Impossible Mission - Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice

'Shattered by the murder of his wife at the hands of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond has gone to pieces as an agent. M gives him one last chance, sending him to Japan for a near-impossible mission. There Bond is trained in the fighting arts of Ninja warriors and sent to infiltrate a mysterious fortress known as the ‘Castle of Death’ - a place of nightmares where a lethal poisoned garden destroys all who go there - and awakens an old, terrifying enemy. You Only Live Twice sees Bond’s final encounter with an insane mastermind - one that could mean the end for 007...'

You Only Live Twice is the 12th of thirteen James Bond novels written by Ian Fleming and the last to be published (in 1964) while he was alive. The novel follows on from the shocking events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service - a book you should probably read before you pick up this one. In You Only Live Twice, James Bond is a broken man and M decides that the only thing to do is to send him on an apparently impossible mission to either waken his senses or end his career. Bond is asked to secure access to Magic 44, a Japanese project that reveals the transmissions of secret Soviet radio broadcasts. After tracking down Tiger Tanaka, head of Japan’s version of SIS, Bond discovers the Japanese already have Blue Route, a secret Chinese system which Bond had hoped to trade for Magic 44. Bond is shown some elements of Magic 44 which are vitally important to British security and offered more access if he undertakes a mission for Tanaka and the Japanese. A mysterious and dangerous 'Swiss botanist' known as Dr Shatterhand has opened a deadly 'garden of death' in an old Japanese castle stocked with poisonous specimens of plants and animals. 007 must visit this lethal location and kill Dr Shatterhand...

One of Fleming's most famous Bond novels, You Only Live Twice sees the author experiment with a more character driven piece that contains a surreal and vivid atmosphere. The focus here is on Bond himself who is gradually falling to pieces after the events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and faces one of his most macabre missions. The plot is perhaps rather contrived with Bond asked to investigate Shatterhand, who just happens to be a very famous old adversary, but it does set up an epic final battle of wills that reminds one of the Sherlock Holmes/Moriaty relationship. The destiny of these men is somehow always going to be linked. You Only Live Twice is very travelogue at times and you are immersed in Japanese culture right from the beginning of the book. Fleming's descriptions of architecture, ninjutsu, food ("James Bond wrestled with his chopsticks and slivers of raw octopus and a mound of rice") and simple Japanese village life are certainly descriptive, giving the book a rich exotic atmosphere. As ever with Fleming, parts of the novel and certain attitudes are rather dated though. The depiction of Japan, for example, sometimes leans towards it being a fairly primitive place.

Fleming, as usual, weaves a large degree of factual information and passages about Japanese culture into his story, which does help ingrain the reader in the location of the novel. This habit can sometimes be slightly intrusive and 'tacked-on', but it works reasonably well here. "Technically, this would be a geisha of low caste," writes Fleming. "She would not be proficient in the traditional arts of her calling -- she would not be able to tell humorous stories, sing, paint, or compose verses about her patron. But, unlike her cultured sisters, she might agree to perform more robust services -- discreetly, of course, in conditions of the utmost privacy and at a high price. But to the boorish, brutalized tastes of a gaijin, a foreigner, this made more sense than having a tanka of thirty-one syllables, which in any case he couldn't understand, equate in exquisite language, his charms with budding chrysanthemums on the slopes of Mount Fuji."

Strengths of the book include Bond's sometimes touching relationship with Kissy Suzuki and the many sections where Bond lives a simple life in a serene Japanese village, disguised as 'coalminer' Taro Todoroki as he trains and prepares for his visit to Dr Shatterhand's deadly garden. It's a bit daft the notion that Bond could realistically turn himself into a convincing Japanese but then this is a James Bond adventure. To be fair to Fleming, Bond's disguise proves far from impenetrable and it was a lot less convincing in the film version where a 6'3 Sean Connery attempted to pass himself off as a simple Japanese villager!

The beautiful Kissy, who was a Hollywood star before choosing a life as a fisherwoman, is a strong Bond girl who comes across as independent and free of the anguished past and neurotic inclinations of some of Fleming's other female heroines. There are some nice passages where Bond and Kissy dive for sea shells and, amusingly, Kissy reveals that the only man who was truly kind to her was the actor David Niven, who, as all Bond anoraks will know, was one of Fleming's suggestions to play Bond when the film series began in 1962. Although Fleming was not immune from contradicting himself from time to time (Bond hates beef here but lives on it in other books), part of the fun of these books is information about Bond himself that is included within the story. We learn here, amongst other things, that Bond is currently still under forty, weighs 183 pounds, and has bungled two missions between this book and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, leading M to suspect the ailing agent might be a security risk.

Unlike the film version, one of the most fantastical and money strewn of the series, there are few large set-pieces in Fleming's You Only Live Twice, which unfolds relatively slowly. The book is certainly engrossing at times though with Shatterhand's haunting 'garden of death', a weird device and location that the reader becomes very curious to know more about. The book benefits from strong characters like Bond's Australian contact Dikko Henderson and Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese Secret Service. Bond's interactions with them are very entertaining in places and the relationships are nicely conveyed. "For the time being," says Tiger on Japan's relationship with the United States. "We are being subjected to what I can best describe as the Scuola di Coca-Cola. Baseball, amusement arcades, hot dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting - these are part of our payment for defeat in battle."

The book moves towards a truly dark climax in the castle featuring the 'Question Room', a swordfight and further shocking developments regarding Bond himself. You Only Live Twice has a real air of madness and melancholia at times. It's an introspective book in the series that makes up for the lack of sweep and action with a macabre air and excellent characters.

You Only Live Twice is an interesting entry in Fleming's series, best read in conjunction with On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It isn't perfect by any means and some readers might find it a tad slow at times, but it's a richly atmospheric book with some decidedly strange elements and some big twists and turns in the never dull life of James Bond.

- Jake



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