In 1964, Ian Fleming published his twelfth James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice, and it became a major best-seller. It is an interesting and unusual book in many ways. When it was first released, it was embraced by the public and received politely by critics, despite, or perhaps in part because of, its very western look at Japanese culture. Much of the book's popularity though was due to the spy-craze of the 1960's. And while critics today largely dismiss it as inferior to other popular spy fiction of the time, You Only Live Twice, and James Bond, enjoy far more popular success than their competition. You Only Live Twice certainly has its flaws, but at its core it is a masterpiece of escapist fantasy and well deserves its tremendous popularity.
Overall, contemporary critical opinion of You Only Live Twice was somewhat mixed. Most reviewers felt that the book was a rather tired iteration of the same old James Bond formula, that the plot was ridiculous and the old gimmicks were wearing thin. Despite this, it was almost unanimously considered a good, fun read. The book dutifully delivered what fans had come to expect from the James Bond stories: a liberal mix of sex and gadgets and adventure. What's more, the book's exotic setting provided for what many reviewers found to be an interesting and entertaining travelogue. The year before, Fleming had written a book entitled Thrilling Cities, about various exciting vacation spots around the world. One of these cities was Tokyo, and his visiting of that city was definitely a major source of inspiration for You Only Live Twice. In fact, among his papers kept at the Lilly Library in Indiana, Fleming explains that Richard Hughes and Torao Saito, to whom the book is dedicated, were his tour guides in Tokyo. And much of the book is dedicated to nothing more than Tiger Tanaka, the head of Japanese intelligence, showing Bond around Japan and teaching him about Japanese culture. While there is a vague connection between Bond's cultural studies and the book's main plot, it is tangential at best. Interestingly, while many contemporary reviewers considered these "travelogue" aspects to be the best parts of the book, from a 1990's perspective they seem shockingly ethnocentric. In one exchange between Bond and Tanaka, where they are comparing the merits of the their respective societies, Bond gets the last word by saying "Just because you're a pack of militant potential murderers here, longing to get rid of your American masters and play at being samurai again, snarling behind your subservient smiles, you only judge people by your own jungle standards. Let me tell you this, my fine friend, England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars, our welfare-state politics may have made us expect too much for free, and the liberation of our colonies may have gone too fast, but we still climb Everest and win Nobel Prizes... [T]here's nothing wrong with the British people." To this apparently withering attack, Tanaka can only reply "Well spoken, Bondo-san... those are very similar to the words I addressed to my Prime Minister." It is hard to imagine today this sort of blatantly nationalist propaganda being considered an enjoyable peek at an exotic culture. Indeed, there is hardly any element of Japanese culture that Fleming, through Bond and other characters, does not find completely ridiculous. All of Japanese culture, from cuisine to religion, is portrayed as being somewhere between hopelessly backwards to outright barbaric. Nevertheless, reviewers in 1964 considered the travelogue components of the book to be "jaunty" (Poore) and "enjoyable" (Boucher). However, the dramatically pro-British sentiments of the book are in keeping with Bond's character, and largely with Fleming's as well. Fleming's family was a part of the British upper- class and could, in fact, trace its ancestry back to John of Gaunt. Fleming himself grew up attending Eton and then the Royal Military College. He studied extensively to join the British Foreign Service, and while he failed the exam, during World War II he became the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence (who, incidentally, he modeled the M character, of the Bond series on), and directed a small Assault Unit. Fleming even received some legitimate spy training in Canada. All of which, of course, tends to lead to at least the suspicion that James Bond, the snob/spy, is Fleming's literary alter-ego. There is even a physical resemblance between the author and his character: both are tall and lean with dark hair. Fleming, however, laughed off any speculation that James Bond was some sort of idealized version of himself, claiming that James Bond was an idealized version of ANYONE. But even if he denied it publicly, it seems improbable that Fleming (or, indeed, anyone) would not want to be considered the prototype for James Bond, and that is doubtlessly thpublic image he tried to convey. The jacket of You Only Live Twice's American book club edition features a large picture of Fleming blowing the smoke from the barrel of a Smith and Wesson revolver. A gun is hardly a neutral prop, especially for the author of spy novels. The jacket also contains a brief biography of Fleming which, of course, mentions his wartime intelligence service. The point of the picture and biography is clearly to get readers to think of Fleming himself as a man of action, a spy even. Even if the public does not go so far as to believe that Fleming is a real-life Bond, they at least want to feel that he knows what he's talking about in his spy thrillers. The same thing is true of other spy novelists; John le Carre, the author of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, is described on the inside leaf of the first American edition of that book as being "the pseudonym for a British civil servant employed in one of the Whitehall ministries." This brief description conveys the image of le Carre as both having inside knowledge of espionage, and as resembling his faceless protagonists. Likewise, Ian Fleming's conveyed image is that of someone who has inside knowledge of intelligence, and also has James Bond's dashing adventurousness. Whether it is just a spy novel convention for the author to resemble his main character, or because James Bond really is based on his creator, Fleming's public persona is definitely that of a real-life version of his super-spy.
In fact, Fleming's own celebrity was, to some extent, responsible for the large sales and media attention that You Only Live Twice received. By 1964, Fleming was an established literary star; not only the creator of James Bond, but also the author of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, a successful children's book, and a few works of non-fiction as well (Thrilling Cities and The Diamond Smugglers). His death, therefore, just prior to the release of You Only Live Twice, generated significant interest. A number of the reviews for the book, in publications like the New York Times, were really almost obituaries for the author. So, the world wide attention Fleming's death received almost certainly contributed to the book's tremendous success.
