WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: A fiendish plot to bring about destruction of the world’s nuclear superpowers by interfering with the space programme of each must be stopped – but by whom? Surely not Commander James Bond, last seen shot to bits in a Hong Kong hotel. Appearances, however, can be deceptive.
James Bond’s 5th cinematic adventure could scarcely be more up to date, opening as it does with an American space mission being swallowed up by a foreign craft. As we are in the middle of the Cold War as well as the Space Race, the Americans naturally suspect the Russians; and despite the Soviets’ indignation at the accusation, the USA threatens war if anything happens to their next launch, just a matter of weeks away. Managing to condescend both sides equally, the British government assures everyone that the real culprits will be found in Asia; but as 007 gets gunned down in an ambush before the credits, perhaps he won’t be the man to do it.
As the title suggests, of course, not all is as it seems and James Bond (Sean Connery) is fine. The ambush has simply been a ruse to allow him to operate more freely, and he quickly recovers from his burial at sea to travel to Tokyo and meet up with secret service head ‘Tiger’ Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) and his mercurial sports car-driving assistant Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), in an effort to get closer to whoever is ordering rocket fuel to (presumably) power the spacecraft-eating ship. Bond uses all his charm to avoid genuine assassination at the hands of suspicious SPECTRE secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), and an autogyro called ‘Little Nellie’ provided by Q (Desmond Llewelyn) to discover that the operation is being run from somewhere on the Japanese coast, but the lair proves harder to find. Using the face-altering skills of Tanaka’s agents and undertaking intensive ninja training, Bond surreptitiously gets into the base, only to meet his nemesis in the scarred shape of Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). With the world on the brink of war, 007 must stop the countdown to meltdown using all the weapons at his disposal – even if all he has is cigarettes.
For the first hour or so, You Only Live Twice is right up there with the best of Bond. Connery is excellent (if unmistakeably Scots) in the role, self-assured, intelligent and more than handy in a fight; he is the only actor – until Daniel Craig’s 21st century update – to make 007 feel like a human being and not merely a collection of smart moves and smart alec quips. As we follow Bond’s explorations in exotic Tokyo the viewer is drawn into his adventures, as much in the dark as he is and amazed by his close-thing escapes (Aki, in a wonderful Toyota sports car, has the happy knack of coming along at just the right time).
But then the film leaves James for a while to concentrate on the Russians losing a rocket of their own and Blofeld displaying a ruthless approach to poor employee performance, and it never quite gets back into gear. The plot gets weighed down with a number of outlandish details as Bond takes on his (supposedly) Japanese appearance, via the attention of some bikini-clad surgeons, in order to gain access to the SPECTRE base without drawing attention to himself. And when Aki is offed by an assassin the spy takes another agent as a wife (Mie Hama, bikini-clad, naturally).
With the added encumbrance of Tanaka’s fun but over-exposed ninja training school, by the time all the parties reach Blofeld’s volcanic hideaway and Bond weaves his way through the mass henchmen vs. ninjas shootout to confront his enemy, You Only Live Twice has become a bit of a drag, and the stiff row of American military personnel watching on, itching to start a war, does nothing to help. The film’s also marred by some mediocre effects, especially those where back projection or volcanoes are involved, which is a shame because many of the live stunts – there’s a particularly good one with a helicopter and an electromagnet – are very impressive. The action in space is also handled realistically, even if it’s not quite 2001.
Beyond that, there’s not a great deal more to be said. The usual Bond tropes crop up: Bernard Lee is grumpy as ‘M’, Lois Maxwell flirtatious as Moneypenny, and there’s an array of gadgets, girls and gunplay to enjoy. The Japanese setting is something of a double-edged sword, since what the film gains by being exotic (how many westerners would have seen sumo wrestling before?) it loses in unfamiliarity, especially where the ladies are concerned – the inclusion of flame-haired Aryan Karin Dor seems to be an acknowledgement that not everyone will like the alternatives. A sexist observation maybe, but hey – this is James Bond.
You Only Live Twice is half a success, building up a rollicking spy adventure in the first half, only for daft bits to tip the film into silly and tiresome territory in the second. Nevertheless, it’s the last time we get to really enjoy Connery as Bond (Diamonds are Forever? Never Say Never Again? No thanks) and there’s enough to enjoy to make watching the whole thing worthwhile, not least the reprise of Nancy Sinatra’s delightful theme song. By no means vintage Bond, but a pretty good year all the same.