You Only Live Twice (1967) REVIEW
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli & Harry Saltzman
Screenplay by Roald Dahl
Based on You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
Starring Sean Connery, Tetsuro Tanba, Donald Pleasence, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Karin Dor
Music by John Barry
Before the review begins, allow me to tell a little story. You Only Live Twice was one the first James Bond films I ever remember watching in full. I feel it only fair I relive my memory. I remember in 1999 in the months leading up to The World Is Not Enough cinema release, all the James Bond films were being rereleased on VHS. Yes, I know VHS. DVD wasn’t as big at the time but it was beginning to take off. There I was on my lunch break from work looking at the wall of all James Bond films. The two that stuck out most were The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice.
So I picked them both up, paid for them and went on my way. Thankfully the work night went quickly, and since I worked at a video store, I spent most of the night reading the backs of all the 007 video tape boxes. Back in those days, the box covers had some amazing art. Oh man, I feel really old now.
I didn’t get home till just after 10:30pm that night, and since I had homework to finish watching anything was out of the question. I was tired and just wanted to sleep. So I did. The next morning though, before leaving for school, I decided to pull out my homework, pop in You Only Live Twice and watch for a few minutes. A few minutes turned into two hours and by the time I knew it, my dad was in the drive way asking me to explain why the school had called him about my absence.
Needless to say, I couldn’t really explain, and while quickly rewinding (back in my day) the tape, I had a smile from ear to ear as I had found my favourite James Bond film of all time.
Now, that was back in 1999. I was only 15 at the time and up until that point Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies were the only 007 films I had seen in full. However 15 years later, I’ve seen all the Bond films, many times over. Have my thoughts changed on You Only Live Twice though? Well, read on to find out.
After four consecutive years and four solid films, the 007 producers finally decided to wait two years before releasing the fifth instalment in the franchise, You Only Live Twice. Does the wait pay off?
You Only Live Twice are when the fantastical elements begin to really shine in the 007 franchise. After a US spacecraft is hijacked mid orbit by an unidentified shuttle, a meeting is called. The American government blames the Soviets for the hijacking, while the British government believes the unidentified shuttle landed in the sea of Japan. The American’s and Soviets don’t believe the Japanese are involved and however the British already have a man on the job.
It turns out that man is, James Bond. After his death is faked and he is being buried at sea, 007 is sent to Japan to find out where the unidentified shuttle landed, and must do so before the next spacecraft is launched in orbit, or face the possibility of World War III. Of course, the MI6 agent has help in Japan, while the usual groups are out to kill him, including SPECTRE the shadowy organisation which has plagued Bond since Dr. No.
You Only Live Twice has one of the craziest plots in the franchise so far. SPECTRE is sending their own rockets into orbit to swallow space shuttles. The whole idea sounds stupid, and no way would it even be possible, however while watching the film, you are completely engrossed. The idea of SPECTRE trying to bring about World War III by playing Russians and Americans against each other is pretty smart.
This time, James Bond spends the entire film in Japan, after a brief start in Hong Kong that is. Japan has never looked better on film. Maybe it has something to do with all the country side locations shown, or the night time city filming. Whatever it is, the photography just looks eye popping.
I mentioned SPECTRE is heavily involved in the plot, and for the first time in the franchise, Blofeld plays an equally greater role. No longer is he hidden behind a wall or just off camera. This time, Blofeld is front and centre. Does the character live up to the hype? No, he doesn’t. I’ve never been such a big fan of Blofeld, mainly because this was the first time I ever remember being introduced to the character. My greatest complaint is that after four films, we find out that Blofeld is pretty much Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers franchise. I know it was released 30 later, but unfortunately, when I think of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, I can’t help but think, “sharks with friggin’ laser beams attached to their heads.” I’ll get more onto the casting of Blofeld shortly.
Sean Connery announced to the producers and public he had had enough of playing James Bond and was quitting the role after You Only Live Twice. Unfortunately, it comes across in the final film. Connery looks a little tired in some scenes and left me cringing. Especially during the third act when facing off against Hans. He wasn’t phoning in his performance as much as he does in Diamonds Are Forever, but clearly, he was tired of the role and beginning to let himself go by gaining a little extra weight. I honestly don’t mind the weight gain, and for some stupid reason I find he looks best in this film, aged and at his calmest.
