From a modern perspective, it could be easy to dismiss this novel as offensive, sexist and racist at nearly every turn possible. Fleming is not always known for little things like tact and awareness as we understand it today. The trick to appreciating his works is simply to accept it at face value, taking into account the man himself, his time and place, and his target audience. All I can say is, it’s book 12. If you don’t know what to expect by this point, I can’t help you. If you’re offended by classic Bond, you’re probably better served either reading one of the modern interpretations or avoiding the character entirely.
In this case, context does help, even for the experienced Bond fan. At the time this book was written, Eastern culture wouldn’t become truly open or appreciated in the West on any meaningful level for a few more years, unless you count some kaiju films such as Godzilla. Add to that, the culture wasn’t nearly as “westernized” as it is by comparison of today, so the attitudes of the culture that Fleming is portraying is an honest assessment, if stereotypical, at least insofar as Fleming’s personal perception of it. To his credit, he does play it as respectfully as he knows how, though he does drop some rather offensive slurs here and there per the common western lingo of the time. If you can work past that, the highlight of differences between East and West provide a unique insight, keeping in mind Fleming’s own wartime career in intelligence and the contacts he gained as a result. As to be expected, where there’s a different culture, Fleming delights in sharing the nuances of it, especially food, drink, and fighting techniques.
You Only Live Twice was published about the time of Fleming’s death, giving the suggested meaning of the title that extra edge. “You only live twice: Once when you’re born, And once when you look death in the face.” The intended meaning, of course, is in reference to the events of the previous novel, and to this one as well. Taking place nine months after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond has since become reckless and unreliable, a danger to himself and others, living only for the moment when he can acquire his next drink. To fix his broken agent, M gives him a new assignment designed to appeal to Bond’s overdeveloped ego and sense of patriotism, an improbable task that requires him to temporarily shed his 00 number, reassigned to the diplomatic corps as agent 7777. Read that again: Bond as a diplomat. You can already see the train wreck coming. Bond, to his credit and true to form, rises to the challenge. This assignment is precisely what he needs to back on his feet in the wake of the last novel’s events. Also true to form, he’ll be about as sexist about it as possible. It is a Bond novel, after all, remember. You were, perhaps, expecting anything else? Riiiiiiight.
Bond’s contact in Japan is Tiger Tanaka, who serves as a guide to Bond and to the reader in all things Japanese. In wartime, Tanaka was a spy in London, trained as a kamikaze pilot. His intended fate was interrupted by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He returned to Japan with a deep respect for the British people he came to know, and with a need to expunge his dishonor as “one of the vanquished.” To this end, Bond is given a personal inside education into the ways and means of Japanese culture in order to complete his mission objectives, with limits. In addition to Tanaka’s friendship and tutelage, Bond gains from him information involving a Swiss botantist, Dr. Shatterhand, who has built a Garden of Death. Fleming takes particular delight in this invention, listing off the names and origins of the poisonous plants as well as their lethal effects, and then fills the garden with all manner of poisonous creatures just for good measure.
Shatterhand becomes a player when it becomes known that his Garden of Death has become something of a legendary destination for people to commit suicide. More than that, Shatterhand has somehow acquired information about Tanaka that should be a state secret. As a result, in exchange for Tanaka finally releasing the information Bond needs for his mission, he asks that Bond kill Shatterhand. To accommodate this, he is disguised as a local so as to get close without notice and given a crash course in the use and techniques of ninja equipment. Amongst the intel that Tanaka provides, photos of Shatterhand reveal to Bond the true identity that’s of absolutely no shock to the reader thanks to the spoiler in the book’s summary blurb. Good job, marketing people. What? There might still be one or two people out there who didn’t know. But I suppose spoilers are of no concern when the book is over 50 years old.
The story’s main thrust plays out exactly how Fleming readers know it must, but the ending gives us some surprising twists, which I won’t spoil here regardless of my previous statement. Suffice it to say, it’s interesting to consider the possibilities. All in all, it’s always a surprisingly satisfying read for what it is, keeping in mind that the overall story has virtually nothing in common with its big screen counterpart aside from character names and settings.
On a personal note, I find myself realizing that I’ve not actually read the Samurai code of honor. As one interested in chivalry and codes of honor, this is a bit of a hole in my education, one that I can — and should — correct in short order. My only defense is that my focus tends to be on the western side of this discussion. I have two versions of the Samurai Code in my personal library, from authors Daidoji Yuzan and Inazo Nitobe. While both in translation, these books should provide me with further understanding… certainly enough to compare with the version Fleming puts forward and the other versions I’ve heard over the years. It’ll be interesting to compare and contrast them with various western chivalrous codes I know about, including my own. Sometimes fiction can be a springboard for other endeavors.