In the film, Bond is dispatched to Japan after American and Soviet manned spacecraft disappear mysteriously in orbit. With each nation blaming the other amidst the Cold War, Bond travels secretly to a remote Japanese island to find the perpetrators and comes face to face with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE. The film reveals the appearance of Blofeld, who was previously a partially unseen character. SPECTRE is working for the government of an unnamed Asian power, implied to be the People's Republic of China, to provoke war between the superpowers.
During the filming in Japan, it was announced that Sean Connery would retire from the role of Bond, but after a hiatus, he returned in 1971's Diamonds Are Forever and later 1983's non-Eon Bond film Never Say Never Again. You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film to be directed by Lewis Gilbert, who later directed the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me and the 1979 film Moonraker, both starring Roger Moore.
An American NASA spacecraft is hijacked from orbit by an unidentified spacecraft. The United States suspect it to be the work of the Soviets, but the British suspect Japanese involvement since the spacecraft landed in the Sea of Japan. To investigate, MI6 operative James Bond is sent to Tokyo after faking his own death in Hong Kong and being buried at sea from the HMS Tenby (F65).
Upon his arrival, Bond is contacted by Aki, assistant to the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka, while watching sumo. Aki introduces Bond to local MI6 operative Dikko Henderson. Henderson claims to have critical evidence about the rogue craft, but is killed before he can elaborate. Bond chases and kills the assailant, taking the assailant's clothing as a disguise and escapes in the getaway car, which goes to Osato Chemicals. Once there, Bond subdues the driver and breaks into the office safe of president Mr. Osato. After obtaining certain documents, Bond is pursued by armed security, but is rescued by Aki, who flees to a secluded subway station. Bond chases her, but falls down a trap door leading to Tanaka's office. The stolen documents are examined and found to include a photograph of the cargo ship Ning-Po with a microdot message saying the tourist who took the photo was killed as a security precaution.
Bond goes to Osato Chemicals to meet Mr. Osato himself, masquerading as a potential new buyer. Osato humours Bond, but after their meeting he orders his secretary, Helga Brandt, to have him killed. Outside the building, assassins open fire on Bond before Aki rescues him again. Bond and Aki drive to Kobe, where the Ning-Po is docked. They investigate the company's dock facilities and discover that the ship was delivering elements for rocket fuel. They are discovered, but Bond eludes the henchmen until Aki gets away; however, Bond is captured and knocked out. He wakes, tied up in SPECTRE operative Helga Brandt's cabin on the Ning-Po'." In a sexy cocktail dress, she interrogates Bond, but he thinks of managing to bribe his way to freedom when she suddenly chooses to enjoy herself by kissing and freeing him in order to have sex. Brandt then flies Bond to Tokyo, but en route she sets off a flare in the plane and bails out, finally persuaded to kill him. Bond manages to land the plane.
After finding out where the Ning-Po unloaded, Bond flies over the area in a heavily armed autogyro created by Q. Near a volcano, Bond is attacked by helicopters, which he defeats, confirming his suspicions that the enemy's base is nearby. A Soviet spacecraft is then captured in orbit by another unidentified craft, heightening tensions between Russia and the United States. The mysterious spaceship lands in an extensive base hidden inside the volcano. It soon turns out that the true mastermind behind this is SPECTRE, whose mysterious leader is revealed to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who has been hired by the People's Republic of China to start a Soviet-American war. Blofeld summons Osato for not having killed Bond, who immediately blames his assistant, Helga Brandt. Blofeld then gives Osato a last chance, but as Brandt leaves, he activates a mechanism that drops her into a pool filled of piranhas. Brandt is forced to pay for her failure with her life by being devoured alive, and Blofeld instructs Osato to kill Bond.
Bond is then informed of Tanaka's plan: he is to train with Tanaka's ninjas, disguise himself as a Japanese fisherman alongside a Japanese wife, and infiltrate SPECTRE's island. Aki assists in constructing Bond's Oriental disguise until she is suddenly killed by a SPECTRE assassin by inadvertently ingesting poison meant for Bond. Undeterred, Bond enters into a fake marriage to Tanaka's student, Kissy Suzuki. Acting on a lead from Suzuki, the pair reconnoitre a cave and the volcano above it. Establishing that the mouth of the volcano is a disguised hatch to the secret rocket base, Bond slips in, while Kissy goes to alert Tanaka. Bond locates and frees the captured astronauts and, with their help, steals a space suit in attempt to infiltrate the SPECTRE spacecraft "Bird One." However, Blofeld spots Bond, and he is detained while Bird One is launched; Bond is taken into the control room where he meets Blofeld face-to-face for the first time.
