License to Review #5: You Only Live Twice (1967)

James Bond will return to cinemas this November with his twenty-fifth adventure, No Time to Die. In preparation, David Alkhed will take a look at all the previous entries in the franchise and see which ones are deserving of praise (shaken) and which ones aren’t (stirred).

With five years and four films under his belt, Sean Connery started to get tired of the idea of playing James Bond. He wanted to display his acting abilities in other ways and in other films. He tried to get out, but producers Saltzman and Broccoli convinced him once they offered a hefty salary. The result is in what is possibly the silliest entry in the series so far, You Only Live Twice from 1967, the first film in the franchise directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would later go on to direct The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

In You Only Live Twice, Bond’s arch nemesis and architect behind SPECTRE, the iconic Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played in this iteration by Donald Pleasence) is hijacking spacecrafts from both the United States and the Soviet Union in order to provoke a conflict between the two superpowers, turning the Cold War into a rather fiery one. Because the United Kingdom is apparently neutral in this conflict (not unbelievable or unrealistic at all) they offer to love the conflict by sending, who else, but James Bond. Bond travels to Japan and teams up with the Japanese Secret Service to seek out Blofeld and prevent a full-scale war.

So the film starts off poorly, with Bond seen in bed with a Chinese girl and asking why they “taste” so different to caucasian girls I suppose (I audibly groaned at this moment when I watched the film). In a strange way, this line sets up the tone for the rest of the film, as it just gets sillier and sillier from this point on. But that’s not to say You Only Live Twice is a bad film. It’s by far superior to Thunderball (though that shouldn’t be too difficult), and the silliness makes for a fairly fun experience, although a bit strange to experience since I can’t remember the prior installments being this silly, and few things in the Bond franchise will ever be as ridiculous or as funny as the whole concept of modern ninjas running around with machine guns (the fact that this film was written by Roald Dahl makes perfect sense). But whilst it’s certainly fun to see Bond travel to a location and a culture as interesting and rich as Japan, I wonder how well-represented it is in this film and think perhaps Bond could return there in the future with a perhaps slightly more culturally sensitive approach.

On that topic, let’s discuss the most controversial and problematic aspect of You Only Live Twice; the films usage of yellowface. I know this’ll sound strange, but I was actually hoping it would be much worse, because then it would’ve been easier to laugh at it. As it is, it’s still visibly Connery except he has, you know, the “eyes” and slightly bigger eyebrows because that makes you Japanese for some reason and therefore works as the perfect disguise apparently. It’s still terrible, but I was expecting (and for my own personal pleasure hoping for) Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s levels of awful yellowface-makeup and stereotyping.

Other than that, there isn’t much to comment on the film. Despite wanting out, Connery is still great as Bond and could by this point probably play the part in his sleep. It was also fun to see Tetsuro Tamba play the Japanese head of intelligence Tiger Tanaka, since I’m quite a big fan of Tamba’s work in the film Harakiri (a masterpiece I strongly advise people to see), and Nancy Sinatra’s title song isn’t too bad either. One other issue though I have with the film is the handling of the Bond girl. For a majority of the film we see Bond accompanied by and escorted by Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), and we eventually grow to like her and sympathize with her and Bond as a duo. But then roughly an hour and a half into the film she’s replaced by Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), and although we see her and Bond go through with a wedding ceremony as a ploy to Blofeld, we don’t have enough time to see the two of them bond (no pun intended) and we don’t ever feel or fear for Kissy that much at all. There’s also Pleasance’s portrayal of Blofeld, and throughout all of his scenes all I could think of was Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films (which it naturally parodies). So the look is borderline parody at this point and hard to take seriously, but Pleasance certainly tries to build up Blofeld as a menacing figure, but he’s got so little screen time and relatively so little to do that we never really fear him, but that could also have to do with the silly tone of the rest of the film, as it’s certainly not the fault of Pleasance as he does his best and is a good actor who has simply been given lackluster material.

So You Only Live Twice certainly isn’t the franchise’s lowest low point nor its highest high point, but it’s certainly entertaining for what it is as long as you don’t take it too seriously and can look past certain stereotyping and outdated yellowface, and I’ll take a silly Bond entry over a boring one every day of the week. So You Only Live Twice is quite shaken indeed.

James Bond will return (if not in body but in spirit) on her majesty’s secret service (see what I did there?) So on behalf of Sean I would like to say sayonara!

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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