Book Review: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

Apparently, I have some book reviews that I wrote during my last semester with Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction Master of Fine Arts program that I hadn’t posted. I found them while I was looking for some of my NaNo research. You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming was probably the only book so far in this course that I couldn’t go into blind because it’s all about James Bond. Coming from a family that likes action movies, it was impossible not to have some sort of familiarity with the characters because of the movies. For me, this worked in favor of the book because I actually dislike James Bond on a level I can’t adequately describe, but not for the reasons you would think.

This is the second book for this class to take place in a non-Western setting, and I think that the different cultures and the different aspects of how people approach their world is fascinating. In this book, the look at post World War II Japan was remarkably accurate, as were all the subtle inclusions of what life would look like from both sides. On one hand, we see the Japanese culture from the outside view, that of James Bond himself as he spends time adapting to the culture and the nuances of proper behavior. On the other hand, we view Japanese culture and the view of the Japanese culture both of itself and of the Western world and lifestyle from the eyes of Tiger Tanaka. Seeing all of these views in the same portions of the text is an eye-opening experience about cultural sensitivity. Tiger does the best he can to integrate James into the subtleties of Japanese culture so that he can take a mission with such a limited chance of success that James has to become basically overlooked in Japanese culture.

I think it would border on negligence if I didn’t comment on the obvious differences between the James Bond movies and this book. I have to say that I actually enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Was there blatant sexism? Yes. Obviously. But most of that is actually more related to the area and the cultural norms for that time. Japanese culture, especially from the post World War II era, was a very patriarchal society and the geishas served very specific functions. They were highly trained and their craft was a lifelong skill, not something to be taken lightly. From our modern perspective today, the Japanese culture and James Bond’s womanizing might be considered highly sexist and inappropriate. However, from the period of time in which this was written, these cultural references were historically accurate. Whether it’s approved behavior today is not the point.

There were a few times when I thought the cultural aspects were laying things on a little thick, but most of that to me was the portions involving how much detail went into his time with the geishas and how many pages were spent on playing Paper, Rock, Scissors. I didn’t really need all the excessive descriptions about female anatomy, but I understand that it was necessary from the author’s perspective to use that as a method of demonstrating James Bond’s character and his view of the world, including his view of the women in his world. I also didn’t question the author’s authenticity of the view of the cultural aspects of Japan because it felt very authentic and was definitely the perspective of someone who had spent a lot of time living there, not just reading about Japan and studying the culture. There were so many detailed nuances that you can’t help but accept his reliability as the author.

I, as a modern woman, am not thrilled with James Bond and his perceptions of women. He criticized the treatment of the Japanese females while objectifying them and treating them the exact same way he was told and taught to. It was a sign of the times and definitely one of the highlighted symptoms of male fantasies (or so I’ve heard. As I am not male, I really don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to talking to people about what other people fantasize about).

The expected transition of James Bond from tall, British guy into a passable Japanese man who was deaf and mute and also extremely skilled at ninjutsu because of some of demonstrations and because he was given the appropriate equipment, specifically the suit and the grappling hook, was a bit far-stretched and ridiculous. And I spent a good portion of the book wondering if there would be a way for him to get his “natural” coloring back and if the walnut juice would have any way of coming off. This was a weird thing for me to think about throughout the book, because I can’t imagine a dye process like this actually working in real life. Granted, I don’t know anything about it and I have no desire to research it and learn about it, but it was still something very odd to read about.

I think one of the key selling factors of this novel was definitely the time in which it was written. Stories like this would have been an inspiration for people looking for ways to be a hero. Since the big wars were over and there were no longer clear-cut enemies, or enemies who were politically allowed to be clear-cut enemies, spy thrillers like this provided fantasy enrichment into very different types of heroes, such as James Bond. He can sleep with whatever beautiful woman with pert breasts and a firm butt as he wants and drink as much as he wants and still save the world without negative consequences. It was the ultimate wish-fulfillment of that time, I would think. You can be the hero and save the day and still get all the women and booze without the responsibility. What’s not to want?

One of the best parts about this book is that it’s also an accurate representation of what the life of someone like James Bond would truly be like. There were no life or death duals and the final battle with Blofeld would have been extremely disappointing if the movies had ended like this instead of with a last minute do-or-die situation. The final battle was actually extremely simple because James went straight for the main villain and killed him by gouging out his eyeballs. There’s absolutely nothing glamorous about the way this scene played out. And, honestly, watching someone kill another person via hand-to-hand combat in this way is very uncomfortable for most people to actually watch, which is interesting because it’s actually one of the most effective ways to deal with a true situation like this. That’s one of the key things that many screen-play writers and even fiction writers often get wrong – when you’re genuinely wanting to kill someone, it’s not going to be flashy and look pretty. It’s often going to be quick and imperfectly executed.

This novel also adequately details exactly how much work goes into the type of occupation James Bond has and exactly how much of a toll that takes on any semblance of a normal life. The book was well-written in the regards to accuracy of that type of lifestyle and how little room is left, both of the individual person and of how that person must spend whatever free time they have. James is never seen as having any particular interests or hobbies, other than enjoying the company of women and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. He is never seen to be reading or participating in any sort of activity that is not somehow directly related to his duties, roles, and responsibilities. This is something many authors would benefit from learning or remembering – your characters can’t be perfect and super human and everything. For every skill they excel at, there have to be other skills they are terrible at, or mundane things that normal people would take for granted that the main character struggles to accomplish.

I found a couple of the original books when I was searching the used bookstore for this one (which I didn’t find) and the books were very small and short and looked a lot like the typical romance book covers we would find and consider normal today. That amused me greatly. I think that readers would pick this book up because it’s the next in the series. They’ve read about James Bond’s super adventures and how as a spy he’s found the evil villain’s lairs and saved the world, but at the cost of the one woman he’s ever actually formed a true emotional bond (pun intended) to and that readers would pick up this book to watch the redemption and return of their hero. Readers who had read the previous books in the series would be looking for James Bond’s full character arch, which we just hopped right into the middle of the “down” portion, where he starts out badly broken. This book would show that you can rebound from anything, and I think that would have been a big deal to the readers of this particular series. I also think that the escapism for this novel would rest a lot in the political climate and the different type of “hero” becoming prevalent at this time in history because of the Cold War.

Overall, I enjoyed the cultural aspects of this story and the specific ways the book differed from any of the James Bond movies I’ve seen. I would probably rate this book as a low two on my rating scale. It’s not a book I ever feel the need to own, nor is it a book I would likely ever read again.

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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