RECAP: You Only Live Twice
You Only Live Twice (1967): Lewis Gilbert
James Bond spends his fifth jaunt onscreen delving into Asia, especially Japan, portrayed as a sleepy nation with a glitzy capital but still attached to its past. More stuck in the mud than Britain, can’t you tell? Even M, Moneypenny, and company get out in the field, working from a submarine patrolling East and South China Seas and maybe the Sea of Japan.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Bond heads to Japan to investigate a crazy theory that someone, maybe arch nemesis SPECTRE, is launching rockets from there that capture astronauts and cosmonauts and threaten to ignite a world war.
James Bond (Sean Connery) begins his mission in You Only Live Twice dying at the hands of Hong Kong assassins. A long series of scenes shows Bond shot to death in a hotel room, given funeral aboard a naval vessel, and buried at sea. His body is swum to a submarine waiting on the bottom of the sea, where a dry, plastic-wrapped, and not dead Bond pops out and asks for permission to come aboard.
That’s how Bond’s death is faked, and it’s the second time in the series that Bond is involved with a fake death, though the first time his own. And it’s a good thing, because he’s got a major mission coming up. “This is the big one,” M tells him aboard the submarine.
Bond is sent to Japan for his latest mission, to check on some rocket signatures picked up by British radar stations. As we saw in the movie’s opening, some giant spacecraft is swallowing American and Soviet capsules, and it’s about to start a hot war between the Cold War’s two powers. The superpowers each accuse the other of treachery while the British pursue their theory.
So Bond sails for Japan, where he’ll get involved in a plot he suspects early to be SPECTRE’s, and not Soviet nor American. Bond is forced to enjoy the delights of Eastern culture, and he finds it suits him very well.
In a script penned by Roald Dahl, You Only Live Twice seems to take swipes at Bond, to drag his more retrograde tendencies to the surface. In his first scene he wonders why Chinese girls always taste different. I can’t make heads or tails of that.
In Tokyo Bond attends a sumo wrestling match to meet his contact. He seems puzzled by sumo and quickly leaves. For a man who studied “oriental languages” he appears to know little about their cultures. He does know, however, the appropriate temperature for sake, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The movie starts taking the piss out of Bond after he runs into his Japanese intelligence contact. Bond learns from him that in Japan women come second to men, and his response is that he might retire there. Later, when forced to “take a wife” to pretend to be Japanese, Bond is incensed that his fake wife he’ll be with for less than a week might be ugly.
Oh, and yes, part of pretending to be Japanese involves a make over to make Bond appear Japanese. It’s the biggest yeesh moment of the series, equivalent to infiltrating a base in blackface.
Bond’s martial skill is never in question. His ingenuity in fight sequences is the primary reason he’s survived this long. Take the night fight inside Osato’s office. Bond uses a couch as a battering ram, tries to use a sword, and knocks out his opponent with a statue, beating a guy with at least 50 pounds on him.
It helps one’s confidence when you know the villain won’t try to kill you until the last, final, possible moment.
It’s a long time before we find out who’s really behind the Japan-based rocket launches. Bond suspects SPECTRE after a couple days on the case, as no other power could or would be able to launch rockets and foment nuclear war.
Bond is right, of course, and much later we finally get a peek at that favorite monochrome-wearing, cat-stroking No. 1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) during the Bond-led attack on the base inside the hollowed-out volcano.
We already know Blofeld from previous films, so no introduction is needed. We do get to see his face for the first time, and it ain’t no joke. Something happened to the dude’s eye, and I’m sure it’s the chief reason for his villainy.
Blofeld remains calm throughout the attack on the rocket base. He’s the living embodiment of the the phrase, “Don’t panic now, they’ll be plenty of time for that later.”
Blofeld’s primary flaw is a desire to not kill James Bond. How often will he let opportunities slip away? When Blofeld first captures Bond he has him searched, not killed. When Bond fiddles with the base’s crater opening Blofeld has him stopped, not killed. When Blofeld points a gun at Bond he instead shoots Osato, his next in command, not Bond.
When Blofeld finally decides to kill Bond he is hit with a ninja star and fails to kill him. He’s happy to order others to kill Bond, like the time he orders Osato to “KILL BOND NOW!” When Blofeld has the chance, he won’t do it.
