Review: You Only Live Twice

Welcome to my review of You Only Live Twice, the fifth part of my challenge to review all of the James Bond films. I’m watching each film in turn and trying to figure out which one is my favourite. For more information, see my introduction here. You can read my review of the previous film, Thunderball, hereSpoilers follow.

You Only Live Twice
(dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1967)

You Only Live Twice trailerWhen I reviewed Thunderball, I felt a bit guilty for putting it at the bottom of the league table. Thunderball is, as far as I know, one of the more popular of the ‘old-school’ Bond films, and even though I had only reviewed the first four films it still felt bad to condemn it to last place. I reconciled this with the thought that as soon as I reviewed You Only Live Twice, Thunderball would be moved up a position. After all, You Only Live Twice is the film where they disguise 007 as a Japanese man by gluing his eyes back and painting him orange.

Alas, aside from that scene, You Only Live Twice is a better film than Thunderball. I didn’t fall asleep halfway through, for a start.

It is also a very silly film in many ways, and is part of the reason I’m not trying to find the best Bond film (I’m trying to find my favourite in the series, which is quite different). After all, how could you compare this as a piece of work to, say, Casino Royale—or even to Dr No? This film has dastardly plots and space rockets and a mini-helicopter and a villain with a cat and a volcano lair and how the hell did it take so long for anyone to produce a decent parody of this?

SPECTRE, helmed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), are stealing space rockets from the US and the USSR in an attempt to start a full-on war. When I say stealing, I mean that they are waiting for the fully-manned rockets to be launched into space and then sending up an even bigger rocket that literally eats their target and brings it back to SPECTRE’s secret lair in Japan. James Bond is sent to Japan to investigate, which he seems to do by having lots of massages arranged for him by Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), a Japanese agent. The title of the film comes from Bond’s death being faked at the start of the film, although to be honest this doesn’t really help his investigation or the plot in any meaningful way.

After the drudge of watching people underwater fighting in slow motion in Thunderball, the fast pace of You Only Live Twice is a huge relief. Whether Bond is battling his way along the roof of a building (while the camera pans back for an awesome panoramic view) or taking on helicopters in Little Nellie (an entertainingly armed Wallis Autogyro mini-copter), there is always something interesting going on. Even with a script by Roald Dahl, this is not a film to think too hard about.

Fun though You Only Live Twice is, though, it has its fair share of problems, most of which come out of the film resolutely refusing to make sense even by the low standards of the franchise. I get that Bond is a Naval Commander, but why are M and Moneypenny given Naval uniforms as well? Are all of MI6 ex-Navy or are we just throwing my suspension of disbelief out of the window entirely? Why can’t SPECTRE simply destroy the space rockets with missiles? It’s not like they actually do anything with them or the astronauts and cosmonauts they capture. How does Bond learn the ways of the Ninja in four days? Why the hell is there even a secret Ninja army anyway, and why would you send men armed with swords up against people who can steal space rockets? And, most importantly, why does Bond have to turn Japanese and get married?

If it sounds like I’m harping on about that last point, well, you’re right, but it’s a point that deserves to be harped on about. I was thoroughly pleased that 007 managed to get through the whole film without raping anyone this time (all the girls throw themselves at him willingly, which might still be a bit sexist but makes for far less uncomfortable viewing), but apparently it’s at the cost of this weird ‘blacking up’ scene. Bond dons the disguise (and gets married) to blend into a traditional Japanese village, but given that (a) the village is already populated (apparently) by the entire Ninja army he’s working with, (b) Bond looks more like a Vulcan than a Japanese native and (c) the film spends all of thirty seconds focussing on the village, I fail to see why anyone making the film thought the disguise was a good idea.

Am I being petty? Maybe. But this, coupled with the odd bit of casual stereotyping elsewhere in the film (“Japanese proverb say, ‘Bird never make nest in bare tree,'” says Bond in a comedy Japanese accent) really did lower my enjoyment of the film. I know that these films are from a different era and all that, but by god it’s jarring. Without the ridiculous stereotyping (and, if I’m honest, without the Ninja training scenes), I might consider You Only Live Twice to be almost on a par with Goldfinger. As it is, You Only Live Twice is just about a better film than Thunderball, and that’s mostly because I managed to keep my eyes open.

Title song: After the bombast of Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra gives us a relatively restrained ballad in You Only Live Twice.

Greatest moment: Blofeld’s volcano lair, designed by Ken Adam, is just awesome, and despite its utter silliness has been the inspiration for every other supervillain’s hideout in films and comics ever since.

Worst moment: Just in case my point above was lost, it was the bit where they disguised the 6’2″ hairy Scotsman as a Japanese man.

Best gadget: Little Nellie, the gyrocopter. Unfortunately, there was no suspense in the use of its weapons; they were explained by Q and fired literally two minutes later. Goldfinger made us wait for most of the film with the DB5.

Best quote:
[On finding Bond’s ‘dead’ body in a girl’s bed]
At least he died on the job… he would have wanted it that way.

Most obvious product placement: Dom Perignon gets its usual big mention when Bond is persuaded to drink a glass in an early morning meeting with one of the bad guys. Also, strangely, the rocket cigarettes that Bond is given during his ‘Ninja training’ were an actual bit of product placement for an arms company, although the product failed on the basis that they were a bit shit.

Verdict: This could have been a contender, especially with one of my favourite writers at the helm and just enough silliness to keep me occupied. Unfortunately, You Only Live Twice is horribly dated by its stereotyping, and the silliness doesn’t quite do it for me as much as the seriousness of some of the earlier films. Better than Thunderball, worse than Dr No.

  1. From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963)
  2. Goldfinger (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964)
  3. Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)
  4. You Only Live Twice (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
  5. Thunderball (dir. Terence Young, 1965)

Next time: new film, new Bond! Join me when I pick apart George Lazenby’s singular contribution to the Bond franchise: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.