12th book in the James Bond series
And then, following the path on the other side of the lake, two strolling figures came into his line of vision and Bond clenched his fists with the thrill of seeing his prey.
Blofeld, in his gleaming chain armour and grotesquely spiked and winged helmet of steel, its visor closed, was something out of Wagner, or, because of the oriental style of his armour, a Japanese Kabuki play. His armoured right hand rested easily on a long naked samurai sword while his left was hooked into the arm of his companion, a stumpy woman with the body and stride of a wardress. Her face was totally obscured by a hideous bee-keeper's hat of dark-green straw with a heavy pendent black veil reaching down over her shoulders. But there could be no doubt! Bond had seen that dumpy silhouette, now clothed in a plastic rainproof above tall rubber boots, too often in his dreams. That was her! That was Irma Bunt! Bond held his breath. If they came round the lake to his side, one tremendous shove and the armoured man would be floundering in the water! But could the piranhas get at him through chinks in the armour? Unlikely! And how would he, Bond, get away? No, that wouldn't be the answer.
commentary: What a strange book this is. It has a memorable, dream-like feel to it, and the Japanese setting is very well-done and intriguing. Fleming, as was his wont, includes plenty of local colour and explanations, with his safe assumption that 99% of his readers had never been to Japan and were not likely ever to go. So the multiple details include James Bond dressed up as Japanese (!!), and the local ways with raw fish, fugu and even live lobster (which crawls away from Bond).
In the usual mystifying manner, Bond at one point ‘finds a Palomar pony to run with’, which seems to have the meaning of finding a drinking companion, and also needs to have the word ‘poofter’ explained to him.
There is an extraordinary passage on the kamikaze phenomenon (as described by the Palomar pony):
It was a terrible and beautiful thing to see an attack wave going off. These young men in their pure white shifts, and with the ancient white scarf that was the badge of the samurai bound round their heads, running joyfully for their planes as if they were running to embrace a loved one. The roar of the engines of the mother planes, and then the take-off into the dawn or into the setting sun towards some distant target that had been reported by spies or intercepted on the radio. It was as if they were flying to their ancestors in heaven.I’m going to pinch the Wikipedia description of the main plot: ‘Tanaka asks Bond to kill Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a politically embarrassing "Garden of Death" in an ancient castle; people flock there to commit suicide. After examining photos of Shatterhand and his wife, Bond discovers that "Shatterhand" and his wife are Tracy's murderers, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt. Bond gladly takes the mission, keeping his knowledge of Blofeld's identity a secret so that he can exact revenge for his wife's death. Made up and trained by Tanaka, and aided by former Japanese film star Kissy Suzuki, Bond attempts to live and think as a mute Japanese coal miner in order to penetrate Shatterhand's castle.’
Dr Shatterhand! What a great name.
We are helpfully given a long boring list of plants that might be poisonous, and there does seem to be one hole in the plot: we are repeatedly told that the Japanese care nothing for death, while actually respecting suicide, so it doesn’t make sense that they are so anxious to get rid of what is excellently described in the book as ‘a Disneyland of Death’. Also, could Bond not have infiltrated the garden by pretending to be a would-be suicide?
But it is churlish to ask these questions, as there is so much to enjoy. I liked this description of the debased British who have lost their moral fibre:
we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure - gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world.With a few changes (lottery instead of pools, pop stars and celebrities instead of aristocracy) it sounds like a newspaper editorial of today.
Bond has a go at haiku, and uses Freddie Uncle Chuck Katie as a euphemism while discussing the Japanese lack of swear words. He eats pemmican (just like the Swallows and Amazons of recent blogging). There is a fascinating encounter with some huge and worrying statues.
The whole thing is terrific fun, with a surprising ending including James Bond’s obituary. But there is still another Bond novel to come…
Photo of Japanese warrior from the National Museum of Denmark.
Archer drawing from a 19th Century book on Japan.