After the critical and popular misfire of The Spy Who Loved Me — A literary experiment that was noble in intention but fell apart in execution — the pressure was on Ian Fleming to deliver a top notch Bond adventure to make up for things. At the same time, it’s obvious that Fleming was beyond the point of wanting to crank out another by the numbers book. He was going to have to find a way to work within the expectations people had of what a James Bond book would deliver to them, but find ways to tweak and alter the formula where he could. The result was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by many — if not, indeed, most — people as the finest Bond adventure Fleming ever wrote. For most of its pages, it is an exceptionally well executed but formulaic Bond adventure. The twist comes near the end, which leaves Bond an emotionally shattered man, cradling the body of his dead wife.
No one was expecting such a visceral punch to the story, and all ill will generated by The Spy Who Loved Me was largely forgotten. People were shocked and enthralled, and needless to say, they were hungry to know what happens next. Fleming answered that question with You Only Live Twice.
You Only Live Twice was described to me as featuring a James Bond who has completely broken down and become more or less unable to function in society, let alone in the high-risk, high-pressure world of being an international jet setter and assassin. The prospect of reading about Bond attempting to complete a mission in that state of mind seemed fascinated, and even more ambitious than Fleming’s last book. Whether or not Fleming would have been up to the task will remain unknown though, for while You Only Live Twice does indeed begin with Bond as a shattered man, it isn’t long before that fragile state is dropped in favor of Bond more or less as we’ve always known him, rambling around Japan with his new buddy Tiger Tanaka. While this may not be as challenging as the way the book is often pitched to people, it’s not necessarily a bad think, as I personally have my doubts as to whether or not Ian Fleming would have written a good novel under the yoke of keeping Bond destroyed. As it is presented to us, You Only Live Twice turns out to be a fabulous adventure lent more depth thanks to the previous book.
M is torn as to what do with Bond, and seems to waver radically between nursing the agent back to health, firing him, or just having him killed. Indeed, sympathy for Bond seems to be wearing thin within the ranks, as many other agents and employees had undoubtedly lost loved ones as well, and Bond’s period of incompetence due to mourning seems to be dragging on far longer than it should. Though it’s never expressly explored, Bond’s reaction to Tracey’s death and his prolonged depression after it despite being so familiar with the Grim Reaper himself, lends itself to interesting chances to theorize about Bond’s mental state as a whole and the psychology of the way he often latches somewhat desperately onto women and falls in love instantly. But if these examinations were intended by Fleming, they are never really expounded upon in the book, and it would have been irritating if they were.
Eventually it is decided that the best way to snap Bond out of his deep blue funk is to saddle him with an impossible, but not entirely dangerous, assignment. This turns out to be negotiating a secret services treaty with the Japanese, headed by a gruff and stubborn character named Tiger Tanaka. Bond bellyaches a little bit about the nature of his assignment, but once he arrives in Japan, he does indeed shake off much of his depression as he throws himself headlong into the difficult task of dealing with the Japanese — and Japanese secret agents, at that. Luckily, Tanaka is exactly the kind of man Bond always develops man crushes on, a boisterous, good-natured bear of a man with a warm, dry handshake (essential if you want Bond to like you) and an appetite for the finer things in life.
Bond discovers that Tanaka is willing to agree to England’s proposed cooperation treaty if Bond does Japan a favor — and it is here that the nature of Bond’s mission in Japan is altered drastically. It seems that a Westerner has taken up residence in a giant castle in the south of Japan and there cultivated a garden comprised entirely of deadly poisonous plants and animals. This garden has, in turn, become a popular spot for Japanese looking to kill themselves, suicide being one of Japan’s national pastimes. Tanaka himself can’t move against the man, who has technically committed no crime even if the secret service suspects him of far more nefarious schemes, but perhaps an outsider could have a look around and see what might be done about this mysterious and eccentric doctor of death.
Bond agrees and soon finds himself in “how to be Japanese classes,” including ninjitsu training, so that he might work undercover from his new base in a small fishing community, where his assistant in matters will be one female agent, Kissy Suzuki. As hardly needs mentioning, Bond will eventually discover the true identity of this mysterious doctor to be of keen personal interest. Once again, it’s another fairly massive coincidence, unless of course, you operate under the assumption I do that M knows far more when he sends Bond on these adventures than he admits to knowing.
Although the events of the previous book cast a palpable gloom over You Only Live Twice, this story itself is largely another one of Bond’s breezy sightseeing tours along with another cool guy. They cruise around, get massages, drink sake, and spend the entire middle section of the book sort of wandering around Japan so that Fleming can deliver various travelogue passages. Fine by me, really, as these aspects of the books have always been among my favorites. Once Blofeld reemerges on the scene, things obviously get more serious, resulting in You Only Live Twice being a curious but very effective blend of lighthearted adventures like Diamonds are Forever with the dark, emotional seriousness of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
With You Only Live Twice, Fleming delivers a complex story, well rendered and expertly paced, if not a bit far-fetched in certain aspects. It has the speed and adventure of the best action-oriented Bond stories — Doctor No and Thunderball, for example — but is a decidedly denser, more complicated work, showing that Fleming really had improved tremendously at his chosen vocation. If there is any weak spot in the book, it comes int he final pages, which while ending on another spectacular cliffhanger, also resort to one of the hoariest cliches imaginable. Still, that’s small complaint when surrounded by such a fantastic novel as this, and as with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the final page of You Only Live Twice leaves me ravenous for more.
That more would come in the form of The Man With the Golden Gun, the final James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming….