You Only Live Twice takes place a mere 8 to 9 months after the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which saw Bond get married only to have his bride, Tracy, killed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt while driving on the road to their honeymoon. Bond has now become a despondent reckless shadow of his former self having mucked up the last two assignments given to him in the interim and M. is at a complete loss as to what to do with his best agent, 007. M. discusses his concern for Bond with his friend Sir James Molony, a neurologist, admitting that he has even contemplated removing Bond from the Double-0 Section altogether. Molony suggests that M. should give Bond another chance at an “impossible” mission to see if the agent might return to form if he were put into a situation that tested his resolve. The reasoning behind this being that a fairly challenging mission might inspire Bond once again with the will to live. “Nothing like death or glory to take a man out of himself,” Sir James Molony tells M. It is with that in mind that M. briefs Bond in his office, and instead of a reprimand Bond receives a promotion and diplomatic mission to Japan to convince the head of the Japanese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka, to share secret intelligence that Japan has gathered about the Russians, which the Americans have refused to share with the British government.
This would be the final book released within Ian Fleming’s lifetime, and the final book that saw Fleming complete his intense revision and editing process, a process that was denied for the subsequent posthumously released Fleming Bond books. Written primarily in January and February of 1963 at Fleming’s Goldeneye estate in Jamaica where Fleming perennially wrote the Bond books, You Only Live Twice features a Bond who is far from the top of his game and a guarded admission from the characters pertaining to Britain’s loss of status amongst the superpowers while the United States and the Soviet Union were engulfed in the Cold War. For the first time, there is a sense of mistrust between the British and American government, which apparently stemmed from events that had unfolded around the time Fleming began writing the novel. The British government had recently been embarrassed when 4 MI6 agents had been exposed as defectors to the Soviet Union with suspicions of a fifth defector still active within MI6.
One also gets the sense that Bond’s increasingly failing health parallels Fleming’s own physical deterioration. With the Thunderball plagiarism trial looming later in the year, the dark mood of the novel is said to reflect Fleming’s own dark mood at the time of its writing. Later that year, Fleming would visit the set of EON’s production of its 2nd Bond film, From Russia with Love, which would be the final Bond film that Fleming would get to witness.
Also that year, Fleming would release his nonfiction book Thrilling Cities, a travelogue of various cities he had encountered including his visits to Tokyo, which inspired him to set You Only Love Twice in Japan. It was during these visits that Fleming befriended journalist Richard Hughes, who he decided to base the character of the Austrailian agent Dikko Henderson on as well as Japanese writer Tiger Saito, who was the basis for Tiger Tanaka.
It’s Dikko Henderson who first teaches Bond about the Japanese concept of “On,” a feudal Japanese traditional obligation taken on in return for previous favors. It’s morally and ethically central to traditional Japanese values for “On” to be repaid in some way shape or form, and that is how Bond decides to approach Tiger Tanaka by appealing to the “On” Tiger feels for the British government due to his education at Oxford while spying on Britain. Combined with his resentment of the increasing Westernization of Japan due to American involvement, Tiger seems keen to help Bond provided that a sense of honor is maintained on both sides.
Prior to the end of the war, Tiger had been training to be a kamikaze pilot, but he had been denied the opportunity to complete his mission once the war had ended. Tiger maintains strong ties to his traditional Japanese values, and he sees the opportunity to help Bond as a way of instructing and integrating Bond into Japanese culture. To accomplish this, he tasks Bond with completing a favor of his asking (an “On” if you will). Bond would be required to go undercover as a Japanese coal miner after facial alterations to appear Asian and after doing so he wants Bond to kill a foreigner named Dr. Shatterhand, who had fortified himself in an ancient Japanese castle with permission from the government to do botanical research. Once it was discovered that Dr. Shatterhand had imported a multitude of poisonous vegetation, piranha, and snakes for this research, the grounds of the castle had become a popular attraction for Japanese citizens to commit honorable suicide, a “Garden of Death.” After one of his own investigators disappeared and was presumed killed, Tiger decided that Dr. Shatterhand must be murdered and that Bond should be the one to do it in exchange for sharing the Russian Intelligence with the British government.
Once Tanaka begins to describe Dr. Shatterhand and his “ugly wife,” it becomes obvious to the reader that this must be Blofeld and Irma Bunt, but for some reason this doesn’t register with Bond despite Dr. Shatterhand’s Swiss background, which would have been Blofeld’s previous stronghold location from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I suppose one could put this all down to Bond not being himself and still grieving, but I found it hard to believe that Bond couldn’t put two and two together until he was given a photo of Dr. Shatterhand and his wife just before going off on the mission.
