Book Review: “The Man With The Red Tattoo” by Raymond Benson

Further to reading “You Only Live Twice” by Ian Fleming and inspired by some of what was written by Graham Thomas, a chat we had together and what is on his excellent blog site, I decided to read a James Bond book not written by Fleming. As noted in my review of “You Only Live Twice” (book), I’d only ever read one or two Fleming books, and am much more familiar with the James Bond movies. Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed “The Man With Red Tattoo”.

Much like “You Only Live Twice” (the book), I get the impression that elements of the plot – involving visits to places across Japan – may have owed much to a trip that the author himself may have made (something that I do with my own novels). Unlike Fleming’s trip and the book however, there is a lot more logic to the places that Bond goes on during “The Man With Red Tattoo”.

I suppose one thing that needs to be clarified is just what Bond is this? The linkages between Bond movies is murky at best (I still cringe when Miss Moneypenny and Bond discuss getting an engagement ring from Amsterdam at the start of “Diamonds Are Forever” – a scene which effectively comes after the end scene of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” in which Bond’s wife has been murdered (which is also referred to in “The Man With Red Tattoo”, as it fits with the timeline of the original “You Only Live Twice” book coming out after “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, whereas the films we the other way around), and of course the linkages between the books and movies are barely there at all at times.

“The Man With Red Tattoo” clearly follows on from the book of “You Only Live Twice” – reference is made to things that happened to Bond in that book, which, had I not read it and only knew of the film (see “You Only Live Twice” – Bond Goes To Japan), would not have made sense to me. However, it doesn’t follow straight on – as becomes clear from other details about when it is set. It was only as I read the book, that I realised that I was picturing Bond in “The Man With Red Tattoo” being the Sean Connery Bond, while the book is actually set when the (significantly younger) Pierce Brosnan was still Bond.

I suspect that part of why I quickly settled into the book was that there was much I could relate to – not only in terms of places in Japan visited, but that Bond even takes a JAL 747 as I would have been doing on a quite regular basis around the time “The Man With Red Tattoo” was written and published (albeit my JAL arrived later in the day than Bond’s seems to). In fact there was so much that I could relate to in the book, including even discussion about the Yamanote Line and Hachiko, for example, that I had to go back and double check that it really was published in the early 2000s and hadn’t been inspired by anything I wrote in Japan: The Basics. There were times when I could imagine that this would be close to the sort of book I would write if I did a Bond novel set in Japan.

There were times, however, where it became evident that this book definitely wasn’t written by me or had used anything that I would say about Japan as it did introduce a few too many (misplaced) Japan-related clichés. For example,

He [Bond] admired their efficiency and good manners, their dedication to tradition and their generosity.

and later in the book…

the order and mechanical efficiency of the Japanese people at work.

You won’t catch me writing about efficiency when it comes to Japan – other than in relation to a few specific things, but certainly not a sweeping statement as above. Similarly, in the sentence, “Bestowing meishi had become a very sacred”, I’m not sure that “sacred” was the word to go for.

In the book “You Only Live Twice” Bond knows no Japanese, whereas in the film he’s apparently got a first in Oriental languages from Cambridge (but reveals little evidence of this or having studied Japan). In “The Man With Red Tattoo”, Bond speaks Japanese due to his extended stay in Japan as per how the book “You Only Live Twice” concludes, and we get smatterings of it (and an understanding of Japanese culture) throughout the book (we also get many Japanese words to describe aspects of fighting, which I suspect aren’t helpful for those who don’t understand Japanese and may be there to further exoticize the text).

As with the book “You Only Live Twice”, Bond is a very heavy drinker and I cannot imagine how he manages to function as well as he does.

There are many observations about Japan that work well. For example, one about English language ability and Japanese education, and then when one characters says “Perhaps his cousin, Abo, maybe” – the use of “perhaps” and “maybe” seems a very good translation of how many Japanese speak Japanese and comes across as much more natural in English if you are used to speaking Japanese than if you are merely a native English speaker. And, given my work on the shinkansen, you certainly won’t me arguing with

The train departed precisely on time, something that Japan Rail advertised proudly. Bond had to admit that the country’s rail service was indeed the best in the world.

However, there are times when things didn’t quite make sense. For example, the geography of Tokyo appears to be altered to help fit with the story (or perhaps Bond and Tiger Tanaka walk very quickly), there is discussion of someone doing military service in Japan in the post-war period which wouldn’t have happened, saying the police in Japan don’t carry guns when they do, and the book also has the shinkansen using the Seikan Tunnel many years before the Hokkaido Shinkansen began operations.

One of the key baddies is a character with nickname Kappa. I enjoyed this character and how it played on the Japanese folklore character, but it does grate when so many baddies in the Bond franchise seem to have some form of deformity.

There was one bit of the text that made me smile – given that it was published nearly 20 years before the COVID-19 Pandemic:

He [Bond] was impressed that the population had the consideration to cover their noses and mouths with surgical masks and wear them in public when they had colds.

Overall I really enjoyed the book and can see much work went into it – it was interesting reading through the acknowledgements to see how many organisations had been visited or got information from (I also noted a “Mie Hama” in there – THE Mie Hama from the “You Only Live Twice” movie, I assume). I can’t say that I’m either a fan of the title or of the cover – the 007 of which I keep seeing as 87.

The one question that I was left with is whether the book needed to be a Bond book at all. In many ways, it works well – so long as you have knowledge of the original Fleming book “You Only Live Twice”, otherwise it probably doesn’t fit so well. I’m not sure this book would ever be made into a Bond film – not least because “No Time To Die” seemingly borrowed at least one thing from this book. Despite all of this, I think it could make a really good film & work well by just getting rid of the Bond (and other names that appear in the Bond franchise) and allowing a back story to be presented in the way it is in the book. That is a film I would certainly watch and, if done well, could be better than most of the Bond films.

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