With the fifth canonical entry in the James Bond film series, it becomes apparent that one of the things the producers have decided on to keep things fresh is to change the scenery often. You Only Live Twice is accordingly set in Japan, giving it an exotic locale that is different from the Caribbean, Turkish, and American settings of the previous four films. In this adventure Bond, after faking his death for reasons that don’t even begin to pan out, is charged with finding the origin of a spacecraft that abducted an American capsule. The Americans blame the Russians. The Russians, similarly victimized, blame the Americans. Bond has to find the real culprits before World War III erupts.
What follows is mostly a lot of silliness with a few good characters. Bond fakes his death so that his enemies won’t know he’s out and about investigating the capsule hijacking, but he does it all without a shred of subtlety, so everybody is on to him from the very beginning anyway. He tips his hand so often early on that it’s almost a wonder he isn’t killed for real. It’s a little harder to believe in the suave super-spy when he errs so consistently. It doesn’t help that the first half of the film is relatively light on exciting action sequences, so it’s easier to notice the silliness. Mind you, the latter half has its share of silliness as well, with a squad of highly noticeable ninjas, and a general lack of preparation and awareness on the part of the heroes. Bond and his traditional disposable Bond girl (played here by Mie Hamm) even have to walk up and stand on a false lake to realize it’s fake; you’d think they could at least tell once they were within a few feet of it. Hamm also ends up running across an island about three times wearing only a bikini and no shoes; one can only imagine how blistered she must be. Then, of course, there’s the sheer ludicrousness of trying to pass Sean Connery off as a Japanese person. (Reason for this? Apparently none, as he’s never close enough to anybody who would notice and isn’t already part of his team.)
But despite the silliness, there’s a lot to like as well. The helicopter fight ought to be silly by all rights, but it’s actually quite entertaining. And despite the general silliness of the ninja squad, once they finally get to act it’s pretty fun to watch. But the main reason the film really works is that despite a bit of a shallow plot and a lack of characterization, several of the performances are given by actors who have a strong stage presence that elevates the whole experience. There’s Connery as Bond, of course, but there’s also Tetsurô Tanba’s performance as Tiger Tanaka, Bond’s opposite number in Japan. More of Tiger Tanaka would have been welcome, as what little we get to see of him suggests a character who could probably support an action film in his own right. Teru Shimada plays one of the villains of the piece, and though his scenes are short, he gives the impression of a competent criminal businessman. But the real standout, even if his scenes are relatively brief themselves, is Donald Pleasance making his debut as the first fully-on-screen appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the mastermind behind SPECTRE. Often when we watch action films, we wonder why the bad guy doesn’t just kill the hero right away once he’s in their power. Here, without ever saying it aloud, Pleasance’s mannerisms give us our answer: Bond just isn’t important enough for him to be concerned. Once he’s captured, he’s no longer a threat. We know better, of course… but Pleasance sells it.
And that, as much as anything, is what keeps You Only Live Twice afloat despite the absurdity of much of the film. The actors really sell what they’re doing, and coupled with the overall fun of the film when it works, it’s an enjoyable, if not great, entry in the series.