RETRO REVIEW: You Only Live Twice (1967)

James Bond (Sean Connery) watches a sumo wrestling match in Japan in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE — Photo: United Artists / Eon Productions.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert — Screenplay by Roald Dahl.

After having released a Bond-film for every year from 1962 to 1965, Eon Productions and United Artists took a year-off before the next film in the franchise was released. Filmed mostly in Japan, You Only Live Twice was the second-to-last official Sean Connery Bond-film (and his last Bond-film before George Lazenby took over for one film). This fifth official Bond-film was the first Bond-picture to be directed by Lewis Gilbert who was hot off the heels after having won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year before for his film Alfie. Interestingly, 1967 also marked the first time that an unofficial/Non-Eon Bond-film, the David Niven-led Casino Royale, was released. Niven’s film was released a few months prior to the release of You Only Live Twice, and it may have had a negative impact on the box office potential of Connery’s fifth Bond-film.

In Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice, James Bond (played by Sean Connery) — Agent 007 — is sent on a mission to Japan to find out who masterminded the hijacking of American and Soviet spacecrafts while they were in Earth’s orbit. While in Japan, Bond teams up with members of the Japanese secret service and eventually comes face-to-face with the head of SPECTRE (played by Donald Pleasance).

To a certain extent, I have to say that You Only Live Twice feels like a direct response to Thunderball, its much slower and clunkier predecessor. While purists may be disappointed by the fact that screenwriter Roald Dahl supposedly did away with most of Fleming’s plot from the novel of the same name, even they must admit that Lewis Gilbert’s first Bond-film is much better paced than Terence Young’s final Bond-film.

There are so many things to enjoy in the first hour of the film. I love that this is a space race spy film that was made already in the late-1960s. I think the scenes where the US and Soviet ships are hijacked by SPECTRE are really impressive. I think it was genius to open with the apparent death of James Bond. It is a shocking opening that pairs really well with Nancy Sinatra’s romantic and soulful title song.

I also think it was such a good decision to have almost the entire film take place in Japan. Although the film’s understanding of Japanese culture is quite superficial, I think it is a nice change of scenery for the, at this point, still quite young film franchise. However, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Although the first half of the film is quite thrilling, it does slow down considerably in the second half (though not to a complete halt) and the plot becomes a little bit too intricate.

It should also be said that You Only Live Twice contains so many of the elements that have since been spoofed by Austin Powers. The elaborate lair, the cat, the head of SPECTRE (more on him in a second), and so on and so forth. Of course, this is Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s first big appearance and Donald Pleasance plays him with an intensity that is quite iconic. The intensity of his eyes is quite alarming when paired with the scarring over his right eye. I think some of the Bond women in this film are quite good. I think there is something to be said about Aki (played by Akiko Wakabayashi) and Bond’s relationship. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to see Connery with women that, at the very least, look much, much younger than him. At this point, Sean Connery looks much too old for the character.

“For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”

You can’t talk about Bond in this film, though, without talking about how undeniably dated both the plot and the way characters act are in this film. Although You Only Live Twice is one of the most exciting films of Connery’s Bond-era, it is difficult to recommend because of the racism, sexism, and racist stereotypes that you find in the film. There are several problematic scenes here that are deeply uncomfortable to watch including, but not limited to, the scenes where Bond uses make-up and a wig to imitate the appearance of a Japanese man. This is just not okay. It is as simple as that.

Lewis Gilbert’s first Bond-film is a little bit uneven and the plot is eventually somewhat protracted, but, for the most part, it is a genuinely thrilling and briskly paced action spy film that puts James Bond in an exciting location. However, it must be said that there are plot developments and lines of dialogue that are quite uncomfortable to watch and deeply problematic, and these scenes tarnish an otherwise quite entertaining Bond-film.

7.2 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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