Bird One closes in on the American space capsule, and United States forces prepare to launch a nuclear attack on the USSR. Meanwhile, the Japanese ninjas approach the base's entrance, but are detected and fired upon. Bond manages to open the hatch, letting in the ninjas. During the ensuing battle, Bond fights his way to the control room, kills Blofeld's bodyguard Hans, and activates Bird One's self-destruct before it reaches the American craft. The Americans stand down their forces.
Blofeld, who had earlier killed Osato to demonstrate the price of failure to Bond, activates the base's self-destruct system and escapes. Bond, Kissy, Tanaka, and the surviving ninjas leave before the base explodes, and are picked up by the Japanese Maritime Forces and the British Secret Service.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the intended next film, but the producers decided to adapt You Only Live Twice instead because OHMSS would require searching for high and snowy locations. Lewis Gilbert originally declined the offer to direct, but accepted after producer Albert R. Broccoli called him saying: "You can't give up this job. It's the largest audience in the world." Peter R. Hunt, who edited the first five Bond films, believed that Gilbert had been contracted by the producers for other work but they found they had to use him.
Gilbert, producers Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, production designer Ken Adam and director of photography Freddie Young then went to Japan, spending three weeks searching for locations. SPECTRE's shore fortress headquarters was changed to an extinct volcano after the team learned that the Japanese do not build castles by the sea. The group was due to return to the UK on a BOAC Boeing 707 flight (BOAC Flight 911) on 5 March 1966, but cancelled after being told they had a chance to watch a ninja demonstration. That flight crashed 25 minutes after takeoff, killing all on board. In Tokyo, the crew also found Hunt, who decided to go on holiday after having his request to direct declined. Hunt was invited to direct the second unit for You Only Live Twice and accepted the job.
Unlike most James Bond films featuring various locations around the world, almost the entire film is set in one country and several minutes are devoted to an elaborate Japanese wedding. This is in keeping with Fleming's original novel, which also devoted a number of pages to the discussion of Japanese culture. Toho Studios provided soundstages, personnel, and the female Japanese stars to the producers.
The producers had Harold Jack Bloom come to Japan with them to write a screenplay. Bloom's work was ultimately rejected, but since several of his ideas were used in the final script, Bloom was given the credit of "Additional Story Material". Among the elements were the opening with Bond's fake death and burial at sea, and the ninja attack. As the screenwriter of the previous Bond films Richard Maibaum was unavailable, Roald Dahl, a close friend of Ian Fleming, was chosen to write the adaptation despite having no prior experience writing a screenplay except for the uncompleted The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling.
Dahl said that the original novel was "Ian Fleming's worst book, with no plot in it which would even make a movie", and compared it to a travelogue, stating that he had to create a new plot "[though] I could retain only four or five of the original story's ideas." On creating the plot, Dahl said he "didn't know what the hell Bond was going to do" despite having to deliver the first draft in six weeks, and decided to do a basic plot similar to Dr. No. Dahl was given a free rein on his script, except for the character of Bond and "the girl formula", involving three women for Bond to seduce — an ally and a henchwoman who both get killed, and the main Bond girl. While the third involved a character from the book, Kissy Suzuki, Dahl had to create Aki and Helga Brandt to fulfil the rest.
Gilbert was mostly collaborative with Dahl's work, as the writer declared: "He not only helped in script conferences, but had some good ideas and then left you alone, and when you produced the finished thing, he shot it. Other directors have such an ego that they want to rewrite it and put their own dialogue in, and it's usually disastrous. What I admired so much about Lewis Gilbert was that he just took the screenplay and shot it. That's the way to direct: You either trust your writer or you don't."
When the time came to begin You Only Live Twice, the producers were faced with the problem of a disenchanted star. Sean Connery had stated that he was tired of playing James Bond and all of the associated commitment (time spent filming and publicising each movie), together with finding it difficult to do other work, which would potentially lead to typecasting. Saltzman and Broccoli were able to persuade Connery by increasing his fee for the film, but geared up to look for a replacement.
