By 1967 the lucrative James Bond movie franchise was hitting its fifth instalment in the space of six years. The preceding film, Thunderball (1965), had been a record-breaking success, and expectations were high for Bond’s next adventure to top it all over again in terms of action, spectacle, and excitement. Sadly you can go too many times in a row to the one well, and there is such a thing as excess in action cinema.
In You Only Live Twice, British agent James Bond (Sean Connery) fakes his own death before going undercover, tracking down the source of a mysterious operation off the coast of Japan and fighting against a SPECTRE plot to throw the USA and USSR into a state of war. It is an unholy mess of a film: over-long, under-motivated, confusingly plotted, and casually quite astonishingly racist. As a child this was a personal favourite of the Bond franchise – it’s the one with the massive ninjas versus henchmen fight inside a hollowed-out volcano – but as an adult the 1960s hyperbole and gadget-filled espionage can only take me so far. It is also the single-most obvious inspiration for Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films; with so much parody loaded on top of it, it is close to impossible to ever take You Only Live Twice seriously again.
A big problem is Sean Connery. By this film Bond has taken him from obscurity to super-stardom, and he is visibly chafing within the restrictions the role is placing on his career. There are only so many shoot-outs to perform, so many baccarat games to play, or attractive women to seduce, and the limitations of the character are clearly getting on his nerves. What is, I suspect, more important for Connery is that the rapidly expanding box office receipts for Bond are not sufficiently translating into larger pay cheques. He spents the bulk of the film looking either irritated or vaguely bored. The dynamism of From Russia With Love or the bravado of Goldfinger are starting to feel like distant memories.
The plot gets weirdly nonsensical. Either Bond is presumed dead and sneaking around Tokyo, or he is alive and making as obvious a show of it as he can, but the film struggles to do both. When Bond is finally disguised and moved to a secret location for his own good, it is at the hands of the Japanese secret service and represents a jaw-dropping act of applying “yellowface” make-up and a shaggy black wig. It represents the series at close to its most appallingly racist, and yet the end result is so goofy to 21st century eyes that it’s much easier to openly mock the film than condemn it.
The film follows a weird take on Japan. At times the country is represented as ultra-modern and sophisticated. At other moments it seems quaint to the point of seeming primitive. Japan’s secret service, led by the heroic and appealingly played “Tiger” Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), seems as technoogically advanced as Bond’s own MI6, but when it comes to the climax the same agency is kitting itself out in swords and ninja costumes.
It is probably not the film’s fault that Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) seems so comical to modern audiences. Indeed in context Blofeld’s underground lair, fluffy cat, and booby-trapped pool of piranha were very likely fresh and effective. Today it shows off just how much Mike Myers’ Doctor Evil character from Austin Powers relying on duplicating Pleasance’s act and getting a laugh for it instead. You cannot blame poor Pleasance, nor director Lewis Gilbert – who directs the first of three Bond films here. It really is just time and fashion that has let this aspect of You Only Live Twice down.
Still, there is that hollowed-out volcano lair. Bond would not be Bond without it.