Of the Sean Connery Bond films, ’You Only Live Twice’, the fifth entry in the series, often elicits apathy from viewers. Like a neglected middle child, the film is rarely thought of as on par with some others. I confess that I felt this way. Well, after poring over every inch of this disc... several times... I want to say that I was wrong... this is a terrific movie. The sign of a well-made action-thriller is when you’ve seen the movie several times and you’re still anxious about how the hero will save the day.
After an American spacecraft is captured in orbit by an unidentified ship, the U.S. suspects the U.S.S.R. (remember them?) of trying to thwart American dominance in the space race. A diplomatic conference is called with both sides being mollified by the British, who suspect the ship was launched from somewhere over the Sea of Japan. The Americans, however, are planning another space launch, and threaten war with Russia if anything happens to their ship. While 007 is dispatched to Japan to investigate, a Russian ship is also captured. They suspect this is retaliation by the Americans and suddenly the world seems on the brink of World War III.
Joining forces with Japanese intelligence, not to mention some gorgeous Japanese women, Bond begins to suspect that the criminal organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E is involved. Disappearances near the suspected launch site lead James to pose as Japanese (more on this in a moment), and stage a marriage with a Japanese agent in order to take up residence on a nearby island. They discover a huge complex hidden beneath a dormant volcano, complete with a spaceship and trained soldiers, headed by none other than Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Blofeld. As the American countdown approaches, 007 and a force of modern ninjas must infiltrate the criminal lair and stop Blofeld from sending the world toward certain doom.
Director Lewis Gilbert, who directed "Alfie" and "Damn the Defiant!", was hired to bring a new approach to 007, and he succeeded. Oh, all the elements that make the movies such an attractive fantasy are here: the women, the locales, the - by this time requisite - hi-tech gadgets, the evil mastermind bent on world domination. But Gilbert often focuses on the subtleties of the interaction of characters to each other and their surroundings - an intimacy not often found in this series.
The Director of Photography was the estimable Freddie Young. Young had worked with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, so the compositions of the picturesque Japanese vistas are superb. Working with a beautiful, sometimes delicate color palette, the exotic locales are breathtaking, and the fascinating combination of traditional Japanese ascetics and technology, the result of brilliant production design by Ken Adam, is perfect.
Made during the heated rush of the space race, ’You Only Live Twice’ exhibits a timely atmosphere of cold war politics, adding a plausible resonance to the implausible plot. The screenplay was written by Ian Fleming’s friend, Roald Dahl, the author of ’James and the Giant Peach’, and his fertile imagination serves the movie, for the most part, quite well. One problem is the ridiculous conceit of applying makeup to have Bond pass as Japanese. The sight of the swarthy, 6’ 2" Connery hunched over during the wedding ceremony didn’t do much to aid my suspension of disbelief. It’s an unnecessary device that’s almost completely ignored afterwards.
There are fewer action set pieces than in some of the movies, but their sheer excitement more than makes up for it. There’s a terrific car chase that gets a unique lift at its climax. The sequence with the personal assault ’copter, ’Little Nellie’ is easily one of the most exciting scenes in any Bond movie. And of course, the final assault on the volcano lair, a set which cost as much to build as all of ’Dr. No,’ which includes the descent of 100 ninjas. Here, the movie was ahead of its time as martial arts fighting had not yet become faddish as it would in the early 70s.
The cast is terrific, though I couldn’t help wondering if Connery hadn’t grown a bit weary of 007. Perhaps knowing he’d announced his retirement from the role during the filming influenced my perception. Still, Connery is the James Bond in my book and there’s no denying the man’s appeal as the epitome of cool. Tetsuro Tamba plays Tiger Tanaka, Bond’s ally in Japan. Unlike many such roles in other Bond films, Tanaka is extremely capable and professional, and Mr. Tamba exudes this strength of character. The women, as always, are beautiful and plentiful. The 3 main ladies of this film, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, and Karin Dor, are, individually, enough for any man. Each woman has her charms but I particularly enjoyed Ms. Wakabayashi’s quiet strength and exotic beauty. This is also the first film in which the exquisitely scarred face of the feline-stroking Blofeld is seen, here played by Donald Pleasance. Pleasance brings a stoic fatalism to the part that fits the cool tone of the movie well. Fans of the ’Austin Powers’ movies will be delighted, as this incarnation is the direct descendant of Michael Myers’ Dr. Evil - I kept expecting him to refer to the cat as ’Mr. Bigglesworth’.
"You Only Live Twice" is coming in a 16x9 enhanced widescreen transfer on this DVD. The picture is relatively clean, though there are some defects in the source print. Grain is sometimes evident, mostly due to the film stock. There’s some speckling most noticeably in the first reel, and some rare scratching. I compared my old VHS widescreen copy and found some of the exact same defects were visible, leading me to believe that both editions were struck from the same source, but that this newer edition has been cleaned up a bit more. But I’m nitpicking - the overall image of the film is excellent. The picture is crisp and the compression is fine, with no visible pixelization. Some edge enhancement is occasionally visible, most notably during process shots, but I didn’t find it distracting. Colors are faithfully rendered, with no bleeding and skin tones appear natural.
The Dolby Mono soundtrack is pleasing if unexciting. The frequency range is a bit limited, with sounds at the high end occasionally exhibiting some hiss, but it’s never intrusive and the dialogue is clear at all times. Use of the low end is spare, which makes it surprising when the subwoofer suddenly kicks in during a liftoff or explosion.
This disc is loaded with bonuses providing a surfeit of information. The commentary is moderated by John Cork of the Ian Fleming Society, and includes contributions by many of those who worked on the film, including, to my delight, Desmond Llewelyn, who died last year. It was a pleasure to hear the pride he took in playing Q. The commentary is like an aural documentary that plays over the film and is quite informative, mixing technical information with personal reminiscences. Occasionally what’s on screen doesn’t match up with the discussion, but it kept my attention and I enjoyed it.
There are two documentaries: ’Inside You Only Live Twice’ mixes new and archival footage, and is a great companion to the other material. The other, ’Silhouettes: The James Bond Titles’, is really an homage to Maurice Binder, the man behind the greatest credit sequences of many of the Bond films, and it’s very informative and enjoyable. Another bonus is a storyboard sequence that shows the original boarding for a plane crash in the film. It’s short and mildly interesting as a diversion.
The included trailers are fun: it’s interesting to see the differences in the sell for British and American audiences. The theatrical pieces are letterboxed and they’re all clean enough. The trailers for the re-release of the double-feature, ’You Only Live Twice’ and ’Thunderball’ though... whew! Aside from being framed at a seemingly random aspect ratio, the prints look like they were dragged through a sandbox! But even that has its charm... it’s like being in a 5th run movie house. The radio spots also provide a glimpse into the marketing of a time past.
While still not my very favorite Bond film, (’Goldfinger’ holds that sentimental place in my heart), ’You Only Live Twice’ has moved up considerably on that hallowed list. Very exciting, with a beautiful visual style and intimate approach, this is a very enjoyable adventure film. Because of this DVD, to my great pleasure the film truly is living a second life.