Friday, July 13, 2018

Forgotten Books: YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE by Ian Fleming (1964)

I’m amazed, and maybe a bit alarmed, at how much I’d forgotten about this 11th Fleming Bond novel. Sure, I remembered from the movie that Bond must become as Japanese as possible to complete his mission, but that’s about it. And that’s too bad, because there’s a whole lot to like about this book.

After the death of his bride (of about two pages) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond has lost his edge. He sloppy and unkempt, he fails at missions and doesn’t give a damn.Instead of firing his ass, M gives him one last chance, sending him on a seemingly impossible mission to Japan. There, Bond is supposed to talk the Japanese secret service into sharing a dandy machine they use to break Russian codes.

The guy he deals with, a modern samurai called Tiger Tanaka, is willing to comply, but only if Bond completes a mission for him—to enter a castle surrounded by a garden of death of slay the dragon within. The garden is populated by deadly plants from around the globe (landscaped with pools of piranha) and the dragon is mysterious westerner called Shatterhand, who has surrounded himself with members of the Black Dragon gang, some of the nastiest villains in the world.

As Bond says, a westerner will be recognized five miles away, so he begins the process of becoming Japanese, inside and out. Along the way, Fleming treats us to a lot of interesting stuff. For one thing, we learn that is no such thing as a Japanese curse word. (I’m curious to know, fifty years later, if this is still true). Then there’s a detailed list of the plants in Shatterhand’s collection, a treasure trove for gardeners with unwanted neighbors and for mystery writers seeking unusual murder methods. There’s also a visit to a ninja school and museum, and “Japan’s oldest whorehouse,” now a national historic site.

And some Japanese customs, as described by Fleming, sound pretty sensible. Suicide is legal and carries no stigma, alleviating the overpopulation problem, and they take showers before getting in the bath, rather than wallowing “in their own effluvia.”

All this preparation takes up more than half of book, and another good chunk is closer preparation, as Bond lives on an island village near the castle, with the obligatory hot babe with a funny name—this time Kissy Suzuki. While there, we see a big tip of the hat to David Niven, who later played Bond himself (sort of).

Then, at last, it’s on the the Black Castle of Death, a fortress that looks like “a stage setting for Dracula,” and the showdown with Dr. Shatterhand. And there I’ll leave you, partly because I having finished reading, and partly to avoid spoiling the big finish.

Sadly, the illos above (by Daniel Schwartz) were not in the book. They accompanied the three-part serialization in Playboy, from April, May and June of 1964.  


TC said...

Supposedly, Fleming wanted Niven to play Bond in the movie series. And his second choice would have been James Mason.

But Fleming was so happy with Sean Connery's performance that, when he began to fill in details about Bond's background in OHMSS and YOLT, he revealed that Bond was Scottish, to conform to the Connery image.

Anonymous said...

Niven finally did play James Bond, sort of, in the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale. It might have been interesting if he could have played 007 in a real Bond film.

George said...

Love the cover on the PAN paperback version YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE!

Cap'n Bob said...

I'd love to meet a girl named Kissy Suzuki.

ÆtherCzar said...

Thanks for the reminder... one of my favorite Fleming novels.

Chris said...

Japanese people sometimes say they have no swear words, but this isn't really true, and wouldn't have been at the time this book was written. It's just not done the same way as in most European languages, and the reactions to it are subtly different.

I don't know any Japanese myself, but it's easy enough to look up articles about it now. There is and always was profane language there, and probably everywhere else in the world. They are different, but not that different.

Basically, you should not take anything in this 007 novel more seriously than any of the others.

And least of all when Fleming is talking about Japanese culture--remembering that he's writing this book for western audiences, who want to revel in weird exoticism. He only visited Tokyo briefly, and realism was never the point of the Bonds. He would stick in little details like the thing about the swearing to impress people who didn't know anything about Japan--those who did would just roll their eyes.

If anything, the movie bothers people knowledgeable about Japan less than the novel does. Probably because Toho was involved in the production, and Roald Dahl wrote the script.

However, Fleming did base some of the book on what he'd learned from an old intelligence asset who knew quite a bit about Japan.

It's my favorite Bond movie, overall. But I've only read Moonraker. Where Bond is able to figure out someone is a Nazi infiltrator because he cheats at cards, something no true Englishman would ever do. Not enough eyerolls in the world.

Mathew Paust said...

I, too, read YOLT back in the day--decades back--and had forgotten the plot completely. Don't remember much of the movie, either, altho I no doubt enjoyed it, as I did all of the Bond movies back then. So naive I was then that most of the plot details likely went sailing over my head and Mt.Fuji. I just might take another peek at this one--if I can get it on my Kindle app.

Michael E. Stamm said...

I would love to see a cinematic remake of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE--done right, for once. The '67 movie had its moments, and a pretty good soundtrack, but Roald Dahl's script was a cliche'd cartoon, complete with a menace to the world as we know it, compared to Fleming's original story. It's probably the second-worst of the Connery 007s (after DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER), but is still head and shoulders over any of the Moore Bonds.