Jan Werich was originally cast by producer Harry Saltzman to play Blofeld. Upon his arrival at the Pinewood set, both producer Albert R. Broccoli and director Lewis Gilbert felt that he was a poor choice, resembling a "poor, benevolent Santa Claus". Nonetheless, in an attempt to make the casting work, Gilbert continued filming. After several days, both Gilbert and Broccoli determined that Werich was not menacing enough, and recast Blofeld with Donald Pleasence in the role. Pleasence's ideas for Blofeld's appearance included a hump, a limp, a beard, and a lame hand, before he settled on the scar. He found it uncomfortable, though, because of the glue that attached it to his eye.
Many European models were tested for Helga Brandt including German actress Eva Renzi who passed on the film, with German actress Karin Dor being cast. Dor performed the stunt of diving into a pool to depict Helga's demise, without the use of a double. Strangely, for the German version Dor was dubbed by somebody else.
Gilbert had chosen Tetsurō Tamba after working with him in The 7th Dawn. A number of martial arts experts were hired as the ninjas. The two Japanese female parts proved difficult to cast, due to most of the actresses tested having limited English. Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama were eventually chosen and started taking English classes in the UK. Hama, initially cast in the role of Tanaka's assistant, had difficulty with the language, so the producers switched her role with Wakabayashi, who had been cast as Kissy, a part with significantly less dialogue. Wakabayashi only requested that her character name, "Suki", be changed to "Aki".
Filming of You Only Live Twice lasted from July 1966 to March 1967. The film was shot primarily in Japan. Himeji Castle in Hyōgo Prefecture was depicted as Tanaka's ninja training camp. His private transportation hub was filmed at the Tokyo Metro's Nakano-shimbashi Station. As of 2011, many of the fixtures in the station are unchanged from the time of filming.
The Hotel New Otani Tokyo served as the outside for Osato Chemicals and the hotel's gardens were used for scenes of the ninja training. Bōnotsu in Kagoshima served as the fishing village, the Kobe harbour was used for the dock fight and Mount Shinmoe-dake in Kyūshū was used for the exteriors of SPECTRE's headquarters. Large crowds were present in Japan to see the shooting. A Japanese fan began following Sean Connery with a camera, and the police were called several times to prevent invasions during shooting.
The heavily armed WA-116 autogyro "Little Nellie" was included after Ken Adam heard a radio interview with its inventor, RAF Wing Commander Ken Wallis. Little Nellie was named after music hall star Nellie Wallace, who has a similar surname to its inventor. Wallis piloted his invention, which was equipped with various mock-up armaments by John Stears' special effects team, during production.
"Nellie's" battle with helicopters proved to be difficult to film. The scenes were initially shot in Miyazaki, first with takes of the gyrocopter, with more than 85 take-offs, 5 hours of flight and Wallis nearly crashing into the camera several times. A scene filming the helicopters from above created a major downdraft and cameraman John Jordan's foot was severed by the craft's rotor. The concluding shots involved explosions, which the Japanese government did not allow in a national park. So, the crew moved to Torremolinos, Spain, which was found to resemble the Japanese landscape.
The sets of SPECTRE's volcano base were constructed at a lot inside Pinewood Studios, with a cost of $1 million and including operative heliport and monorail. The 45 m (148 ft) tall set could be seen from 5 kilometres (3 miles) away, and attracted many people from the region. Locations outside Japan included using the Royal Navy frigate HMS Tenby, then in Gibraltar, for the sea burial, Hong Kong for the scene where Bond fakes his death, and Norway for the Soviet radar station.
Sean Connery's then-wife Diane Cilento performed the swimming scenes for at least five Japanese actresses, including Mie Hama. Martial arts expert Donn F. Draeger provided martial arts training, and also doubled for Connery. Lewis Gilbert's regular editor, Thelma Connell, was originally hired to edit the film. However, after her initial, almost three-hour cut received a terrible response from test audiences, Peter R. Hunt was asked to re-edit the film. Hunt's cut proved a much greater success, and he was awarded the director's chair on the next film as a result.