I can’t blame the guy, but I just wish it wasn’t so noticeable during the film. Now remember, I haven’t read any of the Ian Fleming novels, so what I’m about to say may not be the producers fault, but whose idea was it to turn James Bond Japanese in this film? The moment it came on screen, I couldn’t help but laugh at how absurd it looks. A new hair piece, and eyes and suddenly James Bond looks like Spock. I laugh at it. I’m really surprised by how bad it looks and it carries on from act three until the credits roll.
The Japanese contact helping 007 is Tiger Tanaka as played by Tetsuro Tamba. I love this guy so much. He keeps making fun of Bond and flat out calls Q’s gadgets toys. He has a great personally and constantly smiling on screen. Has an infectious laugh and has many enjoyable scenes with Connery. He might also be one of the most misogynist characters in the franchise, but you still gotta love the guy.
Aki is the main female lead here. I love her in the role and the way she plays off Connery. Her chemistry with him is top notch, and the scene where Aki gives 007 a back massage, he genuinely looks excited to see her. I liked them together in the film, and was sad when she was replaced during the third act by Kissy Suzuki. The less said about her, and her bad acting, the better. It almost becomes painful to watch.
Helga Brandt, is attractive but insane. She has red hair but so useless. She is the femme fatale of the piece but fails miserably. Twice she has the opportunity to kill Bond, and twice Helga fails. The first time Bond charms his way into her pants, and the second time she simply does what every villain does, and goes for a slow death. Just kill the man, it isn’t hard. Helga isn’t as interesting as Fiona Volpe from Thunderball and you can tell she is clearly meant to be similar, but she isn’t used enough, which in turn makes her character about as threatening as Blofeld’s cat. A problem with another character I’ll get too.
I don’t like Donald Pleasence as Blofeld. I understand its an iconic reveal and inspired Dr. Evil. Big deal. I much prefer a later incarnation of Blofeld. Donald Pleasence is too weak and not at all imposing. His evilness seems so forced in this film and at no point would I ever be frightened by his character. Really can’t stress that enough. Place me in a room with Dr. No, and I’m trading in all my secrets, but with Blofeld, I think I’d just laugh in his face.
I don’t understand the love for this portrayal of Blofeld, but I guess it has to do with it being the reveal in a Sean Connery film. Whatever the reason, I’m not a fan at all. Just picture Dr. Evil in a James Bond film and that’s what it feels like.
There is some really good directing by Lewis Gilbert, and thankfully he will returns for a second time later on in the franchise. Some of the shots and the way he films the action scenes really put you in the zone. We’re looking at some of the best locations. Everything looks so lush, but what really stands out is the fully operational SPECTRE base, hidden within a volcano. Production designer Ken Adams receives special mention. At the cost of $1 million, he managed to turn Pinewood Studios into the volcano base we see on screen. Including a working monorail and helicopter landing pad. Some things just look better when created on set over digital effects. Not that it was an option in 1967.
Another standout part of You Only Live Twice is the fantastic musical score by John Barry. I purchased the soundtrack and continue to listen to it over most others. Barry’s music emotes such tension at the beginning of the film when the SPECTRE rocket approaches and eventually swallows the American shuttle. Pure brilliance. Any track off the CD is memorable and worth the full price I paid.
Something I have decided to mention is the Blu Ray picture quality. So far, all the 007 films have all look so crisp and clear. The image quality of all films have been restored to remove dust and dirt from each frame. Particular attention has even gone into digitally fixing cracked images found in older films. And for 99% of You Only Live Twice the picture was infallible, but then in two scenes, the picture looked on par with VHS. I was shocked, but felt my thoughts had to be expressed.
My thoughts on You Only Live Twice are mixed. I acknowledge its faults. I don’t like Blofeld and find the femme fatale pointless. Only Aki is enjoyable when it comes to the Bond girls and Connery looks a little tired at times. But I can’t help but enjoy it.
I know it has problems, especially when turning Japanese, yet I still enjoy it. Maybe it’s got to do with my first viewing of the film. Whatever the case, I had a lot of fun watching You Only Live Twice over the past month. It slows down slightly leading up to the third act, but the film goes out with an explosive finish.
Not as good as it was years ago, but I can still enjoy it enough.
Sean Connery will not, but James Bond will return in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service