The general spy-craze of the era was also a contributing factor. The runaway best-seller of 1964 was actually le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, but You Only Lived Twice, despite being released relatively late in the year, also managed to make it onto the list of the top-ten fiction best-sellers. Other less successful spy books were abundant as well. The Manchurian Candidate was released in 1962, and was a critical and popular success. That same year Len Deighton's book The Ipcress File was strong seller, and in 1965 it was made into a major motion picture. In addition to these works, the sixties also gave rise to television spy series like Mission: Impossible, which debuted in 1966. Before the books were translated to film, CBS had seriously expressed interest in making a James Bond television series. In all, according to the Internet Movie Database, 138 movies and television shows, produced between 1960 and 1969 fell into the "spy" genre. A similar list for the years 1980 to 1989 turns up only 72 items, or about half as many. Just this brief analysis of book sales and movie and television productions makes it clear that the 1960's were a decade of great interest in espionage and espionage thrillers.
The reasons behind this are not hard to comprehend. Espionage was more of a reality in the sixties; it had a vividness for readers and movie-goers. The Cold War between the super powers was at its height. In addition to events on a major political and social scale, like the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were smaller occurrences that really did smack of the kind of cloak & dagger activities of spy novels. The covert Bay of Pigs operation and the capture of the U2 spy plane are notable examples. In such an environment it is no wonder that people were captivated by spy fiction of all kinds. Throw in the fact President Kennedy himself was a professed fan of the Bond novels and the success of You Only Live Twice seems as though it was assured almost before it was written. And the series continues to be healthy and popular: web sites, fan clubs and conventions abound. Tomorrow Never Dies, the most recent James Bond film was also the most financially successful, and a number of classic Bond tales, including You Only Live Twice, were re-published by MJF in 1997, thirty-three years after its initial publication.
Many modern critics, however, find the continuing popularity of the Bond series baffling. While most contemporary reviewers were polite towards the book, many now consider Fleming's writing to be abysmal and his plots to be shoddily constructed. He is often compared, negatively to other mystery and thriller writers of the twentieth century. Joan DelFattore, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography says that Fleming began his first novel, Casino Royale, "admiring W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories and the novels of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, he originally intended to write realistic espionage fiction centering around the type of featureless, gray protagonist that those authors often used. However, his vivid imagination and love of the dramatic... led him into giving Bond a number of personal idiosyncracies and into placing him in thoroughly improbable situations. As a result, his books never approached those of Maugham, Ambler, and Greene in realism, depth, or complexity." This is rather harsh criticism, but it is widely accepted, and in at least some regards, quite accurate. In You Only Live Twice, Bond is far from a "featureless," or "gray," on the contrary, he's witty, ironic, and lusty; a striking figure that his Japanese partners must work desperately to make inconspicuous. The story, also, is hardly "realistic espionage fiction," it is a parade of exotic settings and situations capped off with Bond storming an ancient castle surrounded by poisonous plants and volcanic fumaroles. Prior to this he briefly attends a ninja school and goes undercover as the rower on the boat of a gorgeous Japanese pearl diver (who, incidentally, used to be a Hollywood actress).
Graham Greene himself actually criticized Fleming's flashy story telling. Lars Ole Sauerberg, in his book Secret Agents in Fiction refers to Greene's The Human Factor, saying "In the first half of the novel, Greene alludes often to Bond, pointing out his remoteness from espionage and life as well as his fundamental romanticism." He then goes on to quote a passage from the book where three of the characters actually joke about James Bond and Ian Fleming. So if Fleming stacks up poorly against espionage novelists like Greene, Ambler and Maugham (a group to which Sauerberg adds le Carre and Len Deighton), is there another group that he can be compared too?
In his book The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel, 1890-1980, LeRoy Panek says "the hard-boiled detective novel is as good a place as any to begin an assessment of Fleming's spy novels." While Fleming's novels are not really written in the classic hard-boiled style, they have many of the same characteristics; most importantly that they are greatly concerned with sex and violence. Panek goes on to compare the Bond stories with the works of Hammet and Chandler, and Micky Spillane. Hammet and Chandler, in Panek's opinion, are the better writers, but he considers Spillane and Fleming more or less evenly matched. Spillane and Fleming both have a recurring main character (Mike Hammer and James Bond, respectively) and use many of the same devices and symbols. Nevertheless, Spillane's novels are seen as having a more distinctive, gritty style than Fleming's work.
So, the modern critics leave us with the impression of the James Bond books as being rather snooty, versions of second-tier hard-boiled detective fiction, or alternatively, as preposterous and vastly inferior versions of serious spy novels. But this assessment offers no explanation for why James Bond is so much more popular today than George Smiley or even Mike Hammer. The critics are inclined to dismiss the issue of mere popularity by arguing that the stories simply tap into escapist fantasies for the common-drudge reader. In reality however, creating a successful and compelling escapist fantasy is no mean feat. Fleming may have been impressed by the work of Greene, Maugham and others when he sat down to write the James Bond books, but he also began with the stated intention of writing "the spy novel to end all spy novels," something definitively different and superior. While issue of critical superiority is far from clearly in Fleming's favor, his spy, his series, is still around, and still a success, while his competitors are just memories. James Bond, because he is "idiosyncratic" instead of "featureless" is actually a real character that people can and do relate to, and because his adventures are bizarre flights of fancy, instead of dated Cold War or gangster stories, they have a timeless, visceral appeal. Creating an escapist fantasy that is still viable long after the craze that gave rise to it has passed is really Fleming's great accomplishment. You Only Live Twice is set in 1964, but it still works today because James Bond is still an appealing character, and the situations he faces are no less probable (or improbable) now than they were thirty-four years ago. If staying power and popularity are measured, You Only Live Twice easily stands up against the toughest competition in its genre.