James Bond in Japan:
The fifth James Bond film, 'You Only Live Twice', is something of a mild disappointment. Despite the film getting off to a promising start it eventually runs out of steam becoming rather creaky and dull. In the most part the movie itself is very entertaining and energetic, however, it does not possess the same wit, charm or suspense of the four previous Bond adventures. 'You Only Live Twice' packs so much into its two-hour running time you can't shake the feeling that the filmmakers were essentially throwing everything against the wall in an attempt to see what would stick. Subsequently many of the sequences on display do entertain but many falter and you can almost guarantee that an enjoyable segment will likely be followed by another dud scene or two. As a result there is a certain point in 'You Only Live Twice' when the whole affair becomes very difficult to invest or engage in and soon enough you simply have to acquiesce and let the whole film wash over you.
'You Only Live Twice' feels like a conscious attempt by the filmmakers to cater to a younger audience. I think for many people 'You Only Live Twice' was their entry-point into the series and for that reason the film gets a relatively easy ride as fans tend to look back affectionately at it.
The movie opens with a great conceit; 'killing' off 007 and thereby offering Bond the opportunity to operate incognito. Later Bond is thrust down the rabbit hole and into the neon wonderland of Tokyo. Gilbert realises these sequences excellently; there is a playful nature to the opening of the film as traditional sequences such as the Moneypenny and M briefing scenes are introduced with a new twist albeit familiar twist. Furthermore, the actual plot is truly exciting and the stakes are undeniably high as the prospect of another World War boils away.
While the picture may on the surface appear to be a rather empty-headed and vacuous affair, the film actually takes place in an interesting (albeit heightened) Cold War environment. The threat of a possible third world war was perennially in the air during this period as relations between the Russians and the Americans remained incredibly frosty. Furthermore, the infamous 'space race' was occurring at the time with both the superpowers battling for dominion within the stars. While 'You Only Live Twice' doesn't tackle these issues in any profound way (or have the balls to reveal the corrupt third party financing SPECTRE's plan), these events still provide an interesting backdrop for the film's more outlandish story.
The most exciting moments for me occur during the opening hour as Bond investigates the case around Japan and soaks in some of the local culture. There is plenty of fun to he had here as 007 attends a sumo fight, meets a mysterious woman, scraps in expensive offices and meets a seemingly threatening Japanese man who could be either friend or foe. The first hour is really great escapist entertainment in the tradition of the earlier Bond movies, sadly this momentum is squandered in the second half with the last great moment of the movie being the interrogation scene with Helga Brandt. But from there on the 'You Only Live Twice' does go somewhat off the rails and never fully recovers.
At this point, around an hour in, Bond disappears for approximately 10 minutes and the grand mystery over who stole the space-shuttle is revealed to the audience. I have no problem with these scenes mainly as we finally get a taste of quite how devious and cruel Bond's enemy is this time out. However, after these scenes we have to sit through the awful 'turning Japanese' segment. While it's no doubt interesting and undeniably gorgeous this whole portion of the film is totally unnecessary and grinds the momentum of the movie's plot massively to a halt.
At the point we the audience get ahead of Bond and discover Blofeld and SPECTRE are indeed behind the hijacking, therefore the film should attempt to make every effort to get Bond to the volcano as soon as possible. The hollowed-out volcano is essentially the star of the show and the filmmakers know it - so why wait around? Instead the film decides to meander around a Japanese village and introduce a totally superfluous character in Kissy Suzuki. As a result the second half of the movie gets off to a bad start, with it being plain to see that tighter scripting could have resolved some of these second act woes. However, as it stands the middle of the film is too baggy making 'You Only Live Twice' a rather messy and untidy film.
Ken Adam's work and other Technical Contributions:
This film really belongs to the backroom players in particular the great Sir Ken Adam. Adam's sets are truly stunning and audacious, in particular I adore the designs he conjures up for both Osato and Tiger's offices. The production designer's crowning glory is of course the hollowed-out volcano, it's impossible not to marvel at the sheer scale of the set; not only can a helicopter fly in and out but a whole rocket gets launched out of it at one point! Adam is totally bonkers for dreaming up such a set but still an absolute genius for realising it so tremendously well. While the idea of a villain's headquarters being hidden beneath an inactive volcano may sound completely ridiculous conceptually, the real magic to Adam's design is quite how believable the set is to look at. There isn't a hint of pastiche with the design at all and despite being totally barmy the film takes the volcano sequences very seriously which is a testament to the tone of the piece. While Sean Connery's name may be front and centre on the poster its clear to me that Ken Adam is truly the star of the show in 'You Only Live Twice'.