The soundtrack was the fourth of the series to be composed by John Barry. He tried to incorporate the "elegance of the Oriental sound" with Japanese music-inspired tracks. The theme song, "You Only Live Twice", was composed by Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse and sung by Nancy Sinatra after her father Frank Sinatra passed on the opportunity. Nancy Sinatra was reported to be very nervous while recording — first she wanted to leave the studio; then she claimed to sometimes "sound like Minnie Mouse". Barry declared that the final song uses 25 different takes. British singer Julie Rogers recorded an alternative song for the titles, but this was not used.
There are two versions of the song "You Only Live Twice", sung by Nancy Sinatra, one directly from the movie soundtrack, and a second one for record release arranged by Billy Strange. The movie soundtrack song is widely recognised for its striking opening bars and oriental flavour, and was far more popular on radio. The record release made No. 44 on the Billboard charts in the USA, No. 11 in UK. Both versions of the title song are available on CD.
In 1992, Acen sampled the title song "You Only Live Twice" for his song "Trip II the Moon Part 2". In 1997, Icelandic singer Björk recorded a cover version. In 1998, Robbie Williams used the distinctive string figure for his song "Millennium", (although it was re-recorded, rather than sampled from the movie for cost reasons). Coldplay covered it when they toured in 2001, and it was covered by Natacha Atlas for her 2005 compilation album The Best of Natacha Atlas. Shirley Bassey, who has three original Bond themes to her credit, has also covered the song.
A different title song was originally recorded by Julie Rogers, but eventually discarded. Only two lines from that version were kept in the final lyrics, and the orchestral part was changed to fit Nancy Sinatra's vocal range. Rogers' version only appeared in a James Bond 30th Anniversary CD, with no singer credit. In the 1990s, an alternative example of a possible theme song (also called "You Only Live Twice" and sung by Lorraine Chandler) was discovered in the vaults of RCA Records. It became a very popular track with followers of the Northern soul scene (Chandler was well known for her high-quality soul output on RCA) and can be found on several RCA soul compilations.
To promote the film, Eon Productions produced a one-hour colour television programme titled Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond first aired on 2 June 1967 in the United States on NBC. Bond regulars Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn appeared playing respectively "Miss Moneypenny" and "Q". Kate O'Mara appears as Miss Moneypenny's assistant. The programme shows clips from You Only Live Twice and the then four existing Bond films, and contained a storyline of Moneypenny trying to establish the identity of Bond's bride.
You Only Live Twice premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square in London. It was the first premiere of a James Bond film that Queen Elizabeth II attended. The film grossed $43 million in the United States and over $111 million worldwide.
Critical response today is mostly positive, with Rotten Tomatoes giving a 72% rating. But most reviews pointed out various flaws in the film. James Berardinelli said that the first half was good, but "during the second half, as the plot escalates beyond the bounds of preposterousness, that the film starts to fragment", criticising Blofeld's appearance and stating "rockets that swallow up spacecraft are a bit too extravagant."
Roger Ebert criticised the focus on gadgets, declaring that the James Bond formula "fails to work its magic". John Brosnan in his book James Bond in the Cinema compared the film to an episode of Thunderbirds with a reliance on gadgetry but admitted it had pace and spectacle. Christopher Null considered the film one of James Bond's most memorable adventures, but the plot "protracting and quite confusing".
Ali Barclay of BBC Films panned Dahl's script displaying "a whole new world of villainy and technology." Leo Goldsmith lauded the volcano base as "the most impressive of Ken Adam's sets for the franchise." Danny Peary wrote that You Only Live Twice "should have been about twenty minutes shorter" and described it as "not a bad Bond film, but it doesn't compare to its predecessors — the formula had become a little stale."
IGN ranked You Only Live Twice as the fourth best Bond film, and Entertainment Weekly as the second best, considering that it "pushes the series to the outer edge of coolness". But Norman Wilner of MSN chose it as the fifth worst, criticising the plot, action scenes and little screentime for Blofeld. Literary critic Paul Simpson called the film one of the most colourful of the series and credited the prefecture of Kagoshima for adding "a good flavour" of Japanese influence on the film, but he panned the depiction of Blofeld as a "let-down", "small, bald and a whooping scar." Simon Winder said that the film is "perfect" for parodies of the series.
The film is recognised by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Ernst Stavro Blofeld — Nominated Villain