My bond with… Bond: You Only Live Twice (1967)

By Christian DiMartino

I’m not sure if I’ve ever discussed this on this page, but for the last 15 years, I have been a big fan of the James Bond series. I started watching them as a nine year old and even though some aren’t so great, they are usually at least pretty entertaining. I remember how proud I was of myself when I memorized each of the movies in chronological order… again, I’m a dork. So with the arrival of Bond’s next outing, No Time to Die, finally hitting theatres next month (as a Bond-aholic, November is a more fitting month, but it’s whatever), it seemed like an ample time to stroll down memory lane.

Secret… Asian Man.

Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice (YOLT?) is known for a few things. One of which is that we finally get to see the leader of SPECTRE. Leading up to this film, the previous ones just gave us a voice, and the image of him petting his cat. With this film though, we get to see just who Number One is, and we’re even given a name. You Only Live Twice is also probably known as “the one where Sean Connery does Asian face.” Which, yes, it is, marking my second review this year in which a popular Caucasian star plays an Asian. The first was the unfortunate Cameron Crowe debacle Aloha. Unlike that one though, You Only Live Twice is actually pretty fun.

Until tonight, I’d viewed You Only Live Twice as a lesser Bond outing. Now, I’d say it lies somewhere in the middle. The plot feels a bit all over the place, and unless your name is James Bond, the majority of the characters feel one-dimensional. Yet this film has good energy going for it. The previous films were playful, but this film feels cartoonishly playful, which normally wouldn’t be praise. Here though, it gives the film a vibe that, even in the nuttiest of action sequences, makes it feel breezy. The movie also looks like a trillion bucks, especially for its time. But why give it trillions when you could give it… billions? Sorry, watching this one too, it’s nearly impossible not to think about Austin Powers. I’m a fan of both, what can I say?

The film opens with a bang, or two. First, we get a glimpse of outer space, as a spacecraft is practically attacked and abducted. Honestly, this was made before 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its visual effects are pretty darned impressive. Anyways, next we cut to our boy Bond (Connery, yet to don the kimono at this point in the movie) who is in Japan, in bed with an Asian woman. So, let me say that in the previous movies, some of Connery’s dialogue towards women can probably be seen as offensive or something in this day and age. And… yeah, that’s it. Doesn’t bother me, particularly, but living the way we do now, it doesn’t always sound… right. The innuendo in this movie seems to be kicked to eleven, but more on that later. The woman Bond is with turns on him, and soon he is shot dead, leading into the opening title song, this time from Nancy Sinatra. It’s a decent little ditty, accompanied by gorgeous visuals.

We all know though that if Bond is dead, we’d have a pretty short movie. So it turns out Bond has faked his death. As for the rest of the plot, well, I can’t always say that I knew why Bond was doing what, and to whom, and… why. The film does make up for this though by giving us a slew of hugely entertaining moments. Essentially though, another spacecraft goes missing, thus causing a potential WWIII, and Bond must get to the bottom of it. He marries an Asian woman, disguises himself as an Asian man (I think Charles Gray, most well known from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is also playing an Asian man), has an awesome chase battle in a helicopter dew-hickey Q (Desmond Llewelyn) makes for him, and it all leads to a spectacular showdown in a volcano lair in which a group of ninjas attack the members of SPECTRE… it’s totally nuts. As is Ken Adams’ production design- said lair supposedly cost the budget of Dr. No, which isn’t surprising in the slightest. And finally, Bond comes face to face with the leader of SPECTRE himself: Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance).

In terms of Blofeld, they kind of do the Dr. No thing with him, in that he doesn’t really do anything until the last twenty minutes. Having said that, it feels a bit more earned because Blofeld has had such an influence over the predecessors that the movie gets by. The Bond girl though, played by Akiko Wakabayashi, isn’t one of the more memorable ones though. All of the women in this film serve their purpose, in that they’re beautiful, but like the film’s plot, chances are they won’t be discussed too much after seeing it.

What works about You Only Live Twice though, for me at least, is the sort of go-for-broke, care-free silliness of its screenplay. It isn’t camp, necessarily (we’re not to the Roger Moore movies yet), but it does sometimes feel like a cartoon brought to life, and even when the storyline is kind of a blur, you’re always amused and entertained by whatever it is Bond is getting into. It probably has a lot to do with the film’s director and writer. This marked Gilbert’s first Bond film- he would go on to do a few more. He also directed Michael Caine comedy vehicles such as Alfie and Educating Rita, so he has something of a sense of humor. What further adds to the playfulness though, and perhaps is the main contributor, is that the screenplay is written by, of all people, Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG. There’s not much in this film that Dahl didn’t try. It should also be said that the sexual innuendos in this film are on a grand scale. Dahl must’ve seen this as a chance to get his cinematic freak on, and it’s fun to watch.

You Only Live Twice isn’t a great Bond film, but it is a good one, and a pure one. Its set pieces are ludicrous but honestly hold up really well and are hugely entertaining. The cinematography is gorgeous and the production design is a marvel to behold. For whatever reason, this was always a Bond film I considered to be lesser, but it’s definitely not. I mean, Sean Connery is in it. It’s not like it’s George Lazenby we’re talking about… oh yeah, that reminds me, this was intended to be Connery’sh lasht Bond film, but alash, thingsh didn’t go ash planned (sorry, my inner Connery broke out). Indeed, Connery’s stint as Bond did live… twice. For the next one though, we’ll unfortunately be departing from him… for now.

James Bond, and I, will return with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

*Okay so… I guess I am something of a liar. I thought I had access to On Her Majesty’s Secret service but it turns out I don’t. I don’t dislike the movie, but George Lazenby is kind of a dullard. Yet as a Bond movie it’s interesting, and the action sequences are cool. I’ll review it someday.

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