This villain knows his prey, though. Blofeld obtains a copy of an x-ray Osato took showing Bond’s famous Walther PPK. Blofeld sees the gun and immediately assumes Bond has faked his death. That someone else might carry the gun does not register to Blofeld. The master of illusion assumes the most devious and impossible scenarios, because he always imagines the most devious and impossible scenarios. It fits with his character.
Bond arrives on a large, volcanic island of a fishing village and a lot of forest. He wants to observe the land from the air, and to do that he asks Q to bring him a helicopter called Little Nellie.
After assembling Little Nellie, Bond takes it out for a spin. He’s tracked a container ship called the Ning Po to this island and believes it the drop point for liquid oxygen canisters necessary for secret rocket launches. After a couple of passes above the ground, Bond determines that there’s nothing but volcanoes and the fishing community.
Suddenly, four trailing attack helicopters fire on him without warning. One particularly zealous flyer peppers the air with bullets, but it’s pretty hard to shoot down another chopper in flight. Bond, meanwhile, knows his helicopter is armed to the teeth. The weapons take up most of the room; it’s a wonder it got off the ground.
First Bond deploys the rear-facing flamethrowers. That kills the first chopper. He tries some banking to get behind an enemy, but that doesn’t work, and the next guy shoots Bond’s tail. Bond looks concerned but ready to face the challenge.
Fantastic wide shots capture the helicopters in flight, so you know that little yellow buzzing toy was up there with the big boys. One shows Bond get above a helicopter and drop dozens of parachuting aerial mines on it. Another explosion. Bond might be outmanned but he is NOT outgunned.
Bond makes several hard left turns, presumably to get inside either of the two remaining helicopters, which are constantly firing their only weapons: machine guns. He gets behind the choppers and tries the machine guns, but is immediately dissatisfied with them. How about some rockets? A dozen of them will work just fine to kill the third helicopter.
The last guy should have had the sense to bail out of the fight. He doesn’t, pressing in for the kill his compatriots could not achieve. Bond is ahead of the helicopter now, but he’s got more weapons, as we know. He fires two heat-seeking missiles that turn a 180 and explode the final attack helicopter.
Bond, coolly, radios home and says that four big shots made “improper advances” toward Little Nellie.
The James Bond franchise has thrived for 50 years on a distinct lack of subtlety, and this helicopter attack sequence is a quintessential example. That tiny helicopter was armed to the gills, and nearly all of its weapons were used after Q helpfully pointed them out to Bond moments before flight.
The later staging of the attack on the volcano rocket base is a classic of the genre, which is covered below. These scenes are enough to make You Only Live Twice a memorable outing.
Bond must rely on the Japanese security services to stop Blofeld’s plot to cause world war. Chief among these aids is Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba), a man called Tiger.
I’ll say this about Tiger: he knows Japan and how to get things done in it. Tiger trains a ninja army for use when he needs one, and he needs one to stop Blofeld. He’s able to sneak much of that army onto SPECTRE’s volcanic island under the guise of fishers.
He uses a private underground rail to transport himself around Tokyo, and he utilizes trap floors. He also utilizes women, point blank telling Bond that in Japan men come first and women come second.
He’s retrograde in his gender politics but solid in his job, and I guess that’s all that matters to Bond. Here’s a guy who can call in a helicopter on short notice that will magnetically capture a moving vehicle and drop it in the sea.
Tiger’s second in command is Aki, a–gasp!–woman. Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) is the most capable agent in Japan, at least I think so, because she is an expert driver and has a genius for being in the right place at the right time.
Consider Bond’s first meeting with Osato. The unassuming Bond leaves the building thinking his cover has worked on the chemical producer, but it hasn’t. Osato has ordered him killed.
A car slowly rolls behind Bond, and a gunman in the back seat rolls down the window and points a machine gun at Bond. This is in broad daylight in the middle of the world’s largest megalopolis.
Aki drives up and screams at Bond to get down moments before the gun fires and the car pulls away. Bond falls into Aki’s car and she speeds away. Aki is about the best assistant one could ask for, since she’s willing to sleep with Bond for her boss’s sake.
