MI6 looks back to 1964 at the critical reception of Ian Fleming's Japanese oeuvre "You Only Live Twice"...

Dragon Slaying
28th February 2009

James Bond fans had become accustom to Ian Fleming's style of writing with its thoroughly-researched travelogue and richly detailed observations. Known as the 'Fleming sweep', "You Only Live Twice" exercised every ounce of the author's prowess and delivered a novel that was not only a 007 adventure, but also an immersive journey for the reader in to Japanese culture.

Fleming based most of the elements of his novel on the experiences he had during his journey across Japan in 1962, including the Ama girls who dive for pearls and the intricacies of serving sake.

Due to his skill at communicating the minutia of a culture, Fleming succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of the producers when they were adapting this novel for its silver screen incarnation a couple of years after publication. Scouts could not find a suitable location for Blofeld's castle of death. The Japanese did not build castles on the coastline. It was purely a figment of Fleming's imagination.

"You Only Live Twice" was published on 16th March 1964 in the UK by Jonathan Cape and in August 1964 by The New American Library in the USA. Fleming died the same month. "Twice" was the last novel he fully completed.


Above: 1st edition Jonathan Cape hardback (UK). Artwork by Richard Chopping.

Fleming's death had piqued interest in the book, but even the author's passing at the time of publication in the USA, complaints that the book was tired and formulaic were not uncommon. Anthony Boucher wrote in the New York Times, "a protracted but enjoyable travelogue of Japan, towards the end of which the author reminds himself to insert a some action-adventure… but much of the book seems an exercise in filling pages with no narrative material." A review in the New Yorker concurred saying "This book… the next-to-last of the late Mr. Fleming’s, reports on that bloodthirsty keeper of world peace, James Bond. It is, unhappily, a tedious and silly one."

Other critical appraisals were kinder. Fellow NYT reviewer Charles Poore wrote, "It’s all rich, wonderful stuff, Fleming at his flaming best." But Poore did not take the series too seriously (inline with Fleming's self-deprecating view of his work), and added, "Although I can’t remember that he was ever boiled in a big beaker of salad oil, just about everything else has contributed to his partial dismantling."

By now critics had become overly familiar with the Bond formula and Fleming's style. Poore’s generally positive review is still filled with phrases like "Bond now plunges in to his usual world," "the heroine, of course, is the fixture as before," and "His mission, of course, concerns the defence of Britain." The repetitive nature of Fleming's formula was largely undisputed even by those that enjoyed it.

Above: Original print advertisement (USA)


Fleming’s death did, however, prompt at least one reviewer to take the long view, looking at "You Only Live Twice" and its conventions, not as shortcoming, but as part of something greater.

Alex Campbell of the New Republic, almost a year after its publication, gave the book the closest thing it gets to a completely positive review. In it, Campbell praises the last installments of the Bond series, shrugging off their formulaic aspects, he says that, because of them, "Without further question, Bond now joins the knightly company of the storybook heroes. All of them are athletic daring and handsomely virile, but their mark of distinction is that their patron saint is George and they chivalrously spend much of their time saving pretty girls from dragons of one kind or another."

This is a particularly apt reading of the book, which is set and Japan, and is actually filled with references to dragon slaying. And, interestingly enough, it is this exact insight into James Bond’s almost mythic status that will come to dominate the later critical interpretation of the series.

Advertisements, which appeared in major newspapers around the time of the book's release read "In his new James Bond adventure novel, IAN FLEMING unfolds a spellbinding tale of sensual pleasure, mystery and murder in Japan. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE." And then in smaller print "3 big printings before publication! Now at your bookstore. $4.50 An NAL- World BOOK."

You Only Twice was the 8th best-selling novel of 1964, selling approximately 65,000 copies. According to Alice Payne Hackett and James Henry Burke, in their book, "80 Years of Best Sellers," as of 1975 it had sold a total of 3,283,000 copies.

Review Snippets From 1964

"You Only Live Twice has a decidedly perfunctory air. Bond can only manage to sleep with his Japanese girl with the aid of colour pornography. His drinking seems somehow desperate, and the horrors are too absurd to horrify.. it's all rather a muddle, and scarcely in the tradition of Secret Service fiction. Perhaps the earlier novels are better. If so, I shall never know, having no intention of reading any of them" -- Esquire

"I notice that Ian Fleming has taken a hint from films of his books and is now inclined to send himself up. I am not at all sure that he is wise." -- Spectator

"England's best export, a spice of adventure, a dash of patriotism, laced with sex, sadism, and expense account know-how" -- Sunday Times

"The characteristic which makes Fleming appear silly also helps to make him popular: his moral simplicity. When we read James Bond we know whose side we are on, why we are on that side, and why we are certain to win. In the real world this is no longer possible." -- Macleans Magazine

"Must rank among the best of The Bond tales" -- Bookman

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