Hot Dogs, Hideously Large Bosoms and Neon Lighting: Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (1864)
by Mark Wallace
Žižek writes that he favours analyzing popular culture examples because it helps him “to avoid pseudo-Lacanian jargon and to achieve the greatest possible clarity not only for my readers but also for myself” (The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso, 1994, p. 175). I’m not sure Žižek is always wholly successful in avoiding jargon and achieving maximum clarity, but it’s nice to know that he makes the effort. Raymond Williams famously noted that “Culture is ordinary“, rather than the preserve of an elite, and what could be more ordinary than popular culture – it is, by definition, the property of the many, rather than the few. Thus, popular culture is always a more fitting object of study than any high culture (“serious literature”, “arthouse cinema”, etc.)
So, if you want to know our culture, know the artefacts of popular culture in depth. And what could be more resoundingly and enduringly popular in Western societies (at least Anglophone ones) than the figure of James Bond. Most of us know him now through the continuing film franchise, but he started off as a literary creation in a hugely popular series of books by Ian Fleming. Fleming started publishing Bond in 1953, but after the first film (Dr. No) appeared in 1962, he continued writing new books while older ones were being adapted until his death in 1965. You Only Live Twice, you novel I will write about here, belongs to this late period. Published in 1964, it was the last Bond novel to appear in Fleming’s lifetime.
You Only Live Twice takes up where the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, left off. That is, Bond’s wife Tracy has been killed by Blofeld’s goons. So the Bond we meet in Twice is shattered by grief, drinking too much and failing at work. He’s very similar to the Bond we saw recently in the film Skyfall (2012), who seems to be physically past it, mentally jaded and fit for the scrapheap. But in both works, M. decides to pull Bond out of it by giving him a big mission. Here, 007 is sent to Japan on a diplomatic mission to check up on what the Russians are up to there.
In fact, the book opens with Bond already in Japan, having a meeting-confrontation with the ambiguous Tiger Tanaka. Tiger embodies the whole mystery and menace of Japan in the book. It’s not really clear if he’s friend or foe. He’s the head of the Japanese secret service. This service is never named: “‘Some unpronounceable Japanese rubbish'” (Vintage, 2012, p. 35), is M.’s contemptuous non-effort to render it.
This opening chapter introduces a quite extensive selection of Western cultural cliches regarding Japan: geishas and sake figure prominently; sumo, kamikaze, samurai and Fu Manchu also get mentions. It’s the images of the samurai and kamikaze that loom largest throughout the book. Tanaka himself is described as having a “formidable, cruel, Samurai face” (p. 8), and this description accurately prefigures the depiction of the Japanese and the idea of Japan by Fleming in the book.
Also in the first chapter, Bond semi-jokingly tells Tanaka that in a game of paper-scissors-rock he will win and thus “display not only the superiority of Great Britain, and especially Scotland, over Japan, but also the superiority of our Queen over your Emperor” (9). This anxious national competition is central to much of the book.
After this scene-setting first chapter with the ambiguous Tanaka, we move to the aforementioned backstory of Bond’s state post-Tracy and M.’s decision to send him to Japan. Only midway through chapter 7 do we again catch up with chapter 1, and we have more debate between Bond and Tanaka about the national character and political systems of their respective countries. Tanaka is particularly exercised by the change in Japanese culture since WWII, which he blames on the American presence:
Baseball, amusement arcades, hog dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting – these are the part of our payment for defeat in battle. they are the tepid tea of the way of life we know under the name of demokorasu. They are a frenzied denial of the official scapegoats for our defeat – a denial of the spirit of the samurai as expressed in the kami-kaze, a denial of our ancestors, a denial of our gods. They are a despicable way of life[.]” (80)
Bond listens politely to Tanaka’s catalogue of horrific Americanisms, and offers his sympathy. That Fleming allows a voice to such anti-Americanism is an index of the fact that the Americans themselves as seen as slightly threatening in this book, no longer such a straightforward friend to Britain as in earlier novels. This type of politically-invested dialogue is very characteristic of Twice, and it is worth noting that it is precisely this type of matter that is not reproduced in the contemporaneous film versions of Bond. Twice has a very definite political context with plenty of detail (e.g. discussion of the differences between the CIA under Alan Dulles and under his successor John McCone ), such that an entire ideologico-political position is sketched out, and is as important to the text as the purely narrative elements (which are admittedly particularly weak in this novel, as has been noted by others).
For Fleming and his readers, there was clearly a need to reconsider and debate various elements of Western society and of the democratic ideal. “I stand for government by an elite” (53), Bond’s Australian friend Dikko Henderson says (and he also fervently opposes votes for Aborigines). Fleming never puts such strong political opinions in Bond’s mouth, so the status of such pronouncements is unclear. By giving them to bit part (albeit overall sympathetic) characters, Fleming is bringing such ideas into play without committing to them. He subtly plays with anti-democratic ideas, forcing the reader to confront them but not to accept them. In the light of the films, it remains an interesting exercise to return to the book, and to see the anti-democratic political tendencies that are much more visible here and that underlie much of the Bond narratives.