Book Review: “You Only Live Twice” by Ian Fleming

Recently I read “Jaws” by Peter Benchley for the first time as, despite the fact that “Jaws” is my favourite movie, I’d never read the book and thought that I should (despite the warnings from many that the book is nowhere near as good as the movie). It seemed appropriate then – though it wasn’t the exact trigger as I’ll explain below – to then read the book with the same title as my favourite James Bond movie (though there are days when I could swap around the top two), “You Only Live Twice”.

One reason why I’d never read “You Only Live Twice” up to this point is that I had heard plenty of people comment on how the books were not as good as the films. I had only read “Thunderball” as a child and I’m not sure that I even completed that (which may have been as much due to not enjoying reading as a child as to do with the quality of the book itself). There are just so many books to read that I didn’t see a need to read the Ian Fleming book. Additionally, I was aware that the book was different to the film that I enjoy so much.

But then I read a book by Graham Thomas about “You Only Live Twice” and it sparked my interest in reading the original novel. Given that I have done “contents tourism” relating to “You Only Live Twice” (see my posts on Akime, Himeji, and the New Otani Hotel) – that is I have been to places where the movie was made – and have managed to include it in my book “Japan: The Basics“, as well as including references in my first novel “Hijacking Japan“, it reached a point where I thought that I really should read the original book. It should be noted here that I am aware from a lovely chat that Graham Thomas and I had recently that he is working on an update to his book about “You Only Live Twice” so I am holding back from writing a review of that book for now.

I have to admit that I enjoyed the book “You Only Live Twice” much more than I expected – just as I did with “Jaws”. I think it helped that I went in with the same mindset that I developed reading “Jaws” – treating the two outputs as completely different things that just happen to have the same name. In fact, in the case of “You Only Live Twice” even that isn’t completely true as the Japanese title switched from “二度だけの生命” to “007は二度死ぬ” – literally “Only two lives” to “007 dies twice”. In the book there are no space rockets, no threat of nuclear war, no fights in Kobe docks, no Aki, no Akime, no volcano (at least not as shown in the film), the list goes on. There are ninja, Kissy Suzuki, ama diving girls, and Tiger Tanaka. There are also parts that clearly helped inspire the most recent James Bond movie outing, “No Time To Die“.

From the perspective of someone who studies and writes about Japan, there was much that I could get my teeth into from an academic perspective. Some of this I may well develop in my update to “Japan: The Basics” or it may also appear in my work on Visual Packaging Culture. Just as I have studied “The Empire of Signs” by Roland Barthes – which owed much to his trips to Japan in the 1960s, so “You Only Live Twice” clearly (as Thomas points out – see also his excellent blog site) owed much to Fleming’s experiences of Japan. Not least this leads to Bond having the most convoluted route to get from Tokyo to Fukuoka. Still, as someone who likes to travel around Japan, I enjoyed the journey and was prepared to overlook this and some of the plot holes. But it also makes me wonder more about the influence of interpreters and guides on what people get to read in books such as “Empire of Signs” or “You Only Live Twice” (more is known about the latter, as detailed by Thomas).

On top of the plot holes, there are other issues with the book. Although it contains many elements which are clearly factual – the “pillars of truth” – there are some which are completely inaccurate. For example, the description about sumo wrestlers and what they do to help protect their balls. You can read more about the reality at https://www.straightdope.com/21341247/can-sumos-retract-their-testicles-inside-their-bodies. There is also mention of sumo wrestlers taunting each other before bouts, which most certainly would never happen. I also think the descriptions about the amounts of alcohol that Bond (and others) drink are unrealistic. But there are also aspects which are more accurate/better than the film – in particular in how it describes the position of women in Japan – a point that was also made at a recent Webinar at Cardiff University which I will post about soon. But (also linking to that webinar), there are no shortage of stereotypes and clichés… I think Fleming was sponsored to write the word “honourable” given how many times it seems to appear.

Reading the book, I could see more of the Daniel Craig Bond than the version played in the movie of the same name by Sean Connery. In the book, Bond is a darker character – not surprising as the book comes straight after Bond’s wife has been murdered (the films were done in a different order). The following bit of text, where the “he” refers to Bond, really stood out for me and something that I can relate to albeit for a very different reason,

He admitted to me that all his zest had gone. That he wasn’t interested in his job any more, or even in his life. I hear this sort of talk from patients every day. It’s a form of psycho-neurosis, and it can grow slowly or suddenly. In your man’s case, it was brought on out of the blue by an intolerable life-situation – or one that he found intolerable

During reading the book, I learnt a very useful new German word to me – Stammtisch – which is a particular table at a pub, for example, for regulars. We need to use this word more in English and I have very fond memories of one Stammtisch (which sadly no longer exists as the pub is gone) which ultimately led to my research on the flight JL123 crash thanks to the “meetings” that happened there.

As well as factual errors about Japan in the book, there are also other errors, at least in the version that I had (Basho (in relation to whom Tiger Tanaka points out “you would think me grossly uneducated if I had never heard of Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe. And yet Basho, who lived in the seventeenth century, is the equal of any of them”. This statement may be less true now than it was in the 1960s, but is still largely valid) was always typed incorrectly, and Pearl Harbor was written as Pearl Harbour (as a proper name the spelling should never change, although it does lead to the odd sentence in British English where you can write about “the harbour in Pearl Haror”)). There were also times when I found Fleming’s style of writing a bit odd – particularly towards the end when he seems to need an exclamation mark at the end of nearly every sentence.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes – much more than I was expecting. Is it better than the film? I cannot really answer. They are two completely different stories that happen to share the same title… but overall no, simply due to the more convoluted, less exciting and plot-holed story.

To finish, an explanation of the title. It comes from the following poem “‘You only live twice: Once when you are born And once when you look death in the face.”

See also “You Only Live Twice” – Bond Goes To Japan

4 Comments Add yours

  1. The Author says:

    Firstly a deeply interesting review and one that made me dwell on certain points even though I am supposed to an ‘expert’ on the book. (Which I am not.) And thanks for the link to the blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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