You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face
- You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
One of the most arresting images of the entire James Bond series is the sight of Sean Connery, THE iconic 007, laying dead and bloody in a bed. The shocking scene occurs even before the opening credits roll on the fifth of the 23 "official" films based on the Ian Fleming spy novels. For this and many other reasons, You Only Live Twice is a watershed movie in the series. The Death of Bond is a potent trope that has and will be repeated again throughout the 007 series. Bond's death and subsequent resurrection not only foreshadow the handful of times 007 would be regenerated in the performance of another actor; they also look forward to Connery's departure from the role before returning to it in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and again in the "unofficial" Never Say Never Again (1983). Watching the schizoid You Only Live Twice—satisfying in some respects, frustratingly comic in others—is instructive in explaining why Connery was getting fed up with the series and how the Bond movies would eventually stray quite far from their source material before its triumphant reboot decades later.
Adapted by famed British children's author Roald Dahl (Fantastic Mr. Fox), You Only Live Twice bears only the slightest resemblance to Fleming's posthumously published novel. Fleming's Bond is broken after the death of his wife Tracy at the hands of his archenemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But a diplomatic mission to Japan offers him the opportunity for revitalization and revenge when he discovers Blofeld hiding in plain sight as a leader of a dangerous death cult. Had the subsequent Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, been filmed after Thunderball, as originally planned (go back and look at the end credits tag), Connery's interest in the character might not have waned so soon. OHMSS breaks pattern with the rest of the 007 films, allowing Bond to fall in love (no, really), marry, and ultimately lose Tracy, a natural progression which would have set up You Only Live Twice's revenge plot of the novel quite naturally for the next cinematic entry. It might also have justified the increasingly bushier eyebrows, noticeable paunch and general unkemptness of Connery's late model Bond. The reality is that Connery had begun to bristle at the inordinate amount of attention being focused on Bond to the detriment of the rest of his performances. Reportedly, the press had even begun to address Connery by the Bond name during publicity tours, further fueling his feelings of emnity and ultimately leading to his announcement that he would not return to the role.
Ignoring the offscreen tension that no doubt drove some of the inherent dynamism of the film, the truth is that the 60s-era West's limited understanding of Eastern culture makes You Only Live Twice at once problematic and enticing. There are the racist anachronisms like Bond's yellowface disguise. Or the following exchange between Bond and Ling, the Asian woman who sets him up for assassination at the top of the film:
Bond: Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?
Ling: You think we better, huh?
Bond: No, just different. Like Peking Duck is different from Russian Caviar. But I love them both.
Ling: Darling, I give you very best duck.
Besides feeding into obvious sexual stereotypes, this short conversation illustrates the You Only Live Twice's recurring theme of not just female but Eastern subservience to the ultimate expression of Western masculinity and world dominance, British secret agent James Bond. This is at odds with other respectful travelogue-like details that fill in what was at the time of the film's release still quite a sketchy culture: Bond's explanation of the correct temperature at which one should imbibe sake; a glimpse at the then largely unknown sport of Sumo wrestling; the melding of the traditional with the cutting edge inherent in the characterization of 007's Japanese alter ego, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba), who leads a cadre of ninja spys in a climactic raid on Blofeld's volcanic secret base.
Ah, "volcanic secret base," the very words evoke comparisons to the silly, Flint, Matt Helm, and Austin Powers parodies inspired in large part by the 007 series. The Bond movies had flirted with parody plenty of times before—Aston Martin ejector seat, anyone? But the secret base Blofeld's S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization has situated inside a dormant Japanese volcano is the epitome of Bond's brief forays into fantasy. Reportedly constructed by production designer Ken Adam (Dr. Strangelove) at a cost of $1 million—the entire budget of the first Bond movie, Dr. No (1962)—the interior of the volcanic base has, in addition to a nearly full scale approximation of a rocket launching pad, a working monorail and helicopter pad. It is the financial success of You Only Live Twice, due in no small part to this overly grandiose set, that would lead so many of the later Bond films to mimic this film's formula (The Spy Who Loved Me, Tomorrow Never Dies).
But it's unfair to lay the blame for You Only Live Twice's failure to entirely satisfy on a pure cinematic level solely on Ken Adam's outsized production design. The miscasting of the blank and simpering Mie Hama as Kissy, the third and final of the film's Bond girls, is a sharp contrast to the refreshing allure of the same movie's first Bond girl, Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki. So why is Aki so quickly dispensed with in order to usher in Kissy? It turns out that the two actresses had originally been cast in each other's roles until the sheer amount of Aki's dialogue precluded the possiblility of the non-English speaking Hama playing the role. The only reason Hama wasn't fired altogether (possibly apocryphal) is because she reportedly threatened to commit suicide when approached about leaving the project. The miscasting of a slight, mousy Donald Pleasence as the thus far ominous but unseen Blofeld is another of the film's greatest faults. Pleasence's effeminate characterization of Blofeld as a nebisshy, Nehru jacket-clad mastermind trying to foment war between the major superpowers dissipates much of the anxiety the film has effectively built up by the time Blofeld is introduced in the third act. It would take a thuggish interpretation by Telly Savalas in the now reappraised next installment, the delayed On Her Majesty's Secret Service, to eclipse Pleasence's badly executed performance. And even then, Pleasence's cat-stroking caricature refuses to die thanks to its influence on Mike Myers' Dr. Evil character in the aforementioned Austin Powers trilogy.
You Only Live Twice shouldn't be completely dismissed. It boasts some stunning scenery; one of composer John Barry's finest scores (for any movie) and definitely his best title song (sung by Nancy Sinatra); a gripping rooftop fight sequence shot from a helicopter at the Kobe docks; one of Q's most exhilirating gadgets, the working gyrocopter referred to as "Little Nellie." In fact, the movie plays like it's shaping up to be the greatest Bond film so far before it goes off the rails with the introduction of Connery made up as a Japanese fisherman. Arguably, the 007 series doesn't seriously regain its lethal footing for any lasting period until it goes back to square one, adapting Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale (2006), a brutal film energized by the casting of the stocky, savage Daniel Craig. But You Only Live Twice is exciting as a time capsule of Bond at his pop culture height, and its title hints at the capacity for reinvention inherent in the character of 007.