The Bond: Sean Connery, in what was supposed to be his last Bond (he returned in 1971’s Diamonds are Forever). The audience was well aware of his impending departure and the film plays with that expectation, starting with a fake-out death and peppering other close calls throughout.
The Release: The next film was supposed to be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but Thunderball‘s longer-than-expected shoot pushed the next movie’s filming schedule out of the winter months required by the plot. So, producers decided to do the next novel, You Only Live Twice, instead.
Thanks to the success of Thunderball, however, the film could go as big and extravagant as producers wanted and it did. The volcano set alone cost more than the entire budget of Dr. No. Still, YOLT premiered to mild success in the UK and US on June 13, 1967. It grossed well under Thunderball, but still managed to earn more than No and From Russia with Love.
The Girl: Screenwriter Roald Dahl (yes, that one) said producers Saltzman and Broccoli gave him free reign with the story, but were absolutely adamant that he follow the 3-girl structure loosely established by the previous films. The first is Aki, played by Akiko Wakabayashi in the role of the good girl who sleeps with Bond and dies. She accidentally gets poisoned by a ninja who was targeting Bond. The second is Helga Brandt, played by Karin Dor in the role of the villainess who sleeps with Bond and dies. She gets dropped into a pool of piranhas after failing to kill Bond. The third is Kissy, played by Mie Hama, who flirts with Bond but doesn’t give into his advances until the fade-out before the end credits. Hama and Wakabayashi’s roles were originally switched, but Hama couldn’t speak English as well so the producers gave her the less verbal role even though Wakabayashi had better chemistry with Connery.
The Villain: Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, doing the most severe pinky acting in film history. Czech actor Jan Werich was originally cast in the part, but after a few days on set, the filmmakers decided he wasn’t villainous enough. How he could have been worse than Pleasance is beyond imagining.
The Gadgets: There are a lot of gadgets in this movie—perhaps too many. The coolest is probably the portable helicopter, “Little Nellie” that Q (Desmond Llewelyn) brings to Japan in a couple of suitcases. Rickety as it looks, the scene where it takes on four enemy helicopters over the mountains of Japan is–at least visually–one of the most enjoyable action sequences of the franchise up to that point.
The Song: “You Only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra. The song starts out with, in my opinion, one of the most romantic string melodies John Barry ever wrote, but things quickly go south when the “oriental” instruments and electric guitar take over. It’s a decent song but a product of its time in so many ways that it’s impossible to just enjoy it, especially when played over Maurice Binder’s embarrassing Japan-themed credits.
The Book: This is the first (though not the last) film in the franchise that almost completely ignores its source material. The events of OHMSS are absolutely vital to YOLT‘s Blofeld-Bond revenge plot, so Dahl could take little more than the characters’ names and a few minor details for the film—and that’s actually a good thing. The book is kind of a downer.
Bond is so depressed about the death of his wife (that’s for tomorrow) that M is ready to fire him. To save his career, Bond must convince the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka, to share intelligence promised exclusively to America with Britain as well. What that turns into is Tiger making him over to look and act Japanese (Connery in yellow face is one of the great horrors of film history) while Bond gets weirded out by everything from the significance of suicide in Japanese culture to sushi and kobe beef. The first time he shows any real interest is when Tiger takes him to an island full of naked women.
However, surprisingly, the most criticized country in the book is America. The novel is clearly Ian Fleming struggling with the decline of British imperialism and America’s emergence as a major world power post-WWII. Oddly, Tiger becomes his mouthpiece. In one scene, Tiger argues that Japan would have been better served by conquering New Zealand and Australia than striking Pearl Harbor. In another, he essentially argues that Americans are awful tourists who don’t understand or respect Japanese culture but are drawn to it because they like its rituals and age over the youth and mutability of America. Bond comes to the U.S.’s defense for a second before making the even worse pronouncement that Tiger is only seeing low-level GI’s who are only once removed from low-class eastern european immigrants anyway.
The Movie: You Only Live Twice is, to put it mildly, absurd. That’s why so much from this movie appears in the Austin Powers franchise. The lines “this organization does not tolerate failure” and “in Japan, men always come first, women come second,” are quoted almost exactly in the first film and the volcano lair appears in The Spy Who Shagged Me. Most importantly, though, Dr. Evil’s appearance is almost identical to Blofeld’s here.
SPECTRE was set up as the franchise’s major villain all the way back in Dr. No. and Blofeld (called #1 before this) as its leader in From Russia with Love. So, audiences waited 5 years to see the face of this ruthless monster just for Pleasance to turn him into a joke. He was thankfully replaced by Telly Savalas in OHMSS and Charles Gray (who plays Henderson here and The Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) in Diamonds are Forever, but this film is almost a lost cause.
So much of it feels dialed in. Connery barely flirts with Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny. The film ends–yet again–with Bond and a girl in a boat. Speaking of, Kissy is barely onscreen long enough for us to connect and is really just a body in a white bikini, a callback to Dr. No that just highlights how subpar this installment is. As for the action, even with a scene where literally 100 stuntmen repel into the belly of a volcano, the best sequence is the simplest: a long shot from a helicopter of Bond taking out guards as he runs across rooftops.
Really, the most interesting thing about the film is what it means for Bond continuity. Some fans believe that the name James Bond and the 007 designation are transferable, meaning that each actor inhabiting the role represents a new person taking over the persona within the world of the movies. This film could support either side. Bond, for the first time ever, seems kind of interested in the idea of settling down and his uncharacteristic affection with Aki–and sadness when she dies–seems to presage his relationship with Diana Rigg’s Tracy in OHMSS. So, one person, different faces. However, you could also argue that Bond could have put in his resignation to try out married life after the British submarine intercepts his and Kissy’s love raft and then he comes back two movies later when it doesn’t work out. I think that trying to find evidence for that theory involves more thought than the franchise itself ever gives the issue, but to each his own.