You Only Live Twice stars Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, and Tetsuro Tamba and was directed by Lewis Gilbert. Very loosely based on Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel of the same name, this film sees James Bond, once again played by Sean Connery, sent on a mission to Japan to solve the mysterious disappearance of American and Soviet spaceships and prevent a global war. The fifth film in the Bond franchise is a bit of a step up from the painfully dull Thunderball, but unfortunately not a particularly big step up. Luckily, this film corrects the previous installment’s biggest blunder ñ it’s certainly not dull.
In fact, this one immediately grabs your attention with one of the more shocking cold-openings in the series which offers the promise of an interesting and unexpected story. Given that cold opening, the stakes seem much higher than a normal Bond film right from the get-go. We encounter a potentially franchise-altering situation right away and it paves the way for what could’ve been a very twisty, espionage-drenched story of deception and misdirection.
It quickly becomes clear though that that is not the direction things are gonna be going. Despite that, I was actually very much on-board with the premise and many of the characters for the first half of the film and it was on par to surpass not only Thunderball, but Dr. No as well. This film offers quite a bit more action than we’ve seen in past Bond movies and some of the silliness and interesting spy elements that were absent in Thunderball are back in full force here. In fact, I would argue that the ridiculous silliness reaches its Connery-era peak.
The plot itself eventually devolves into insanity, but there are just so many absurd moments scattered throughout that it’s hard to imagine what the filmmakers and actors were thinking as they were shooting it. For instance, there’s a fairly extended sequence in which Bond fights a guy with a couch. Like, literally picks up a couch and repeatedly throws it at the guy. Beyond those ridiculous moments, this movie did actually offer some decent action and unique sequences.
It was nice to have a new locale for Bond to explore and we even get to see some on-location moments where M, Q, and even Moneypenny were out of the office and at least somewhat in the field with Bond for a time. Speaking of Q, he offered up some of his craziest gadgets yet, providing a blend of fun espionage tools and absurd over-the-top gadgets like a build-on-the-spot mini Ikea gyrocopter. It’s ridiculous, but let me tell you, helicopter fights are far more interesting than scuba fights.
I mentioned earlier that despite some oddities, I was on board for the first half of the film so what happens? The ninja training school happens, that’s what. When it first makes it appearance, it seems like it’s gonna be one of those silly minor features that pop up in these movies every now and then that make you question what the writers were possibly thinking before disappearing again into the background with little future reference. But no, the filmmakers went all-in on this one.
What starts off as a goofy side story, quickly turns uncomfortable and confusing, only to end up as completely unnecessary for the plot. It’s such an asinine subplot that continues to baffle me every time I see the movie. The ninja component is odd enough, but then it’s smashed together with a weird space-race World War III threat that steers the whole plot straight into absolutely ridiculous territory. Although You Only Live Twice isn’t all that great in its entirety, I do admit to kinda enjoying the first half and being (mostly) amusedly befuddled for the second half.
The story makes very little sense, only a few characters have any lasting impact, and it all feels almost self-parodying at times. But, you know what? I’ll take ridiculous-mediocre Bond over dull-mediocre Bond any day. Alright let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one has gotta be the gadgets. Some of these Bond films are a bit hit or miss when it comes to their stories, but we can always count on Q to deliver.
His gadgetry goodies are definitely the highlight here, providing us with a mix of cool espionage tools and absolutely ridiculous gadgets. Probably the most absurd here is the Little Nellie gyrocopter which Q’s team assembles on the spot in the field like it was an Ikea bookcase. This movie also marks the first time Bond gets some gadgets from an external source too ñ in this case, the ninja training school. They also provide some crazy stuff, but my favorite would probably be the rocket cigarettes.
The second pro is the promising premise. The movie doesn’t quite deliver on its set-up, but it actually has a decent storyline up until its ninja-school dive into absurdity. It gives us one of the more unexpected cold starts in the franchise and does explore a unique plot route for a little while, so I’ve gotta give it some credit. On the con side, the biggest issue is definitely the ninja school. On its face, the training school itself isn’t all that bad. It’s a bit silly, but has some fun aspects to it. The problem lies with where the story goes as a result of the ninja school.
Things take a very strange turn with a lot of focus placed on a story beat that should’ve only be a silly minor offshoot. Perhaps worst of all is the racial strangeness of it. Unlike in Dr. No, most of the Japanese characters are actually played by Japanese actors, so that’s an improvement, but the whole make-Bond-Japanese subplot is indescribably weird. At worst, it’s offensively stereotypical and at best, it’s confusingly ridiculous. That whole thing just tanks that chunk of the movie for me. The second con is what I’m simply gonna call the goofiness. Now, I don’t mind a little goofiness in my Bond films.
In fact, it’s part of the charm for some of these early and mid Bond movies. And there are some silly moments that I do genuinely enjoy in this film (like a piranha pool in a volcano), but this one just takes it all too far. I already mentioned the whole ninja school and Japanese Bond thing, but the remainder of the story after that takes such a goofy campy turn. The evil lair is silly, the evil plot is even sillier and the space scenes are so absurd and kinda terrible that it’s just too much. I’m gonna give You Only Live Twice 2.5 out of 5 paws.
This is a weird and kinda crazy movie that only sometimes feels like a Bond film, but there’s no denying that it’s entertaining in its absurdity. I would recommend You Only Live Twice to people who like the sillier Bond movies. If you’re looking for a serious spy thriller, this isn’t the movie you should turn to. But if you want to see Bond become a ninja in order to break into a volcano lair run by Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget, you’ll be entertained. Confused and constantly wondering how the movie was ever greenlit, but entertained. If you liked You Only Live Twice, I would recommend Moonraker.
It’s the 11th film in the Bond franchise and is widely regarded as the silliest in the series, largely due to its space theme and insane third act. If you liked the secret lair in this film, you might want to watch Bond’s first outing in Dr. No. It too offers some odd racial choices, but has a comparatively stronger story that’s slightly less crazy. And if you prefer your Bond films a little more serious okay a lot more serious, you should watch Skyfall. This 23rd Bond movie provides us with a story that has elements of what this movie could’ve been.