Much of the book focuses on Tiger teaching Bond about Japanese culture and history and how to act in certain situations. There’s some very interesting material in these passages, but Bond rarely gets to use his cover despite having his appearance altered. Some readers might find the first two thirds of book frustrating for this reason, but I found it enlightening and entertaining. When Tiger teaches Bond about the poetry of Matsuo Basho, he encourages Bond to come up with a haiku of his own and it is from Bond’s attempt that Fleming derives the title of this novel:
“You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face”
Tiger praises Bond’s attempt despite his failure to adhere to the 5-7-5 haiku structure. In addition to this, Tiger sees to it that Bond receives training in the art of ninjutsu giving Bond a new identity as a deaf and mute Japanese coal miner. He also introduces Bond to a remote Japanese island comprised of Ama (pearl) divers, where Bond could stay with a Japanese family until he’s ready to set out and swim towards Shatterhand’s castle. It is there that he meets Kissy Suzuki, a talented Ama diver who chose to leave behind a possible Hollywood career after briefly flirting with becoming a film star. Since Kissy is proficient in English, it’s decided that Bond should stay with her and her parents. Kissy and Bond grow close and one could tell that there’s an attraction developing prior to Bond going off to confront Blofeld.
Once Bond penetrates the castle and the Garden of Death, he gets captured by Blofeld and submitted to the potential torture by having to sit over a volcanic geyser set to go off every 15 minutes. Once Bond admits who he is, he is taken to another room where Blofeld intends to kill him with a samurai sword. Instead, Bond grabs a nearby stave and fights Blofeld to the death eventually choking him. Bond escapes via a warning balloon back to the sea where Kissy rescues him. Unfortunately, Bond now has amnesia and because Kissy loves him she decides to keep his identity a secret so that they may live out their lives together.
It is towards the end of the novel that we get biographical details about Bond prior to his becoming 007. Once Bond is presumed dead, M. writes an obituary for The Times. We learn the names of his parents, Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix, who were killed when Bond was 11 years old in a climbing accident in the Aiguilles. Bond then came under the guardianship of his aunt Charmian, who helped educate him until he enrolled into Eton College, an English boarding school near Windsor, where he lasted only “two halves” until he was forced to leave due to “some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids.” He completed his education at Fettes College in Edinburgh until he was 17 when he lied about his age to enlist in the Ministry of Defence where he served as a lieutenant during the war eventually promoted to the rank of Commander by the war’s end. It is during this obituary written by M. that Fleming breaks the 4th wall admitting that “a series of popular books came to be written around him [Bond] by a personal friend and former colleague….If the quality of these books, or their degree of veracity, had been any higher, the author would certainly have been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.” Fleming had once before tried experimenting with metafiction in the now expunged prologue to The Spy Who Loved Me when he tells the reader that Vivienne Michel’s story appeared at his writing desk as is and that the following is her account. In You Only Live Twice, Fleming went further implicating his presence within the context of the actual fiction. The comic book adaptation of the novel that appeared in the Daily Express from 1965-1966 features the actual covers of Fleming’s books during this segment of the story where we see Bond’s obituary.
The novel ends rather curiously with Kissy curing Bond’s impotence by mixing toad oil into his food and becoming pregnant just as Bond latches on to a newspaper printing with mention of the Russian city, Vladivostok. He tells Kissy that he must go there to see if he can recover his memory and leaves before Kissy could tell him of her pregnancy. The issue of Bond having a child has never been developed any further neither in the Fleming cannon nor in any of the film adaptations. The only other follow up to this occurs in continuation author Raymond Benson’s short story, “Blast from the Past,” which occurs outside of the continuity of the other Bond continuation novels.
This off-putting ending tends to sour the novel for most people, but I rather like that Fleming had decided to leave loose ends in this book rather than rely on a convenient ending where everything gets tied up neatly. I think it reflects the dark wistful mood of the novel where Bond had been challenged to re-examine his thoughts on death, revenge, and honor.
Tiger’s instruction throughout the first third of the novel really serves to enlighten Bond to rethink much of the values he had taken for granted with his Western upbringing, particularly the notion of suicide and honorable death. Tiger informs Bond earlier on about the practice of seppuku, considered an honorable form of suicide where the person slashes their belly from left to right and then upwards towards the breastbone. Before going off on his mission, Tiger offers him what could only be a cyanide pill in the event of capture to avoid torture, but Bond refuses invoking his poem saying that he would rather choose to “look death in the face.” Once Bond goes off to the castle on his mission of revenge he takes much of his Japanese instruction to heart. He could have informed Tiger of Blofeld’s true identity to get reinforcements or have Blofeld arrested in a raid, but he chose to keep Blofeld’s identity a secret so that he could satisfy his own revenge or die trying. For these reasons, You Only Live Twice stands as one of Fleming’s darker Bond works and I think a pleasantly tidy ending with Bond returning to London unscathed would not have worked. Bond needed to sacrifice part of himself to complete his mission, and the reader could sense that before Bond even approaches Blofeld’s castle. Even though Bond physically survives the ordeal, the person he was died in that final confrontation with Blofeld therefore ending the novel with Bond as an amnesiac seems oddly appropriate. It is only because Kissy loves him enough to save him and care for him that Bond makes a recovery.
You Only Live Twice may not be Fleming’s best Bond novel, but it’s an important Bond novel nevertheless. Not only do we get Bond’s final confrontation with Blofeld, we also get to see Bond challenge some of the very values he had taken for granted throughout the entire series.
- Fleming, Ian You Only Live Twice. Jonathan Cape, 1964