’s taken too far.
Another minor problem is Sean Connery stopping while trying to look Japanese. He just looks like Sean Connery with a stoop! But these are minor quibbles.
On the plus side Mention must be made of the excellent theme song (sung by Nancy Sinatra), John Barry’s superb score, and the rather sexy Toyota 2000GT sports car that Aki drives.
Ken Adam’s sets and the Japanese locations are major highlights. Even the sets that only appear briefly (just as the operating theatre) are superb.
Connery was very comfortable in the role by this time and he’s terrific. The three Bond girls are Helga (played by Karin Dor, a major cult movie favourite for her performances in many of the German Edgar Wallace krimis), the beautiful Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki and the equally gorgeous Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki. Tsai Chin, another cult movie legend best known for the 1960s Fu Manchu movies, makes a brief appearance.
The Region 4 DVD looks great and features an excellent audio commentay.
Any movie that features deadly armed gyrocopters, killer spaceships and hordes of ninjas has got to be worth seeing. You Only Live Twice is great entertainment. Highly recommended.