Lewis Gilbert, “You Only Live Twice” (1967)
By the time this, the fifth film in the James Bond spy movie franchise, came along for the blockbuster treatment, the original Ian Fleming novels were looking tired and outdated and so “You Only Live Twice” becomes the first in the JB series to depart significantly from its source material with a completely new story that hews closely to the movie franchise’s formula. With each new film, and the hundreds of millions being made in global box office profits, the formula became more and more set in stone. Character development and a proper plot that made sense were secondary to a fast-moving string of linked set pieces. With Fleming having died in 1964, screenplay writer Roald Dahl – who had had previous experience working in British intelligence during World War II in Washington DC – nutted out a script that included various characters, plot and scene elements and devices from the novel and which stuck closely to the formula. The result is a spy fantasy that plays loose even with details and aspects of the plot and which presents flat, even stereotyped characters. The freshness of earlier James Bond films has gone and lead actor Sean Connery as Bond appears fed up, even exasperated at times.
The film is set firmly in the period of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, and also references the split between the Soviets and the Communists in China under Mao Zedong. After the now customary opening scene that sets up and readies Bond for his next assignment, the film sends him to Japan straight away where he is to discover how a remote volcanic island in the country is linked to mystery disappearances of US and Soviet spacecraft while in orbit around Earth. Through a series of sketches that involve a lot of fighting, killing and furniture being thrown about at Osato Chemicals corporate headquarters, and Bond being rescued twice by Japanese intel agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) in ways that suggest she has the power of clairvoyance, the MI6 super-spy obtains secret documents that, when examined by the Japanese secret service, lead Bond and Aki to investigate the cargo ship Ning-po in Kobe. The two are ambushed by thugs and Bond is captured by none other than the Osao Chemicals CEO (Teru Shimada) and his secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), both secretly working for global criminal organisation SPECTRE. The two try to kill him but Bond escapes.
Discovering from the Japanese secret service that the Ning-po had unloaded rocket fuel in the area of the remote volcanic island, Bond surveys the area in an armed autogyro; he is attacked by four helicopters and manages to defeat them all. He meets with Aki and Japanese secret service head Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) to arrange for him to infiltrate the volcanic island disguised as a Japanese fisherman married to a local girl pearl-diver. While Bond prepares for his mission to discover the island’s secrets before the US launches another spacecraft, SPECTRE sends out people to assassinate him: Bond thwarts all their attempts but Aki ends up as the film’s sacrificial lamb.
When the US revises its schedule to launch the spacecraft earlier than anticipated, Bond has to marry the pearl-diver Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), also a protegee of Tiger Tanaka, and the two go off to the volcanic island. Their discovery of a secret rocket base hidden inside the volcano leads Bond to come face-to-face with SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and Blofeld’s bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich).
To reach the point where Bond meets Blofeld, the film has to navigate (and sometimes just crash) through a web of often unnecessary plot detours that often look like last-minute additions such as the autogyro scene, his encounter with Brandt and the fight scene with Hans that sends the bodyguard into the piranha pool. The scenes with Blofeld come very late in the film and look rushed. Pleasance is wasted in the film yet his understated portrayal of Blofeld is vivid enough that it has become the template for evil villains in Western pop culture. The actors do what they can with the plot; at least their reputations and future careers weren’t too badly affected by being in the film. The action scenes and special effects pall after too many repetitions and make the film too long. Given his career writing children’s books, Dahl’s attempts to insert often infantile humour into the film fall flat.
At least the film’s later scenes set in southern Japan (Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu island, Nachikatsuura in Wakayama Prefecture on Honshu island) are lovely; pity they are wasted in a silly and forgettable film.
The film’s title derives from a haiku by 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho: “You only live twice / Once when you’re born /And once when you look death in the face”. Take his advice and fill the time between birth and death watching better films.