Of course sleeping with Bond is a death warrant, and Aki suffers a quick, poisonous death that was meant for Bond. All she did was roll over at the wrong time.
Blofeld is behind the scenes for most of the movie, so his support staff is forefront. No. 11 is Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) a woman from Europe who somehow got a high job at Osato Chemicals, proving that SPECTRE can facilitate career advancement. Osato runs the company, but his position in SPECTRE is unknown.
Osato (Teru Shimada) has an x-ray machine concealed in his desk, which captures Bond’s handgun and turns Blofeld on to Bond’s fake death. When Bond leaves, Osato orders him killed, identity unknown, and it nearly happens in the middle of the city in daylight.
Osato’s got guts, but it’s only after the failed murder attempt that he tries to find out who Bond is. Enter Helga. Bond finds himself tied up in Helga’s ship apartment aboard Ning Po after a failed infiltration at Tokyo’s docks.
Helga threatens Bond with torture, then immediately accepts Bond’s offer to join him under his guise as an industrial spy. They sleep together, another death warrant signed, though not cashed until later.
After a night of lovemaking, Helga reveals her real plan. She flies a single passenger plane with Bond in the backseat, thinking he’s turned her to squeal on Osato. Instead Helga uses a piece of wood an a smoke grenade to discombobulate and handicap Bond while she parachutes from the plane.
Uh…huh? If she wanted to kill Bond, why not do it while he’s tied up in her room aboard the SPECTRE ship? Why go to such lengths to kill him, crashing a plane? Her scheme made zero sense, and I imagine some drastic edits were made to muddle this story line. Poor Helga pays the price later for failing to kill Bond. She’s devoured by piranhas.
One night in Tokyo Bond decides to infiltrate Osato Chemicals. He easily attains the office of the company’s namesake and CEO, where he needs to find information connecting the chemical company to SPECTRE or the rocket launch site. Bond enters the building posing as the assassin who killed Bond’s contact. The Japanese man was wearing a medical mask, so Bond can pose as him after knocking him out.
The driver of the getaway car drives to Osato, where he fireman-carries a possuming Bond into the boss’s office, drops him on the couch, and removes the mask. “Good evening,” Bond says, ever the gentleman. He draws a gun but the man is swift and holds him off. Here’s a man who fights as if white men entering the space at night are a menace to his employer or something. They fight.
We just watched the man carry Bond several yards without any strain, so it’s little surprise that he gets the best of Bond early, throwing him through a paper wall and over some of the leather furniture in Osato’s office. Bond uses one couch as a battering ram to some effect, before the man tosses it away like a balloon animal.
Bond grabs a sheathed sword, but his adversary grips the sheath and flips Bond over it, taking the sword for himself and unsheathing it. Bond is able to dodge several strikes while supine and upright, until he throws a chair into the man. The annoyed fighter takes a downward swing at Bond, but the spy is quicker and ducks between his legs to flip him over in a move of spectacular speed.
The guy loses his sword and is clearly tiring as he realigns to fight again. Bond finds a two-foot-tall sculpture on the desk to use as a weapon, and he hits the guy on the head during a bull rush, knocking him out. Bond stores him in the liquor cabinet.
This fine example of a fight shows the stunt team knew what it was doing. The fighters explore the space and the objects in it, wrecking a finely organized area with big swings and faster dodges.
They upped the ante in the climactic battle. Watching those ninjas abseil multiple times into the rocket base looked fantastic. Knowing what they had, filmmakers had them repeat the actions.
It’s not often you get to hear a French guy calmly state, “There are men in ze cratah, men in ze cratah,” but that’s how the ending of You Only Live Twice gets started. The rocket has lifted off, without Bond, despite his efforts to blend in. Credit to Bond that he was willing to board a spacecraft without a second of training in flying the thing, hoping that his Japanese allies would seize control of the facility and save him after he had disrupted the flight from space.
Blofeld rushes over to check that indeed men are in ze cratah, and orders crater guns to open fire, which kill many ninjas. He has Bond with him in the control room, bored and awaiting resolution to the venture.
