You Only Live Twice (1967)
It should be no surprise that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery chose to use You Only Live Twice as the source for a lot of its parody of the spy genre. As we have seen with many modern films it is hard to keep things on an even keel with just three films, much less when you reach the fifth one in the series. James Bond had reached such popularity that it was being copied and satirized (notably with a horribly unfunny film called Casino Royale, released the same year as this installment), it's would have been no surprise if the series itself began to devolve into self-parody.
It didn't help that Sean Connery had already begun to become dissatisfied with the role while making Thunderball. The constant media attention (including attempts to get pictures of him while sitting on the toilet), friction with his costars and with Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman themselves led to a somewhat phoned-in performance and his ultimate departure, leaving the role open for the next movie in the series, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
After an unidentified spaceship captures a United States space capsule, the U.S.S.R. is naturally the first ones that get the blame. British Intelligence, however, think that someone else might be involved, as the unidentified craft seemed to be heading toward the Sea of Japan. Calming the superpowers down and trying to prevent World War III, the British convince them to give their man time to sort things out.
Their man, of course, is James Bond (Sean Connery), who is currently having a liaison with a girl (Tsai Chin) in Hong Kong. He is supposedly killed by unknown gunmen, but of course this turns out to be a ruse to keep him off S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s radar as he heads to Japan to investigate. Aided Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba), Japan's head of intelligence and enthusiastic companion Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), Bond begins to investigate a chemical company, a strange ship and an island that seems to have strange goings-on. Meanwhile, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance), the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., quickly figures out that Bond's demise was greatly exaggerated.
The usual attempts to get rid of the secret agent fail, whether it be by shooting down his makeshift helicopter or by poison. Tanaka comes up with a plan to disguise Bond as a Japanese man, train him at his own ninja school and marry him to one of his agents on the island (Mie Hama) as a way to finally find out what is going on - which turns out to be Blofeld hiding out in a volcanic lair while he captures spaceships from both powers, thus hoping that his organization will come out on top once they destroy each other.
While there are quite a number of set pieces - the final invasion and destruction of Blofeld's lair is wonderfully done, even if the erupting volcano at the end is one of the most laughable effects, standing out like a sore thumb in a movie that has a lot of great ones going for it. The space scenes are done wonderfully, for instance. Still, there is nothing here as grand as the underwater battle in Thunderball or as tense as the train scenes in From Russia with Love. Roald Dahl was the main screenwriter, so I am surprised that it wasn't more outrageous than it was, and that's saying something about a screenplay that plays out like the subplot of a Godzilla movie.
Fittingly, Ken Adams's set design is one of the stars of the movie, and director Lewis Gilbert does a great job of filming them. There was just something about large-scale '60s sets and the angles at which they were often filmed that has just never been captured in later films, even the Austin Powers parodies which try so hard to replicate the time period. A good portion of the cost of the film (other than that needed to keep Sean Connery from walking) went to make Blofeld's base, which Pinewood Studios did everything except build it in an actual volcano. For instance, that is a real helicopter, not a miniature, than they land inside at one point.
While Sean Connery had often been doubled for many of the more dangerous stunts in previous films, this time around he seems almost completely detached from most of the movie. Matting was necessary in many cases at the time, as it was nearly impossible to fit film cameras inside vehicles or on something like an ultralight helicopter. Most likely the camera rigging would have been heavier than the aircraft. Still, there are so many matte shots that are horribly done and stand out about as badly as most of the in-car scenes from the first season of Supernatural. I don't know if Gilbert just couldn't get the process right, or if Connery just didn't have the patience to stick around.
Perhaps the most embarrassing part of the movie for modern viewers is Sean Connery being disguised, horribly, as a Japanese man. In truth, the whole reason behind it isn't as cringeworthy as many modern critics tend to think, but it is still absolutely ridiculous, as can be seen in many of the faces of the extras encountering a six-foot-two Scotsman in yellowface. Despite the fact it's not exactly comfortable, it's still not Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's bad. There is still that colonial feeling of "Orientals" being unfathomable curiosities, but on the other hand You Only Live Twice deserves some accolades for casting Asians in the main Asian roles. This movie may still have many problematic aspects by modern standards, but it shows how far the series had come from casting a vaguely Asian-looking white man as the villain in Dr. No.
As for the Bond girls, the necessary bad one, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), isn't around long enough to make much of an impression. Aki is great, capable and not just eye candy. If Connery had any chemistry with anyone in this movie, it was Akiko Wakabayashi, and this was played nicely as someone that Bond would have a real connection with. Unfortunately, she is replaced toward the end by the female companion from the actual book, Kissy Suzuki (Hama), who never even gets the courtesy of being called by name. Despite being another of Tanaka's agents, her main function is to look good in a bikini, even in the middle of a major gun fight.
Finally seeing Blofeld in the big reveal was satisfying, with Donald Pleasance playing him in a confident, understated manner, even when it was obvious that poor, scared cat was digging in its claws toward the end. It's too bad this is his only appearance as the criminal mastermind, as the small amount of time he appears on screen is a touchstone moment of the series.
While many would miss Connery (even though he would be back for Diamonds Are Forever) in the role over the years, it was obvious that he was no longer happy in the role that made him a star, and no amount of thrilling battles could hide that fact. It was also obvious that it was time for a major change in the direction of the series, as at this point it was already retreading some of the same ground as Dr. No. For better or worse, it was time for James Bond to start taking a more serious turn for the next movie.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Time: 117 minutes
Starring: Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Testsuro Tanba, Donald Pleasance
Director: Lewis Gilbert