As I've been rereading the Bond series, I've had On Her Majesty's Secret Service in my head as the pinnacle of Bond's character development. My memory of You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun was that they're both very dark books and represent a descent for Bond into the narcissistic selfishness that marked him in the early novels. That's not true though. At least not for You Only Live Twice.
The novel opens understandably with Bond completely shattered and depressed after the murder of his wife by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He's bungled his last couple of assignments and M is at a loss for what to do with him. Even Moneypenny is openly hostile to him and has apparently forgotten the out of character crush Fleming tried to foist on her back in Thunderball. Not to be overly harsh on Bond, but good for her.
M is actually to the point of wanting to fire Bond when he has a conversation with Sir James Molony, the same neurologist who diagnosed Bond back in Dr. No. As Molony justifies Bond's shock to M, it struck me that Bond's always been prone to depression. That's especially clear in the first couple of novels and his anxiety attack in the airplane during Live and Let Die leaps to mind. Tracy's death has sent the already unstable agent spiraling.
But as often as Bond has succumbed to dark thoughts, he's always been able to fight his way through them and Molony believes that's still the case. What Bond needs is a really tough, impossible assignment. Something that will either leave no room for his current depression, or at least will put it into perspective. After giving it some thought, M comes up with the perfect mission. As he describes it to Bond, it's "totally improbable of success" and will be very different from what he's used to. "There won't be any of the strong-arm stuff," he says, "None of the gun-play you pride yourself on so much. It'll just be a question of your wits and nothing else."
Which leads us to Fleming's other major interest in the book: Japan itself. Fleming had briefly visited the country in 1959 on his Thrilling Cities tour, but returned for a longer stay in '62. That trip became the basis of You Only Live Twice with the other journalists he was traveling with inspiring characters in the novel. Tiger Saito became Tanaka while Richard Hughes was the inspiration for Australian spy Dikko Henderson. (Incidentally, Dikko has way more in common with Joe Don Baker's Jack Wade in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films than he does with Charles Gray's stuffy Henderson in the movie version of You Only Live Twice.)
Long sections of the novel are devoted to Bond's introduction and acclimation to Japanese culture. At first, he's judgmental and racist and I suspected he was just imitating Fleming's own feelings about the country. Bond and Fleming both seem curious about Japan without seriously considering the country on its own terms. That made me impatient with the book and for a while I felt the same way about it as I did about From Russia With Love, which seemed less interested in telling a spy story than in scratching other itches of Fleming's.
As the novel progresses though, it becomes clear that Fleming's doing more than just writing a travelogue. Bond becomes less and less snarky about Japanese life and by the end of the book he's completely relaxed and embracing it. He's self-confident and cheerful. M's scheme has worked, though the credit goes less to the mission itself and more to Japan.
I never quite understood why Tanaka decided that assassination was the best solution to what seems more like a social problem than a criminal act. It's the weakest part of the book, but after that glitch things get back on track when Bond discovers that Shatterhand is actually Blofeld. However weak Tanaka's reasons are for wanting him killed, Bond's are completely understandable.
The final chapters of the book are strong for a couple of reasons. One is Bond's infiltration of the garden and castle. Both are horrifying places, made even more weird and terrible by Blofeld's striding around them in samurai armor, accompanied by his awful wife, Irma Bunt. As evocative as that is though, my favorite bits of the novel's end are Bond's time on a fishing island with Kissy Suzuki.
Bond goes to the island because it's close to Blofeld's and can be used as a base from which to strike, but once he gets there, his transformation is profound. Not his physical transformation, which reads as unconvincing as Sean Connery's looks in the movie version, but his spiritual transformation. Away from the cynical, irony-loving Tanaka and surrounded by people who just genuinely love their way of life, Bond finds peace. He never considers not killing Blofeld, but by the time he sets out to do it, the sense is that he's doing it out of duty. It's no longer about revenge for him. Those thoughts have vanished and as a reader I'm just hoping that he can survive and maybe get back to Kissy. She has a ridiculous name, but I like her more than any of Bond's romances since Domino. She's Bond's equal and brings out goodness in him.
I wish the book ended with Bond's going back to her and settling down on his own. I mean, without his having amnesia and Kissy's taking advantage of it to deceive him and keep him there. That's a crappy thing for her to do and it makes me like her less. Part of me appreciates the pulpiness of it and how it leads into a cliffhanger for the next book to resolve, but more than that I want a happy ending for Bond. Sadly for me, You Only Live Twice gives just a little taste of one before snatching it away.
Some final comments on things I've been tracking through this project. One is that Blofeld calls Bond a "blunt instrument" in the novel. I don't remember if that's the first time Fleming has used the term (M uses it in Die Another Day, which is where I first noticed it), but it's significant and it does more or less describe Bond's approach to assassination, even though he's pretty sneaky about getting into the castle.
Another thing I've been tracking is how Fleming reveals Bond's status as an orphan. You Only Live Twice is where that happens, in an obituary M writes for Bond when the agent is presumed dead. Bond's parents died in a climbing accident when he was 11 and he went to live with an aunt. That explains some of Fleming's other statements about Bond's teen years, which didn't seem to be particularly dark in From Russia With Love, though he did need a surrogate father in "Octopussy".
Finally, Fleming does something weird with Bond's obituary and turns Bond into a public figure. It's not just strange that M runs the obit in the newspaper with lots of details about Bond and his service to the government. He also mentions a series of popular novels that have been written by a friend of Bond. With his typical, self-deprecating humor, Fleming has M dismiss the books as exaggerated and not very good, but it's still an odd thing for Fleming to write himself into the series. It also means that everyone knows all about Bond and his adventures, however inaccurate the details. Fleming will deal with some of the consequences of that in The Man With the Golden Gun, which we'll talk about in a couple of weeks. It's interesting to me though that as the literary You Only Live Twice closes by thrusting Bond into the public eye, the movie version opens with an attempt to take him out of it again.