Our review of James Bond Ultimate Edition (Volume 4), published January 1st, 2007, is also available.
Kill Bond! Now!
This movie stands trial for being lifeless, over-the-top, and just plain odd. You Only Live Twice is unfairly maligned; people accuse Connery of boredom and they find the action fantastical. Those claims can be supported, but You Only Live Twice is a landmark in the series. It is the first Bond film with a mostly original script, and it is the film that establishes the template for later films in the series. Some argue that You Only Live Twice was the turning point that plunged the series into larger-than-life action fests. I am here to prove that this film provided for the longevity of the franchise. The great Bond girls, impressive sets, charismatic characters, and envelope-pushing action don't hurt.
Facts of the Case
Bond is relaxing with a woman of the night in Hong Kong when he is suddenly and brutally gunned down. Her Majesty's Secret Service honors Bond with a burial at sea, to the dismay of friends and the ever-pining Ms. Moneypenny. His enemies are elated and go about the destruction of the world.
But wait! His enshrouded corpse is carried off into a nearby submarine. Bond emerges from his cocoon in full commander regalia, ready to continue his missions with newfound breathing room. Good thing: Russian and American spacecraft are being stolen from outer space. Each side blames the other, and the tensions could lead to a holocaust. Leads suggest that Japan is the base for the space-vessel-car-thieves. Bond is told to meet with the service's Tokyo contact, Mr. Henderson. (Henderson's resemblance to Ernst Stavro Blofeld is completely coincidental.)
Henderson is closer to the truth than we think; he is assassinated mid-posturing. Bond leaps into action, overtaking the assassin and assuming his identity. His surveillance leads him to suspect the Osato Corporation. He enlists the help of Tiger Tanaka, the mysterious head of the Japanese intelligence community. With Tiger's aid and Bond's resolve, pieces of a strange puzzle fall into place amid numerous assassination attempts. The story concludes in a pitched battle within a suitably impressive compound.
Ian Fleming's novel You Only Live Twice was moody, dark, and introspective. Fleming had realized his own mortality, and thus the mortality of Bond and Blofeld. The novel focuses on death and identity, and what plot exists is mainly a vehicle for these ruminations. Fleming granted EON the rights to the film, as long as they agreed to use the name, characters, and locale but not the plot.
EON enlisted the talents of Roald Dahl, a friend of Fleming's, to pen the script. This probably accounts for the ambivalence surrounding the film: Dahl's works are surrealistic, larger than life. The nexus of Dahl's surrealism, Fleming's treatise on Japanese life, and Connery's apathy for the role of Bond creates problems for the movie. But overall it is a kaleidoscope of moments, a completely original movie that begat some cinematic Bond conventions. Without You Only Live Twice, we wouldn't have the zany stainless steel compounds such as the ones in Tomorrow Never Dies and The Spy Who Loved Me. We wouldn't have the plots about starting a war for personal gain, a la Tomorrow Never Dies and The Spy Who Loved Me. We wouldn't have large, strange vessels, such as the stealth sub in Tomorrow Never Dies and the tanker in The Spy Who Loved Me. You see where this is going…
The sequence where Bond gets gunned down is unexpected and incredibly tense the first time you see it: you realize that Bond must surely be okay, but it gets to you. Once you see the pre-credits sequence, it lacks a certain amount of suspense. But it really leaves everyone hanging the first time, and it works because of its unexpectedness and brevity. It catches you by surprise and gets the blood pumping right away. James Bond dead? He can't be dead! It's just a trick! But wait, he didn't know he was going to be shot…how will he get out of this one?
One of my favorite fights in the series is between Bond and the samurai in the office. It is silent, deadly, intense, and rapid. In fact, the fight scenes are uniformly good throughout.
I love the clever ways that space is employed in the film. Examples are the maze Tiger surrounds himself with, the bed in the beginning, the burial sequence, the hidden volcano, and the ship that steals the other ships. Dahl's interpretation of Fleming's work is exaggerated. For instance, there is Tiger, a shadow who lives within a different world and keeps ninjas around. There is the cardboard Henderson, supposed voice of the west living in the east, who comes off a fool. The assassin theme running throughout adds depth. Bond really has to work in this movie—he has to set up his cover well in advance and try not to be noticed. The story has a lot of great detective work in it. It flows.
The dialogue is snappy. In one scene, Bond is X-rayed from across a desk, which shows his gun and cigarette case. Bond mentions that he likes to take risks. There is a brief moment of suspense when Osato says "I believe you are taking one now." The cigarettes are the issue, apparently. As Osato's buxom secretary points out, Mr. Osato believes in a healthy chest.
John Barry's score is hands down one of the best in the series. It is sweeping, tranquil, sporadically chaotic, and completely original. There is a scene where Bond emerges onto a rooftop and fights off a horde of thugs. The score makes the scene. Equally true for the presentation of Bond's Japanese wife.
The video gets the same red carpet treatment as the rest of the Bond Special Editions. Amazing, this modern film restoration!
The extras are thorough and engaging. There is a look inside You Only Live Twice with some fascinating insights into the dangerous work behind the film. The piece on Maurice Binder, Tile Sequence Master Extraordinaire, is a gem. This guy was a riot. As mentioned in the interviews, he'd begin by inspecting a gal's fingernails, and she'd end up naked. Apparently Maurice's work was quite an attraction for the rest of the crew.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Connery has been accused of being wooden in this film. He was clearly tired of the role. In fact, he made an announcement to the press that this Bond film would be his last. Connery is a fine actor, but the focus is more on the unfolding of the puzzle. Bond is like James in James and the Giant Peach, who is thrust into an odd, foreign world and needs to make sense of it. In Bond's case, the world hangs in the balance.
Bond does not drive in the movie, nor does he utter his signature line, "Bond…James Bond."
Japanese culture is prominently integrated into the story. In the novel, Japan was written almost as a character with motives and will. I find it refreshing that they incorporated the locale into the story. If you aren't a fan of Japanese culture, be prepared.
There are some real groaners: "I give you very best duck," "Little Nellie got a hot reception" et cetera.
There are periods that lack action and focus on sleuthing. It tends to drag in places.
You Only Live Twice uses ninjas. Please remember, this movie came out well before the tacky ninja craze of the '80s. Fleming put them in there.
You Only Live Twice has a different feel than other Bond movies. It is surrealistic, a convoluted puzzle. There are valid criticisms to be made of You Only Live Twice, but it is easy to miss the strengths of it. Many people are turned off by this movie's cartoonishness and unrealism, but the defense views it as a particular mood and a bit of bizarreness thrown into the typical Bond formula. It has a convincing plot, a good series of twists, and many Bondian moments imbedded in a distinctive framework that is unique to this Bond film.
On the charge of "Killing Bond Now!" we find You Only Live Twice not guilty. Time has proven that You Only Live Twice did not murder Bond, but served as a crutch for future installments in the franchise. If only they would have talented writers pen each new script, Bond might be given more depth. The court issues a warrant for such writers to be brought before EON Productions.
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