You Only Live Twice, 1964

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.

4 stars


25 thoughts on “You Only Live Twice, 1964

    • I don’t know that I would have made that connection, but arguments could be made. Supposedly there’s a short story out there some where from the mid-80s that deals with Bond coming face to face with his kid.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nah, it was just what came to mind because of the setting where he enjoys living KS, then leaves without knowing that she is having his kid. Of course, Bond leaves because KS sends him, not because he is desperate to leave.
        So, probably not that many similarities.

        One wonders what the short story would be like, tho.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Don’t get me wrong, I see why you made the connection to Butterfly. It’s a loose connection, sure, but it’s easy to draw, especially to an opera fan.

          The most I know about the story with the kid is that apparently the kid is seeking revenge. Go figure. I need to see if I can track it down when the time comes.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, there were really only two viable options for the short story: either the kid wants become Bond 2.0 or he/she resents him and wants to become the “opposite”.

            Anything else may need more space than a short story could provide. ;)

            Liked by 1 person

            • *nods* Pretty much, yes. Is it wrong that I really want the longer version where both happen? Kid rises through the ranks of MI6 with the express purpose of beating Bond’s track record and killing him off in a “field accident.”

              Liked by 1 person

              • LoL. That would be fab!

                It would even sound like a story I could get into and enjoy supporting the main character for once. ;)

                Instead, I guess we have only one novel left in which I can hope that the baddie wins. :(

                Liked by 1 person

                • We have one novel left that’s absolutely nothing like its film counterpart, and it happens to be the one I rank as the worst of the lot. It’s only saving grace is that it’s short.

                  Liked by 1 person

                    • Keep in mind, I have an unreasoning love of Christopher Lee, and Fleming’s Scaramanga is… well, he’s nothing at all like Christopher Lee. Nothing. And the story itself is just lame.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • I love CL, too. He made the film. (Tho, his henchman was pretty memorable, too.)

                      I remember watching this one with my brother when I was little, and I am not convinced the book, even at its worst, could ever diminish my appreciation for the film Scaramanga.

                      How much time do you need to brace yourself for the last novel?

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • The two characters are so unalike, you won’t be able to see Lee anywhere near Fleming’s train wreck. If anything all praise goes to the film for salvaging what they could. And there’s no Knick-Knack either.

                      I could probably be persuaded to put a golden bullet in it next week. Just let me know what you’re inclined for.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • No Knick-Knack?????

                      Well, I guess we have to look on the bright side and appreciate that despite the many missing awesome elements of the film, at least the book does NOT come with Lulu’s soundtrack. ;D

                      Next week should work.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • It is the one Bond song that I cannot listen to without cringeing so hard I can’t move. Nevermind fancy-schmanzy golden guns, if any of the Bond villains had been serious about their efforts in world domination, they would have used that song to hold the world at ransom. Only a very select few seem strong enough to withstand that level of cringe. I am not one of them.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • That song’s not the problem. Madonna and Sam Smith… these are the culprits that make me cringe. I like Madonna, but her song sucks. I like Sam Smith’s song, but his falsetto hurts worse than the freakin’ Bee Gees… and it’s not even in tune.


                      Anyway, I’m going to laugh if you come away from this next one thinking it’s the best in the series. I almost expect that at this point.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • LoL. Well, anything is possible…and you did say it was short. ;D

                      I agree on Sam Smith. His was also the least memorable Bond song ever.

                      We disagree on Madonna – I loved that her lyrics tied into the opening/torture scene with the whole “I’m gonna shut my body down” thing. But on this merit I would have to give credit also to Lulu, and I just can’t because “He’s got a powerful weapon”….. Bwahahaha…..

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • The lyrics make sense to you? I’ve not heard anyone say that yet. I just thought it was appropriate that the audience heard what Bond was feeling in that techno mess. lol

                      Yeah, the lyrics for Lulu’s track aren’t great. But I love the tune. It’s catchy!

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • LoL.

                      Well, that is true. It is catchy. So, catchy that I can’t currently get it out of my head. Damn you, Lulu!

                      Whatever. I am delighted that the song has fans. And that the book might have fans, too. It’s always good to see others finding joy in something.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • I still don’t think I’ll be ready for the potential amount of pain that Bond fan-fic could cause me. I mean, we have already investigated Trigger Mortis, which didn’t really work for me (pretty much from page one where PG became Bond’s live-in lover)…

                      I am sure tho that we will find another book or series that might be fun.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • I kid, of course. Just whatever happens, walk into this with the realization that for somebody somewhere, this is their favorite book. It’ll make you feel better about yourself. :P

                      Liked by 1 person

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