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You Only Live Twice (1967)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)

Starring: Sean Connery, Donald Pleasence, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Tetsuro Tanba, Karin Dor

Written By: Roald Dahl, Harold Jack Bloom (addt'l story), Ian Fleming (novel)

Directed By: Lewis Gilbert

The Short Version

Volcano Fort!  (Let’s face it; it’s the first thing anyone remembers.)

So much about this movie defines both Bond and the entire genre.

But for all of its goodness, it’s also the start of a backslide for the franchise.

It helps if you don’t ask the movie to make sense.

It’s flawed, but You Only Live Twice is still entertaining, and required viewing.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

VELVEETA SHELLS & CHEESE.

It’s tasty, it’s cheesy, and it’s cheap.


Pairs Well With...

SAKE.

“I like sake; especially when it’s served at the correct temperature.”

“She’s very sexiful.”


You Only Live Twice is a film that is generally remembered as being better than it really is.  Aside from the standard pass of “it’s got Connery so it has to be one of the better ones” (not true, by the way), it’s also built around a genuinely adventurous story that comes complete with a tiny helicopter and a volcano fort.  (How can anyone not love a tiny helicopter and a volcano fort?)  The fact that more spy movies (especially the spoofs) lift directly from this one above all other Bond films – indeed, several other Bond films would themselves lift directly from this one (The Spy Who Loved Me, for instance) – also no doubt contributes to the general rose-tinted remembrance; after all, one always aspires to steal from the best, right?  And yet, for all of the flattering imitation that continues to appear in its wake more than four and half decades on, objectively speaking, You Only Live Twice is really a mediocre film that plays as though it missed out on half of the post-production process, complicated by the fact that the star clearly isn’t having much fun, and that the plot… well, okay, the plot can be as ridiculous as it wants as long as there’s a volcano fort involved, but still.

The juggernaut can trip, folks.  With this film, it does…

…but it at least has enough style to keep walking.  Though heavily flawed, You Only Live Twice is still a fun flick that’s worth the look, and here are a few reasons why:


The Volcano Fort.  Let’s face it; it’s the first thing we all remember about this movie, and why not?  Every evil genius who has come along since You Only Live Twice has aspired to have his or her own hollowed out volcano fort.  A whole cloth invention of the film’s creative team – in the novel, Blofeld stationed himself in a coastal castle – this is one concept that’s so cool that even the most jaded perfectionist doesn’t give a damn about the bad science involved.  Because, you know, volcano fort!  (Did I mention that this is the flick with which Eon firmly decided that the best direction for Bond would be “over the top”?)

Little Nellie.  Another late addition to the story after someone heard a radio interview with the gent who built the actual machine and just knew it had Bond potential – after being loaded up with all sorts of nifty little weapons by Q, of course – this tends to be the second thing that most people remember about You Only Live Twice.   A theoretical ante-up to the old Aston Martin (“theoretical” because even though Nellie can fly, the Aston Martin is a trump car), the tiny auto-gyro chopper is a perfect metaphor for what the 007 franchise firmly chose to be as of this: fun, adventurous, completely over the top, and having no need to make sense in order to be entertaining.  Nellie’s appearance is bolstered by…

Lots of Great Aerial Cinematography.  The aerial shots in You Only Live Twice are nothing short of gorgeous, and stand well as fine examples of the art even today.  These aren’t limited to shots of Little Nellie, either; from-the-air views are used more often in this film than any of its predecessors, and the skill with which they are presented makes all that stuff about flying over Fort Knox seem tame.  (Which, to be fair, it was.)

Donald Pleasence as Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  His screen time is brief, but in the space of just a few scenes, Pleasence not only defines the character of Blofeld for all time, but indeed, defines the archetype of the megalomaniacal  genius/villain for all time.  Even if nothing else at all about this film worked, his performance alone would make it worth the price of admission.

Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki.  For me, her performance stands out even more than that of Pleasence, perhaps in part because it’s less generally recognized.  Wakabayashi walks the impossible line of playing her character as being hopelessly in love with 007 without turning said character into a swooning fool; indeed, she holds her own quite well, thanks.  Yes, much of that is in the writing, but another actress could just as easily have done the swoon routine with the same lines; here, the performance really is the key, as is the one and a half sided screen chemistry she has with Sean Connery (which is absolutely perfect for this dynamic).  For a time, it is indeed possible to imagine her character breaking through that shell, until the inevitable happens to prevent it.  Incredible work.