Bond asks for cigarettes if he’s forced to watch television, as Blofeld invites him to do. Blofeld is a civilized man, so he allows it. Bond lights his cigarette, which is a weaponized device courtesy of Tiger, and shoots the man operating the crater door. Bond beats back several guards to open the crater and help the ninjas enter the base.
When the armed guards point their guns at Bond, the jig is up, and the crater is closed. Blofeld expresses how happy he’ll be to personally exterminate Bond, but he won’t do it yet, of course.
A dozen ninjas rappel into the base before the door shuts, but most are shot dead on their ropes. One guy is smart and sets a charge on the door, blowing it open so all the ninjas can enter. Several drop grenades on their attackers, enough to let the other few dozen rappel to the floor in a terrific wide shot showing the entire base and the rappellers at once. Some should stay up there and drop grenades on the bad guys.
Blofeld claims that nothing can prevent spacecraft interception in eight minutes. What a buffoon this guy is.
Tiger and Kitty (Mie Hama) hit the floor and kill a couple of guys. Now more ninjas are inside, perhaps 60 in all. The guards have better positions and perhaps more numbers, but the ninjas have superior firepower and, these being ninjas, swords. Remember the training guy who beat six at once with his sword? He does the real thing in killing six guards at once.
And how about Tiger’s rocket guns? Their rounds are piercing the metal wall protecting the control room. Blofeld, still certain of victory, will have to leave the control room to take care of some business. He will take Bond with him, of course.
The Americans have tracked the intercept vessel. Wisely, so wisely, they are making all weapons hot and are ready to go to war with the Soviet Union the moment the machine captures their precious space vessel.
Meanwhile, Blofeld heads to an escape area with his hulking bodyguard, Bond, and Osato. Blofeld draws a gun and says, “This is the price of failure,” while pointing said gun at Bond. Does he kill Bond? You know he doesn’t. He kills Osato, for failing, which is on-brand for SPECTRE, making it difficult to fault. Then they walk a little ways to a train pod where Blofeld is finally ready to kill Bond, but Tiger is nearby to throw a ninja star into the firing arm, disarming Blofeld, who scurries away.
Bond takes the gun and relays the situation to Tiger and Kitty. The control room is too well defended, despite the countless bodies littering the floor and the rocket guns attacking the metal wall. The scientist nerds are evacuating the smoky room as the space capsule is preparing to draw Jupiter 17 into its maw.
Bond spots the nerds fleeing from another door. A great shot shows Bond, Tiger, and Kitty jogging through the chaos to reach the staircase, ducking behind Osato Chemicals barrels unreasonably placed on the floor. When you can take cover from gunfire behind a barrel full of unknown chemicals, you do it.
Somehow Bond runs out of bullets but finds a throwing star on his person to kill guards before he enters Blofeld’s piranha apartment, where he finds Hans, the big bodyguard. Bond walks right into a punch. He delivers three himself that do nothing before another gut punch makes Bond go OOF.
They toss each other around the apartment, Hans putting Bond into a choke and Bond uselessly gut-punching Hans before stealing the control key for the space capsule’s exploder button. Bond is knocked to the floor but does a nifty move where he kicks Hans’s face from the floor. The fighters do more of the set exploration that sells these stunts.
Bond scurries along the bridge. He ducks a punch from Hans and flips him into the piranha water. Hans cries out. Bond says, “Bon appetit,” to the fish. He doesn’t know about the fish, though. Why would he expect fish to be eating Hans?
Bond enters the control room, fiddles with the key, and explodes the spaceship. The Americans stand down to first alert, and the generals in their war room leave like it’s time for a night cap.
What about Blofeld? Like any mad villain, he built a self destruct system into his lair. He sets that off now, and the base starts imploding. Bond remembers the tunnels leading to the sea and orders everyone into one, hopefully the correct one.
So many charges are blowing that the volcano erupts. It’s like Dante’s Peak out there. One poor stunt man runs a gauntlet of five or so charges blowing all around him. I hope he has hearing.
The mission’s survivors swim out a tunnel and find rafts dropped from a plane. Once again Bond finds himself in a raft floating with a beautiful lady to end the movie. This time their sex is interrupted by the submarine surfacing beneath them. M, aboard the sub still, tersely orders Moneypenny to say to Bond, “Tell him to come below and report.”
