Director: Lewis Gilbert
Producers: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Writer: Roald Dahl
Cinematographer: Freddie Young
Composer: John Barry
Editors: Peter R. Hunt, Robert Richardson
Theme: "You Only Live Twice" by Nancy Sinatra
James Bond (Sean Connery), believed to have been killed in Hong Kong, fakes his death and travels to Japan with a new mission from MI6; to investigate the disappearance of an American spacecraft, which the U.S. blames on Russia.
The first truly epic Bond film, You Only Live Twice is a strong balance between the straight, classy tone of From Russia With Love and the kitschy, camp tone of Goldfinger and comes close to equaling both films in quality and entertainment value. Much of the credit can go to the creative team of Lewis Gilbert and Roald Dahl; despite no experience with big-budget spectacles, this writer-director team give this fifth Bond film massive action sequences, but also likeable characters and competent storytelling.
Story wise, Dahl keeps the story moving, delivering a nice balance between character moments and action set pieces, while also building up a good mystery; from Bond's staged death to Blofeld's reveal, the mystery and fun characters anchor the more outlandish elements and gives the plot genuine weight and stakes not seen since From Russia With Love. As for Gilbert, his handling of the action sequences, particularly the final battle with Bond and Tanaka's Ninjas versus SPECTRE and the Little Nellie chase sequence, are phenomenal and his visuals boast some of the most gorgeous and iconic shots in the entire franchise, not to mention great use of lighting and composition by his cinematographer Freddie Young and Ken Adam's wonderful sets, especially Blofeld's underground Volcano lair, arguably one of the best sets in film history.
As thrilling as these action scenes are, Gilbert's expertise is in character dramas and, while by no means three-dimensional, it's the characters in You Only Live Twice that really shine. Whether it's Bond and Kissy's honeymoon, Brandt's interrogation of Bond, Blofeld's constant need to kill his failing henchmen, or Bond and Tanaka's growing friendship, it's great fun to watch the character interactions, but unlike Thunderball, these character moments are in service of the story and give all the principal actors some great material to work with.
Connery is still fun to watch as Bond, though you can't help but sense his growing disinterest in the role. As Tiger Tanaka, Tetsuro Tamba makes his mark as one of Bond's best allies and is one of the few who seems just as dangerous as Bond. Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi are unique Bond girls and act well off of Connery, but are unmemorable and don't contribute much to the story. Fortunately, Karin Dor makes up for it as the deliciously villainous Helga Brandt. But the real star here is Donald Pleasance, who gives Blofeld a creepy, strange delivery and body language that instantly makes him worthy of his title as Bond's archnemesis.
Like From Russia With Love and Goldfinger before it, You Only Live Twice is one of those rare Bond films that's both a good Bond film, with fantastic action scenes, an awesome gadget in Little Nellie and creepy villains, and a good film, with a strong screenplay, solid performances, great directing and lighting and amazing sets. It slows down a bit in the middle and lacks memorable Bond girls, but You Only Live Twice is definitely one of the franchises' brightest moments.