In You Only Live Twice (1967) James Bond dies, visits Japan for the first time, comes face to face with his nemesis and encounters perhaps the most inefficient murder attempt in his long career of being allowed to slip through assassins’ fingers by their own desire to see him die interestingly.
But first Bond’s death, which is greatly exaggerated. The world is edging toward nuclear war as an American space shuttle is swallowed mid flight by a mysterious second craft. The Yanks blame the Russians, who they think are the only nation to possess the know-how to construct and launch such a shuttle, and they tell the world that if their next mission a few weeks from then is tampered with, they’ll consider it an act of war by the Reds. The British have intelligence that the offending ship was launched from somewhere in Asia and they’ve put their best man on it. This would be Commander James Bond (Sean Connery), who is spending his mission in bed with a beautiful Hong Kong woman until he is ambushed, stuffed in a hideaway bed and pumped full of bullets—all before the animated credits sequence begins. Surely this can’t be, we think; what’s the rest of the movie going to be then? Friends of Bond telling old stories at his wake?
As we watch the opening credits, we begin to warm to that idea, but quickly it’s revealed that Bond’s killing was a set-up by MI6 to give 007 the element of surprise on his next mission, which is to locate the source of the piratic space ship. From there it’s off to Japan and secret meetings at sumo tournaments, outrageously sexist baths and massages at the hands of bevies of stunning women, trap doors to the bowels of the Japanese secret service and about half a dozen attempts on his life that lead Bond to a cryptic base in a hollowed–out volcano and standing in front of the man he’s been frustrating for five movies now, the nefarious leader of the criminal organization SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), seen fully here for the first time.
And those are pleasures of You Only Live Twice, which only has a few things to offer the Bond canon, but the reveal of Blofeld with his comical scar and perfectly evil perfectly bald head is one of them. We know Bond now, we’re fully familiar with him so the movie can play with him, putting him in different situations and dressing him up. Being familiar with intelligence boss M (Bernard Lee) and his office, the movie puts the office under water on a submarine. We’ve seen Bond travel throughout Europe, America and the Caribbean, but we’ve never seen him in Asia so they get him a kimono. He even has to politely swallow a stirred, not shaken martini, which we know he’ll hate.
This is a slight Bond and so these small variations on the theme are about all it has to offer. However, the relative simplicity of the plot allows the movie a few diversions that were previously impossible, even if they are completely unnecessary. For example, Bond is arranged to be married for the sake of infiltrating a small fishing village, and though the wedding is just for show, it is carried through completely for no one’s benefit but ours in the audience. I like these little passages that director Lewis Gilbert makes; they’re nonsensical but they have a charm to them. Gilbert proves adept at little moments (though there’s a seduction on a mountainside that’s a technical mess), but he’s also able to provide impressive action images, including an airplane explosion and a nicely photographed untimely emergence of a submarine. There’s also an impressive mirrored desk of a Japanese business man that I’d like for my own office, especially with its capabilities of taking x-ray images of those who sit before it. Unfortunately, Gilbert bungles the movie’s set-piece, a dog fight between helicopters, which is unintelligible and stale. Better is the suggestion of the menace of piranhas without ever seeing the fish themselves.
Bond movies have been parodied endlessly for their villains’ knack of having Bond in their fingertips but then letting him escape. Most of these parodies are exaggerations, as most of the movies can, however lamely, explain the villains’ behavior, but You Only Live Twice has perhaps the two most unforgivable instances of villain incompetence in the entire series. First, a sexy assassin has Bond tied to a chair and is wielding an instrument of torture before him, but she decides to pretend he has seduced her, make love to him, and then abandon him in a nose-diving plane when she could have offed him around three dozen times before. Later, Blofeld literally has a gun in Bond’s face in a controlled room before he decides to use it on someone else just to bring Bond into a chaotic battle zone where the confusion disrupts his attempt. This sort of silliness saturates You Only Live Twice and gives us a Japan where there is no shortage of ninja training camps and every wall is made of paper and every sliding door has no locks so that spies and hitmen can sneak in or be tossed through them. For all his sophistication, Bond will always be a boy’s adventure hero and perhaps in You Only Live Twice, with all its nonsense, he finds himself at the height of his puerile appeal. This is a Bond movie with ninjas and space travel, after all.