Bond’s one liners, so strong to open the series, fall flat. The big one comes after sending Hans to a bloody death at the teeth of piranhas. Bond says, “Bon appetit,” to the fish. Problem is, he had no idea carnivorous fish were swimming in Blofeld’s lair. We know; Bond doesn’t. Major oversight.
Before sleeping with Helga, Bond laments, “Oh the things I do for England,” very similar to a statement he made in Thunderball.
Bond makes his first trip onscreen to the Orient, and you can bet he calls it The Orient. He reminds Moneypenny he studied oriental languages at Cambridge.
Bond briefly stays in Hong Kong, but most action is in Japan. Producers figured Western viewers had never seen Japan before, so they packed in as many architectural tropes as possible.
Helicopters are flying all over Japan in the movie, but I don’t want to focus on the landscape. You Only Live Twice has perhaps the franchise’s best set design.
Osato and Blofeld conduct business in tremendous offices adorned with art and/or huge liquor cabinets. Sparsely furnished, the large spaces project power.
These huge sets pale to the rocket base hidden inside the volcano. Production pulled out all stops to build this set, and they wanted to show off.
We first see the base when the rocket makes a perfect, wingless landing after capturing the Soviet spacecraft. A long sequence follows the players as the rocket lands and the spacecraft is removed from it by winch and placed on a platform. The cosmonauts are removed and transported by monorail to their prison cell. (They are never rescued and likely died in the later attack; Bond freed the Americans.)
The interior is all dull or shiny gray. Later, when the ninjas and Bond raid the facility, you’ll wonder how they knew to dress in the same color. The long shots of the base work because the space is huge, and we need to get a feel for the final battle.
The set had a working helipad, which you see shifted about the base to make way for the rocket launch. While the roof is fake, the base’s interior was real and magnificent. There’s a reason The Simpsons chose this movie for its famed supervillain Hank Scorpio to use.
The Cold War returns to center the conflict Bond must navigate as he did two movies before in From Russia With Love. Having the superpowers at each other’s throats does two interesting things to Bond.
First, it lends urgency and import to Bond’s cause. If he doesn’t solve the crisis in X days the world will melt under nuclear holocaust. And, indeed, the Americans are eager to strike the Soviets at movie’s end. Some suit at the Pentagon, presumably the Secretary of Defense, orders all weapons hot during the space flight and is ready to attack the second the Jupiter space craft is captured. Chill out a moment, guy. That’s what’s at stake if Bond fails.
Second, the Cold War reduces Britain’s importance in global affairs. The Americans and Soviets discount the British theory of a rocket launch from Japan. Bond is the only British agent pursuing the Japan theory, and he enlists local spies and a ninja strike force to prevent nuclear annihilation.
The US had tens of thousands of troops stationed in Japan in the 1960s (still does), and they claimed to have photographed every inch of the nation and found nothing. Without American interest, Britain saw a vacuum and stepped in to fill it. That they proved correct, but received thanks neither from the Yanks nor the Ruskies shows how little they think of a fellow nuclear power, and accurately describes the British mindset post-war.
Oh my God, I forgot how Bond turns Japanese so he can better infiltrate the fishing community on the volcano island. I guess it’s a reasonable idea from a spy perspective, but it seems, uh, wrong, for the movie.
Bond also does the “Japanese proverb say…” thing, and, uh, it doesn’t land.
- Bond carries lock-picking machines on his person.
- Bond carries gray clothes on his person.
- Bond carries suction cups on his person.
- Bond carries a Walther PPK on his person. Everyone knows this, but did you know he is the only person who possibly could?
Summary (32/68): 47%
Sean Connery was salty about making a fifth film. Being James Bond takes a lot of time and effort, especially promoting the flicks. Eon kicked up his salary, and Connery said yes.
The supposed last of Sean Connery’s capers as James Bond, You Only Live Twice was the fifth Bond movie in six years. With constant filming and round-the-clock promotion of the world’s biggest franchise, it’s no wonder Connery was burned out after five turns as the inaugural 007.