Time: 117 Minutes
Sean Connery as James Bond
Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki
Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki
Tetsurō Tamba as Tiger Tanaka
Teru Shimada as Mr. Osato
Karin Dor as Helga Brandt/No. 11
Donald Pleasence as Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Bernard Lee as M
Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny
Desmond Llewelyn as Q
Director: Lewis Gilbert
An American space capsule supposedly gets abducted by a Russian spaceship. However, as James Bond discovers that SPECTRE is responsible for it, he embarks on a mission to unearth the motive behind it.
I didn’t know how they would hold up today, but I found myself pleasantly surprised with the Sean Connery era. However with the fourth movie Thunderball, I was rather disappointed and found it okay at best. I wasn’t sure about how the next movie You Only Live Twice would fare. Having seen it, I would not call it a good movie; it is really silly and I would not place it as the better half of James Bond, but I got a lot of enjoyment out of it.
This script (co-written by Roald Dahl of all people) is undeniably silly. Goldfinger and Thunderball leaned into the silliness and camp, but YOLT takes it steps further. It is one of the goofier James Bond movies for sure, and was by far the goofiest at that point in the series. You can definitely tell the early signs of the series moving towards the Roger Moore era. YOLT is less of a political spy thriller and more of a silly action adventure; While this won’t work for everyone and might get too crazy for some in the second half, I found it entertaining in the wackiness and absurdity, even if it borders on self-parody. It helped that You Only Live Twice is self aware, it doesn’t play it straight faced by any means. The tone feels lighter, rather than having a serious spy plot with out of place humour. It also benefits from tight pacing and a lot of creative and ambitious moments within. Out of the Bond movies, the Austin Powers movies definitely took the most from You Only Live Twice, and it kind of makes sense when watching it.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed You Only Live Twice, it is far from being problem free. Despite its enjoyable silliness, the story really is lacking, especially when compared to some of the previous Bond movies. There are certainly sequences and parts that are memorable, but I can’t say that the movie is memorable on the whole. Finally getting to it, You Only Live Twice is very problematic, in fact it’s probably one of the most problematic of the Bond movies and that’s saying something. There are some very weird undercurrents with its racial and gender policies. Despite being considerably less rapey here compared to Bond’s appearance in Thunderball, there really is an air of misogyny and sexism throughout that is prevalent. Then there’s the very weird racial politics. It’s pretty clear that the producers were fascinated with Japanese culture in this instalment, and wanted to make the most out of the setting, and with that came with all the stereotypes including ninjas, sumo wrestling, and Japanese-face. There’s no nice way of putting it, Bond does yellowface, which strangely makes him look more like a Vulcan than actually Asian. It is by far one of the most embarrassing moments of James Bond, and again that’s saying something.
While Sean Connery is enjoyable to watch as James Bond as usual, compared to many of the previous films his work isn’t all that special here. He seemed a little bored and worn down, and it makes total sense that another actor played Bond after this movie. Still, he has his moments. Some of the returning Bond actors are good, like Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, Desmond Llewelyn as Q, and Bernard Lee as M, and some of the other main supporting actors in the film are decent too. However the highlight for me is Ernst Stravo Blofeld, the main villain and the recurring antagonist for Bond as the head of SPECTRE. From his first appearance in From Russia with Love, the leader of the criminal organisation has had his face obscured, now we finally get to see the man, and the payoff was strong. Now I wouldn’t call Blofeld one of the all-time best villains by any means, I wouldn’t even say he’s the best Bond villain, however I do really like him. Part of it has to do with Donald Pleasence’s wonderful performance, who is riding a fine line. He is perfectly over the top and cartoonish (fitting for a character who has an evil lair in a volcano with a piranha pool death trap), yet still menacing. He is a memorable character, and you can definitely see why tat Dr Evil from Austin Powers was based specifically off this version of Blofeld. In some ways he is underutilised in the movie, you only see him in the final act. But I don’t think he would’ve been as effective otherwise.
Lewis Gilbert directs You Only Live Twice, it is the first of three Bond movies he would make. It definitely loses the grounded aspects from the past movies to focus more on the action, and considering the absurd plot, it was worth it. The action set pieces are pretty good, there are some large scale sequences, including a mini helicopter chase and an elaborate set piece at Blofeld’s rocket base. The setting of Japan was a good change for a James Bond movie, on a visual level at least. There are some great locations and environments, and the film definitely takes advantage of them. It’s quite visually impressive, helped by the amazing set design. The look of the volcano lair in particular is immaculate and impressive, ranking among the best production designs for the Bond movies. The visual effects can be very uneven, but then again, it’s a 60s Bond movie, so that’s to be expected. Finally, John Barry’s musical score is typically great.
You Only Live Twice is not exactly one of the most beloved of the James Bond movies. The plot isn’t the best, it’s a bit too silly for its own good at points, and it is undeniably problematic with its racial and gender politics. However, I still found it to be very entertaining. I enjoyed it more than Thunderball at least, especially with how over the top and absurd it is, and there are some enjoyable set pieces. I would probably place it as being mid-tier Bond, but nonetheless fun to watch.