In addition, John Barry's contribution with the score is excellent as is the title song hauntingly sung by Nancy Sinatra. As for the cinematography, Freddie Young brings the same stately and beautiful eye that he graced the silver screen with in his collaborations with David Lean. Also Bob Simmon's brilliant stunt coordination should be singled out, the energy he brings to those sequences is staggering and never do you feel that you're watching 'movie violence'. Instead all the fights are dirty and scrappy and you genuinely feel that each party is truly fighting to survive.
Technically speaking, the visual effects are the only element where the film is lacking. A short trip away from Pinewood Studios at Borehamwood, Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' was being filmed and next to the emerging standard of the time 'You Only Live Twice' pales in comparison.
Bond vs Blofeld:
With so much going on behind-the-scenes it may be no surprise to learn that little attention is really placed in any of the characters in the picture. Many have stated over the years that Connery gives a bored and uninterested performance in the film. I feel the real issue for Connery's lack of interest comes down to the script failing to give him much to really do. 'You Only Live Twice' is too wrapped-up in it's own grand scale and as a result the character of Bond really falls by the wayside as the spectacle begins to take hold. The problem is not so much Connery's disinterest with the film and more the filmmakers disinterest in Bond.
Sean Connery is the main reason why the previous four films came together so well; he bought a cool animalistic sex-appeal to the role of 007 but here the character of Bond is neglected heavily. Aside from some great fight sequences (which Mr. Connery excels at) there is little else for him to really get his teeth into. It's a shame to waste such a talented actor especially as plenty of opportunities present themselves throughout the movie to better exploit him. Instead Bond is nothing more then a mannequin used to hinge the plot together. It isn't helped by the fact that Sean is really not channeling that same 007 insouciance and charm that he seemingly possessed in his earlier entries. In 'You Only Live Twice' he looks frumpier, puffier, his suits are ill-fitted and his hair often looks ruffled and unkempt. The Bond in 'You Only Live Twice' does feel something of a step down from the 007 we had met in previous outings.
This all means that Donald Pleasance comes dangerously close to stealing the picture. It is clear why his portrayal of Blofeld has become historically parodied as Pleasance brings a brilliant unsettling macabre and sinister feel to the villain. His Blofeld is a small, creepy and slimy individual and had he featured more in the film he would likely have walked away with the movie. However, as it stands the role is nothing more than a glorified cameo. After building up the character of Blofeld for three films, 'You Only Live Twice' should have made better use of the character and it seems a wasted opportunity to not let Pleasance reach his full potential.
I feel the one thing that Pleasance lacked in the film was a large dialogue scene with Bond. Much like Dr. No before him, Blofeld is introduced into the affair at a relatively late stage, however, in my opinion the good doctor made a much greater impression than SPECTRE's No.1. Had Blofeld been given a few more additional scenes to flesh out his character (possibly a chance to retire to his quarters before the rockets are launched so he could brag to Bond about his successes) I would happily hold Pleasance's portrayal of the super-villain in extremely high regard. Instead, I find it confusing that his Blofeld is so well loved by many fans considering the lack of characterisation he has in this film.
In addition, aside for Tetsurō Tamba's excellent performance as Tiger Tanaka, the other supporting characters barely register. In regards to Bond's leading ladies, Aki is confusingly killed two-thirds of the way into the film and Kissy's introduction seems like a last-minute substitute for Bond so he won't go a moment without a young woman draped on his arm. It's a strange decision to have made as both the characters are totally interchangeable and instead of producing two women to serve the same function the film would have been far more successful to combine the characters into one. Kissy's role is nothing more than a poor-man's Honey Ryder and far more dramatic opportunities present themselves with a character such as Aki. So while Aki's death may be a beautifully filmed sequence, you can't help but feel it comes at too high a price for the film's narrative and structure.
In summary, there is a lot to enjoy about 'You Only Live Twice'. Even as we get older and grow slightly more cynical about the film it's hard not to gleam some enjoyment out of it. However, within the Bond oeuvre it's most definitely a lesser entry and a growing disappointment.