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You Only Live Twice Retro Review: Oh No, It’s in Japan

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BY September 8, 2020
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Writing my Retro Review of You Only Live Twice is kind of bittersweet. Not only is it (almost) the swan song of Sean Connery’s Bond, but, uh, there’s some other reasons–we’ll get to ’em. But first, if you’re new to Retro Reviews, they’re what it says on the tin–reviews of retro (and retro-ish) stuff. I’m currently watching my way through the James Bond series. All I knew about James Bond going in is the stuff that anyone would know–shaken, etc. And now? Well, we’ll see.

And if you’re new to our James Bond series as a whole, you can begin at the beginning with Dr. No.

YOLO, Except This Time: What’s This Movie About?

you only live twice retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

An American spacecraft is captured–literally swallowed up by another mysterious craft, which then crashes down in the Sea of Japan. The Americans think it’s obviously the Soviet Union–we are deep in the Cold War–but Britain thinks differently. So they have their agent Bond fake his death so he can go investigate in Japan. Why exactly does he need to fake his death? Shhh, don’t worry about it.

Once in Japan, Bond meets up with Japanese secret service head Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurō Tamba) and Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), a secret agent. He also infiltrates Osato Chemicals, stealing some confidential documents, after a would-be assassin leads him back to the company. Examination of the documents reveals a photograph of the Ning-Po, a cargo ship. Tanaka dispatches agents to track the ship, which drops off supplies at an island. Meanwhile, Bond goes back to Osato, this time pretending to be a businessman.

However, Osato is a barely-veiled front for SPECTRE and they make him immediately. Thus kicks off a series of events that lead to Bond getting fake-married to agent-in-training Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) and finding out that this is all a SPECTRE plot. And we finally meet SPECTRE 1, the infamous Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance). He takes Bond’s resurrection with aplomb, saying, “You only live twice, Mr. Bond.”

image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Wait, This in Japan? Oh, No.

Before we get to Blofeld, we must talk about something else first. As soon as I realized that the bulk of this film was set in Japan, I was apprehensive. The James Bond series has not had an exemplary record so far regarding cultural sensitivity. Needless to say, I was wary. Unfortunately, my concerns did not abate upon viewing the film. Literally Bond’s first line is “Why do Chinese girls taste different?” I was like, okay, fella. Let’s be cool. And then it somehow got worse.

When he’s in Japan, Tanaka decides that the best disguise for the living dead man is Japanese fisherman. That would be weird enough on its own. Sean Connery is 6’2″, according to my extensive research (one Google search), and towers over everyone in the Japanese scenes. But they were like, how can we make this the most uncomfortable?

you only live twice retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists, unfortunately

Their solution is to have the female staff give him a Japanese makeover, complete with prosthetics. The overall effect is underwhelming. He doesn’t so much look Asian in any possible way as he does a “defective Spock,” as Jeff Yang wrote.

And while this is the most egregious part of the film’s tilted view of Japan, it’s unfortunately not the only issue. The Japanese setting never feels like a real country so much as it seems like stereotypes someone vomited up after you gave them a head injury. Even the Roma catfight in From Russia from Love was more dignified than this.

I did have a sensible chuckle listening to these fellows discuss Bond’s “transformation,” though.

Now Pay Attention, 007: The World of James Bond

After his last field trip (in Thunderball), Q is once again traveling the world. This time, he’s tasked with bringing “Little Nellie,” an armored autogyro. Sure. Little Nellie’s design is based on a real vehicle, by the way. But the real thing didn’t have the Q enhancements, which included rocket launchers, aerial mines, machine guns, and obviously flamethrowers. Personally, I preferred the rocket-firing cigarettes (uh, a separate Q-vention, not a Little Nellie feature).

Moving on, there’s the title theme. Nancy Sinatra performs it this time, so perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s got the moody 60s pop vibes of songs like her duet “Somethin’ Stupid.” As such, it’s probably my favorite theme so far. To me, it’s the most listenable, as in the one I can imagine listening to outside of the film.

you only live twice retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

But while Q’s gadgetry and the theme song are important details, You Only Live Twice‘s most important contribution to the James Bond canon is its villain. Donald Pleasance appeared as Blofeld only once. Other actors have played and will go on to play the character–most recently Christoph Waltz. However, it’s probably Pleasance’s portrayal that’s had the most cultural impact. First, there’s his volcano lair. Then there’s his image. The visual of the supervillain sitting in his chair and petting his cat is an indelible one that’s inspired characters like Austin Powers‘s Dr. Evil and even Inspector Gadget‘s Dr. Claw. (Did Blofeld not go to evil medical school?) And the cat loves it.

You Only Live Twice Retro Review

I’ve struggled with writing the review part of my You Only Live Twice Retro Review because overall, I found it very just fine. I haven’t disliked a Bond movie yet and this film is no exception. However, unlike the cat, I didn’t love it. I’ve already mentioned the grossness around Japanese people and Japanese culture. Even if there weren’t that, it still wouldn’t be a perfect movie.

For one thing, it takes too long to get going. And when the action does come, it feels forced. The SPECTRE crew has been trying their level best to keep James away from the action, for instance. So when he takes Little Nellie up for a bit of observation, the smart thing to do would be to ignore it. It’s just a volcano, teabag–keep flying. Instead, they send a squad of helicopters to attack him. Well, golly, if he didn’t know this were the place, then he certainly does now.

you only live twice retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

And as I mentioned earlier, this is almost Connery’s swan song–he’ll come back one last time, officially. But at this point, the seams are starting to show. The elements that usually make a Bond movie fun–the girls and gadgets, among other things–feel like parody. You might have noticed, for instance, that I haven’t really singled out any of the film’s Bond girls like I usually do. I would have, had they ever been given anything interesting to do beyond drive fast, wear a bikini, shave Bond’s chest, and die.

So ultimately and unfortunately, although Connery is still as charming as ever, this movie rarely rises up to meet him. And if I get the itch to watch a movie with a fascinating sociopathic villain at its core that’s based on a story by Roald Dahl, then I’ll be watching Willy Wonka.

But what about you? Have you seen the movie? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this You Only Live Twice Retro Review. Comment below or hit us up on social media.

featured image via Eon Productions and United Artists

Moviesjames bondmoviesYou Only Live Twice

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at salome@comicyears.com.

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