Ninjas.  Hey, if you’re going to have a volcano fort in Japan, it only makes sense to storm the place with a bunch of ninjas, right?  But only after a fair amount of time has been spent showing the audience their ninja training school.


Cool stuff, eh?  It is indeed, but unfortunately, only the collective willpower of millions of Bond fans keeps all of that goodness from being overwhelmed by other elements that often seem deliberately designed to sabotage it all.  For example:


Turning Japanese; Big In Japan.  You Only Live Twice wasn’t supposed to be the fifth James Bond film; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was.  Given the source material, this makes sense: Ian Fleming’s literary SPECTRE trilogy begins with “Thunderball,” physically introduces Bond to Blofeld in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and climaxes with Bond’s quest for revenge in “You Only Live Twice.”  However, thanks to some location problems, the powers that be at Eon Productions decided to switch the order of the films.  One might not think this to be a big deal – after all, nothing else appears in order – but in the case of this particular story, it leads to some rather senseless story points that end up becoming a sideshow… like turning James Bond Japanese, for example.  In the book, this makes a kind of sense, because unlike in the film, Bond and Blofeld have met before, so some disguise does seem in order.  It also helps that the book does not have the definite image of a 6’2” Scotsman being allegedly made up to “look Japanese,” a visual disaster that is both ridiculous and unconvincing.  Even with his “Japanese makeup” and a change of hairpiece, Connery looks like the Frankenstein monster when set against a crowd of real Japanese, and the plot point as presented makes sense anyway; after all, if a hundred ninjas can show up without a dog and pony show, why can’t Bond?  The cover’s never truly used, and even without modern sensibilities to make it offensive, it’s just plain dumb. 

Godzilla Bonus.  The Bond films had all to this point been known for their extensive overuse of dubbed voices; now, thanks to the character of Tiger Tanaka, the stereotype is achieved of the Japanese actor whose English voice sounds about as unconvincing as Connery Japanese makeup looks, complete with bad sync.  If you know the stereotype at all going in, it is very distracting throughout.

Horrible Special Effects; Less-Than-Epic Atmosphere.  Remember that cool volcano fort, the nifty little helicopter, and all of those beautiful aerial shots?  They’re all sabotaged by special effects shots that look like they came straight from the B-movies of the early 50s.  These effects – wherein one can actually see the model bob on the string, if one looks – are so bad that one could legitimately wonder if a stage of post production simply got missed and “filler” shots were used instead.  This isn’t 21st Century snobbery talking; even set against the era or against any of the previous Bond films, the effects just plain stink, and the stink is made even worse by the realization that this was a budget decision made for a film that was guaranteed to make a massive profit.  Just look at the SPECTRE helicopters and watch that volcano erupt.  These shots are embarrassing… and I’m pretty sure the director knows it, because his heart doesn’t seem to be into making anything else exciting when he knows that any good work on his part is just going to be spoiled anyway.  Can an awesome  volcano fort be made dull?  Objectively speaking… yes.

Sean Connery as James Bond.  I saw you do that double take.  It’s not that Connery is bad in this film – far from it – but it’s also easy to see that a lot has changed over the course of a year.  In Thunderball, Connery was obviously comfortable and confident on the screen and really enjoying the opportunity to play 007 again.  Here, however, that relaxed air is gone, and he looks to be decidedly uncomfortable for much of the time… which in fact he was.  By the time filming started, Connery had started to become discontented with the role and especially with being so readily indentified with it and only it by the public at large; the constant attention of Japanese press while filming only magnified that discontent so that by the time all was said and done, he thanked Eon for offering to allow him to walk away from the obligation of doing another picture and – to their chagrin and perhaps slight surprise – took them up on it.  He does his job here, sure, but this time, it’s clearly just a job.


But then again, Sean Connery phoning it in as James Bond is still by default more entertaining than many other actors actually throwing their hearts and souls into their roles, and so we, the fans, forgive the slight.  Just as we forgive the disastrously awful special effects which we refuse to allow to make our volcano fort uncool no matter how dull the atmosphere is or how bad the eruption looks, and the Godzilla dubbing that’s really just par for the 007 course anyway.  We know the plot is ridiculous and doesn’t make much if any sense, but we just don’t care.  And that’s fine.  I understand this feeling, and I’m with you.  There’s nothing wrong with being a fan; I know I’m one.

But one can still be a fan without being blind about it, and when it comes to Bond flicks, no matter how often this one’s imitated, it’s far from being one of the best.  That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, though.

Bottom line, do your thinking after you watch the movie. 

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, May, 2013


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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