Saturday, April 2, 2022

Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice, published in 1964, was the last Bond novel completed by Ian Fleming (he had written only the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun when he died later that year). You Only Live Twice was the closing instalment of what became known as the Blofeld trilogy.

After the disastrous events of the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond seems to be all washed up. He’s moody and depressed, he’s making mistakes, he’s drinking too much and gambling too much. M has decided that he’s going to have to fire him but is persuaded that what Bond needs is an impossible mission, or at least a mission that is so unlikely to succeed that Bond will simply have to stop brooding about himself. The mission is to persuade the Japanese to give the British access to their MAGIC 44 top-secret intelligence material, and there is no logical reason why the Japanese would want to do that. In fact the Japanese would have very strong reasons to refuse. Bond’s job is to find a way to change their minds. M has no idea how this could be done. That’s up to Bond. It will be a formidable challenge that will require cleverness rather than action, and Bond needs to start using his brain in a productive way again.

Bond meets (and befriends) the head of the Japanese intelligence service, a man named Tiger Tanaka and discovers that as far as the Japanese are concerned the British Secret Service has no secrets worth trading for. But there is one possibility. If Bond would agree to carry out a mission for them they might trade. They want him to assassinate a Swiss scientist.

The scientist has created what Tanaka calls a garden of death. He has bought a large estate and filled it with deadly plants and animals. Japanese intent on suicide are using it to kill themselves. The Japanese want this Swiss scientist eliminated quietly.

Bond has to pose as a Japanese. Apparently a bit of skin dye and some work on the eyebrows will transform a Scotsman into a convincing Japanese. Bond’s base of operations is an Ama island, the Ama being a distinct tribe who exist by diving for shellfish and are best known for the fact that the diving is done by naked women, a practice of which Bond thoroughly approves. He naturally gets involved with pretty Ama diver Kissy Suzuki, his love interest in this novel.

And he will of course encounter Blofeld again.

The novel includes many of the themes that run through Fleming’s work, especially nostalgia for Britain’s lost greatness and bitterness about the contempt with which the U.S. now treated Britain. The story begins with the British Secret Service sending Bond on a delicate and embarrassing mission, to beg the Japanese to give them access to high-grade intelligence material. The Japanese have some extraordinarily valuable material but the C.I.A. will not allow it to be passed on to the British. M is hoping the Japanese will agree to pass on their intelligence material to Britain secretly. Bond arrives thinking that he has something worthwhile to trade, the Macau Blue Route material of which M is so proud, only to discover that the Japanese already have all of this material. Bond comes face to face with the harsh reality that Britain is a second-rate power and that the Japanese do not consider Britain to be an ally worth cultivating.

In the later Bond stories Bond is becoming just a little sad and disillusioned. An edge of cynicism and melancholy had been creeping into the Bond stories for a while. We get the feeling that perhaps Bond is getting ready to call it a day and retire. Fleming of course was increasingly conscious of his own failing health and knew that he was not likely to live very much longer. He apparently expected The Man with the Golden Gun to be the final Bond novel. When he wrote You Only Live Twice it’s possible that he was already aware that his career as a thriller writer was drawing to a close.

Personally I think this makes late Bond quite interesting. He’s starting to do things that his younger self would never have done. In the novel that preceded You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he does a number of things that the younger Bond would certainly not have done. In the later stories he seems to be often thinking about resigning from the Secret Service. He’s also developing a bit more emotional depth. He’s finding himself thinking about the future and about the consequences of his actions in a way that would have been out of character for the Bond of the glory years of the mid-1950s. But it’s done quite convincingly. Bond is getting older.

Fleming was also experimenting with downbeat endings. Casino Royale had ended on a note of bitterness, but it was a defiant bitterness. Bond had been hurt but he was a big boy and he’d get over it. A decade or so later later Fleming would end a Bond novel on a note of abject defeat and despair. In some of the later short stories the endings are rather cynical (The Living Daylights), or melancholy (Octopussy).

I think it’s simplistic to say that Fleming was growing tired of Bond, but he was growing tired of writing Bond stories to a rigid formula. After the modest success of his debut novel Casino Royale Fleming had found an incredibly successful formula and proceeded to write six brilliant spy thrillers one after the other. The 60s saw Fleming experimenting with variations on the formula.

The biggest problem with You Only Live Twice is the pacing. We have to wait a long long time for the action scenes. When they finally arrive they’re good but a bit perfunctory.

Bond completists will want to read this one. If you’re new to the world of the Bond novels you should definitely start wth the 1950s books. You Only Live Twice is recommended, with reservations.


  1. It's a fascinating book, without being a particularly good one. I didn't find it much of a thriller. It's kind of a revenge story, and I don't think Bond is suited to those types of stories. Although it is an interesting read.

  2. I don't think Bond is suited to those types of stories.

    I agree. The Bond stories after Thunderball are very different in tone and approach compared to classic Bond. The later Bond stories tend to be, as you say, interesting but not entirely successful as thrillers. Fleming seemed to become obsessed with the idea of moving away from the classic Bond formula.

    1. One thing I will say is - I didn't grow up on thrillers, but SF. Fleming and MacLean were pretty much the only thriller writers I read (and some Le Carre). I got a guide to post-war British thrillers, called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a couple of years ago, and have read a lot of thrillers since then (also from your blog). I'm currently reading the Johnny Fedora series (in sequence) on my Kindle (I have dust allergies, and have to be careful with old books).

      But the only one I've read more than once is Brian Callison's A Flock Of Ships. I'll probably re-read a couple of Bagleys, and definitely Driscoll's Diamonds. Whereas I've re-read Fleming's Bond novels on and off for 40 years.

      There's a reason he's lasted - and it's not just because of the films. He's just got a style that the others can't touch.

    2. I may just have to get myself a copy of that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang book!

  3. Published about 5 years ago, written by Mike Ripley. Pretty good in terms of history, and the books published.