Thunderball was a pretty big step down after Goldfinger, but You Only Live Twice was a genuine return to a form – a serious contender for the most iconic Connery Bond. This was meant to be Connery’s last Bond, so he has room to be freer and more expansive in his delivery, since there’s nothing left to prove with the franchise behind him. Bond also pretends to be killed at the start of the story too, meaning there’s more of a sense of play to his ongoing existence, as he dodges and weaves around characters who assume he’s already a thing of the past. You could almost say the Bond persona starts to detach a little from Connery here and assume a life of its own, which in turn gives Connery more freedom and flexibility as well.
There’s also a more expansive sense of space and place than any Bond film to date. Whereas Goldfinger took to the skies in its final act, and Thunderball descended beneath the ocean, You Only Live Twice actually starts in outer space. A series of stately shots in the Earth’s upper atmosphere signal a much calmer and steadier mise-en-scene this time around, while Nancy Sinatra’s theme tune transpants Shirley Bassey’s brassiness to a more mannered register, accompanied by tastefully appointed strings. This is one of the most pervasive Bond songs, percolating its way through the film as much as the Bond theme, which it almost supplants.
There’s also a much tauter and tighter narrative on display here – not quite as tight as Goldfinger perhaps, but supplemented by the screenwriting skills of Roald Dahl, who brings a new limberness and suppleness to the dialogue. The Bond of Thunderball didn’t exist outside of sleaze, but here, as in Goldfinger, there’s much more room for him to just be a spy. The title sequence is less overtly focused on the female form, instead taking us through a series of volcanic landscapes that, while implicitly sexual, pre-empt a film that’s far more interested in space than sexuality. Similarly, romance is playfully dissociated from any single encounter, starting with the code phrase – “I love you” – that Bond uses to connect with fellow agents.
There’s also a much stronger sense of charisma at play here too, while Connery’s Scottish accent is more pronounced than in any of his other Bond films. Perhaps that’s because this is the first Bond film to take place almost entirely in a non-English speaking country. After we’re briefly reintroduced to Blofeld, the head of Spectre, the action shifts from outer space to Japan, where Bond tries to track down an American and Soviet space ship that have mysterious disappeared in orbit. Before we even get to Japan, however, director Lewis Gilbert includes an economic underwater sequence, as if trying to do the best bits of Thunderball right this time. He also finds a way to bridge the aerial sequences of Goldfinger with the underwater sequences of Thunderball, while upstaging the sublime car chases of Goldfinger – a chase that ends with a car being dragged by a giant helicopter magnet over the ocean.
However, the film really kicks off once we do arrive in Japan. Gilbert revels in Tokyo neon, and sets us adrift in a world of Japanese futurism and postmodernism that makes for the most atmospheric and exotic Bond so far – almost a distant ancestor of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. This Japanese backdrop is so tech-saturated that Q doesn’t need to make an appearance until quite late in the narrative – before then, his mechanical wizardry is simply subsumed into the constant electronic hum that always underlies Gilbert’s soundscapes. This makes for the most creative use of screens in any Bond film to date – televisions in weird configurations that recall Nam June Paik sculptures, an x-ray device concealed in a wooden desk, endless surveillance cameras, and endless elaborate shots of Bond himself being filmed.
This further dissociates Bond from his own image, opening up the Bond brand as an entity that can survive Connery’s imminent departure. At the same time, Gilbert revels in mise-en-scenes so extravagant that they frequently seem to displace Bond as the main point of reference. Starting with the opening sumo contest, these are the best sets in any Bond film so far – and that’s really saying something. Most scenes take place against an eclectic backdrop of Western and Japanese architecture. Since the latter has such a distinct sense of space and mise-en-scene, the film as a whole has a poise and balance that was totally missing from Thunderball, along with a peculiarly meditative and mindful demeanor for a Bond film.
So acute is this sense of mise-en-scene that Bond often seems passive, or ornamental. His Japanese sidekicks, Aki, played by Akiko Wakabayashi, and Kissy Suzuki, played by Mie Hama, quickly go from window dressing to necessary colleagues, continually saving his life or rescuing him from predicaments. You sense that Bond doesn’t have either the meditative or technological wherewithal to hold his own in Japan, so Q’s biggest intervention here isn’t gadgetry but plastic surgery. In one of the weirdest Bond sequences, Bond temporarily turns Japanese, but this doesn’t seem to be a racial so much as an affective transformation, since he doesn’t look even stereotypically Japanese after his surgery, which barely resembles regular yellowface. Instead, he’s imbued with a Japanese sensibility that permits him to learn martial arts, assemble an army of ninjas, and catch up with the futurity envisaged by Japan.
In other words, Bond’s surgery testifies to the passivity and impotence of his regular body, which in turn generates a plethora of bodies that are ejected or transported in odd ways throughout the film. During the faking of Bond’s death alone, he is catapulted into a fold-up bed, wrapped up and buried alive at sea, and then propelled out of a submarine back towards the Japanese mainland. These projected bodies, and these projections of Bond’s body, gradually expand out into the driving dynamic of the film – great trajectories up and down, like an escalating sine wave. We see Bond fall down a slide into an underground lair, we see Blofeld’s enemies fall through a collapsing floor into a piranha tank, we see Bond fall off a ship into crates, and we see a Spectre agent drip poison down a piece of fabric into Kissy’s mouth.
These alternating trajectories culminate with the volcano that houses Blofeld’s lair – the greatest Bond set piece to this point, and possibly the greatest ever Bond set piece. All the film’s upward trajectories converge on the ascent of this volcano, and all the downward trajectories converge on the subsequent descent into its caldera, where Blofeld houses his nuclear equipment. Once we get inside, Gilbert provides us with an extraordinarily expansive set, a vision of 60s open-plan design taken to utterly hallucinatory heights. The final showdown feels like an amusement park ride, too sensory to be taken in through a single shot or scene, as we follow one character after another as they traverse it all via Blofeld’s monorail.
The film then ends with one final descent and ascent – Bond and Suzuki nestling down in a lifeboat the moment before it is lifted by a submarine rising from the deep. This is almost the exact same ending as Thunderball, but delivered with more panache and vision, along with a cleaner and crisper sense of space and mise-en-scene. Both Thunderball and You Only Live Twice tried to rival Goldfinger, but only this film succeeded, making its mark as one of the most iconic Bond films in history – and one of the most parodied and mimicked ever since.