YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) was the first Bond film I saw. I don’t remember being very impressed. At nine the sexual innuendo was over my head, and the action was mostly confusing (I remember thinking the opening was some sort of commercial as it didn’t seem related to what Bond did afterwards). Watching as an adult, it makes more sense but it’s still not impressive.
The teaser gives us what appears to be a US space mission (even more than Dr. No, this milks the era’s fascination with the space race), perfectly routine until a space vessel shows up and swallows the US craft (in one chilling detail, leaving a spacewalking astronaut floating helplessly). In a subsequent conference, the US accuses Russia, who denies it; the British representative at the conference (much as I hated the book The Man Who Saved Britain, it has a point—why exactly is Britain sitting in?) came from somewhere in the Far East, but the US foolishly doesn’t agree. Cut to James Bond in bed with a woman when a squad of killers busts in and guns him down. It’s startling but after the credits we learn this is M’s plan—with the US ready to go nuclear if the same thing happens to its next launch, Bond’s death will enable him to work more freely. This makes no sense (at no point does Bond gain any advantage from being supposedly dead), but it justifies the title, and the opening so apparently that was good enough.
After a Russian space capsule disappears too, British tracking indicates the rogue spacecraft’s destination is Japan (again, nobody else in the world picks this up). Instead of Felix Leiter, Bond works with Tanaka (Testuro Tamba), head of the Japanese secret service, along with agents Aki (Akiko Makabayashi) and Kissy (Mie Hama). Screenwriter Roald Dahl claimed he wrote the women according to producer Albert Broccoli’s supposedly inflexible formula: a good girl who sleeps with Bond and dies; a Bad Girl Bond seduces who then dies; and a good girl who falls for Bond but doesn’t get laid until the finish. Of course this resembles none of the previous films—was Dahl misremembering, bullshitting or did Broccoli think this was how the previous films went?
The two agents are generic other than being Japanese; possibly Dahl thought that was all the characterization they needed. The only difference is that Aki jumps 007’s bones, Kissy holds out until the end of the film (after spending the climactic fight scene in her underwear, crouching behind Tanaka). They embody Dahl’s Japan, a male fantasy world where women are completely subordinate, as in the scene on the poster where Tanaka’s agents bathe him and Bond both. The bad girl Helga, SPECTRE’s Number 11 (Karin Dor) is more interesting. When Bond tries to seduce her, she beds him but she’s only in it for sex and tries to kill him the next day. It’s a nice twist.
The script generally has lots of chasing and little narrative spine. A vehicle chase involving Bond in a minicopter ducking SPECTRE fliers, falls flat because the copter packs such overwhelming firepower there’s never a real threat. Having Blofeld’s beefy henchman prove Oddjob-tough near the end doesn’t work either: unlike Oddjob, whom we knew going in was a deadly threat, this guy has no buildup—he’s just standing by his boss until the climax.
The climax is interesting, as it involved a ninja army assaulting the enemy base, long before ninjas were a thing in the west (unlike the usual version, these ninjas have no qualms using guns alongside shurikens). The enemy, it turns out, is SPECTRE, plotting to provoke a nuclear war between the US and USSR, after which Communist China will take over. This was made after Mao’s Cultural Revolution had turned China upside down, leaving the West convinced he was more batshit-insane and dangerous than the Russians could ever be.
The best thing in the film is Donald Pleasance’ turn as Blofeld, a creepy cold portrayal of the crime cartel’s Number One. Connery, by contrast, seems uninterested in playing Bond any more (which was the case) so Eon turned to George Lazenby for the next installment.