Re-Viewing James Bond: You Only Live Twice

My regular series on the James Bond franchise rolls on this week with a look at 1967’s You Only Live Twice. As usual, I’m examining the film’s plot and seeing how it views today, so there are spoilers.

The Plot

YOLTTwo years before the U.S. successfully lands a man on the moon, an American space capsule is in orbit around Earth. Suddenly, a second larger spacecraft comes up behind it and and swallows it whole.

The Americans blame the Soviets, who deny all knowledge. The British suggest that the other capsule came down somewhere in the Sea of Japan and that the investigation should be focused there. The U.S. is unconvinced, certain the Russians are behind it.

James Bond is assigned the case. But first, a fake assassination is staged, so his enemies will think he’s dead.

Bond is sent to Tokyo, where he meets with the head of the Japanese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka, and his beautiful agent, Aki. The clues point initially to an industrialist named Osato, who has been ordering chemicals to make rocket fuel.

With Aki’s help, Bond traces Osato to a small, volcanic island populated, it seems, exclusively by rural fishers. He knows something is up, because while reconnoitering the island by air, he is attacked by four helicopters with machine guns.

Meanwhile, the Soviets launch a space capsule, and it is stolen in the same fashion as the Americans’. Both sides are fully ready to start a nuclear war at the next provocation.

With the clock ticking towards the next American space launch, Tiger concocts a plan to disguise Bond as a Japanese¬† and marry him to one of his agents on the island — Kissy Suzuki — in the hopes that they can discover the island’s secret before it’s too late. Before the “marriage,” two assassination attempts are made on Bond, the first of which kills Aki by mistake.

Once he’s in place undercover, Bond and Kissy discover an islander died under mysterious circumstances after sailing her boat into a cave. When they investigate, they discover that a volcano thought to be extinct actually hides the secret base of Bond’s longtime nemesis, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

This time, the fiends have been hired by rogue elements in the Japanese government to spark a war between the U.S. and Soviet Union that will result in the two superpowers annihilating each other, so Japan can rise as a new world power.

We finally meet S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Number One — Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played chillingly by Donald Pleasance. He looks forward to personally killing Bond.

But Tanaka arrives in the nick of time with a team of ninjas, and Blofeld’s scheme is foiled just before the U.S. space capsule can be stolen, thereby averting war. S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s operation is smashed, but Blofeld escapes.

The Feel

“This is the Big One, 007,” M tells Bond before he leaves on assignment. In Goldfinger, there was one atomic bomb that was supposed to irradiate the U.S.’s gold supply. In Thunderball, there were two bombs that would be exploded if a ransom wasn’t paid.

But in You Only Live Twice, the threat is all-out nuclear war between the superpowers. If Bond fails this time, the world as we know it will be destroyed.

That ratchets up the tension in this adventure. 007 absolutely cannot fail.

You Only Live Twice also gives us a truly exotic location for the first time. Bond went to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, which would have been something many viewers hadn’t seen before, but the gypsy character of the setting is at least familiar to most audiences. Dr. No and Thunderball have Caribbean settings, and Goldfinger is set largely in the U.S.

But YOLT takes us to Japan. Through the exposition of Tiger Tanaka, we learn about the Japanese. We see a world that was totally foreign to most viewers at the time. Bond is definitely in a whole different environment.

The gadgets in this movie are fantastical. To reconnoiter the island, Bond flies in “Little Nellie,” a small helicopter equipped with aerial mines, air-to-air missiles, machine guns, and rockets. He has to outduel four larger choppers in a thrilling dogfight.

Then there’s the rocket-propelled bullets and exploding cigarettes Bond uses in Blofeld’s lair.

Perhaps, though, the science fiction feel of the film takes it in a direction no Bond movie had yet gone. The Space Race was in the news on a regular basis in 1967, and YOLT deftly uses it and its underlying rivalry between the the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to build the plot and tension of the picture.

S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s reusable spacecraft wasn’t possible at the time, but it wasn’t unthinkable, and the idea of launching it from a secret base hidden inside an extinct volcano was magnificent. The film was sci-fi, but unlike 1979’s Moonraker, it doesn’t go over the top with outlandish special effects.

Where It Fits

Like most of the Connery-era Bond pictures, You Only Live Twice is dated by its politics. But rather than look antiquated, it gives us a window into the zeitgeist of the time period. Both the Space Race and the fear that the U.S. and Soviets would start shooting nukes at each other over some perceived slight were very real. YOLT capitalizes on this tension to weave a taut, Cold War thriller with a sci-fi feel.

The movie also represents a couple of transitions in the series. First, this is the first time we see Blofeld, and this will be the last time we really hear about S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Blofeld is the villain in the next two films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, but his organization fades into the background. In the cabal’s previous three appearances, it is a large criminal enterprise with many capable agents. From this point forward, it’s really all about Blofeld.

Secondly, this is the beginning of the end for Connery. After the sensation of the first four films, he became identified as James Bond, not himself. Indeed, all the posters for YOLT read, “Sean Connery is James Bond.”

He couldn’t go anywhere without being treated as the character, particularly on publicity junkets in Japan for YOLT. Fed up, he left the series. He was enticed back for Diamonds Are Forever, but after that, he was done. Without Connery in the role, the feel of both the character and the series will change.

It would have been better if You Only Live Twice had been Connery’s swan song instead of the epically bad DAF, because YOLT is a strong entry in the series. S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s base will set the standard for movie villain headquarters across multiple franchises. (My stepson was stunned when I pointed out to him how much this single film in the series influenced one of his favorite movies, The Incredibles.)

Moreover, the story and feel are perfect for the time in which it was made and create an excellent time capsule to the late 60’s.

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