UNESCO, Skyfall, and the question of Hashima’s ethical representation

On 5 July 2015, UNESCO added eleven Japanese properties to the World Heritage List. UNESCO explains the decision by pointing to Japan’s expeditious nineteenth-century industrial revolution that the edifices bespeak.[1] Whether this appreciation is appropriate is highly controversial. Hashima, one of the properties and a now abandoned island, accomplished its enormous output of coal in the Second World War with the aid of Korean and Chinese slave labourers.[2] In the run-up to the UNESCO decision, South Korea admonished that the Japanese localities in question do not look today as they did at the end of the lauded industrial revolution, but continued to change their faces. South Korea argues that the built environment which UNESCO seeks to protect can thus not be separated from its later history.[3] Historian Brian Burke-Gaffney contends that exactly during Japan’s atrocities in WW2 Hashima constituted the only place in Japan where the built environment kept growing to ensure the large coal supply for war.[4]

This meaning-laden island provides the location for villain Silva’s headquarters in the latest James Bond film Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012). Except for the establishing shots, the island sequence has been filmed in a replica in Britain’s Pinewood Studios because the original site was deemed too hazardous.[5] While the film fictionally locates the island in the vicinity of Shanghai, Silva asserts that the insular built environment itself “tells a story.” In light of the current debate about an ethical representation of Hashima, I explore into which story the fictional account of Skyfall integrates the island space (even if mostly replicated) and how this relates to Hashima’s material history. I highlight how the film readdresses the interconnected themes of progress, control, and violence that the island evokes, and how the film itself ultimately raises the question of an ethically tolerable representation of Hashima.

Control is inscribed into the material appearance of Hashima. On an island as small as 15.6 acres and enclosed not only by water but also by enormous sea walls, access and escape do not come easy. [6] The power of those who control the island is thus not easily contested. A Korean labourer brought to Hashima by force termed it the “Prison Island.”[7] Regarding the Japanese residents, Burke-Gaffney advances that Mitsubishi, which was the island’s sole proprietor and the islanders’ employer from 1890 to 1974, acted as a “benevolent dictator[ ].”[8] The company organised the gratuitous supply of water and electricity in return for the active upkeep of facilities. When as a result of the industrial shift to petroleum Mitsubishi informed the islanders in January 1974 about the closure of the coal mine, it took merely three months for Hashima to become completely abandoned.[9] Mitsubishi, which had once kept the island alive, even had the power over its demise.

This abrupt human flight from the site left the material world of Hashima largely intact.[10] Skyfall, four decades later, exploits the idea of a fully built yet vacant space and the authoritative intervention which is a likely explanation for this unusual spatial situation. In the Bond film, Silva is the island’s “dictator.” Unlike Mitsubishi, he does not clear the island on an economic basis but misinforms people about a leak in a chemical plant. He does not leave the island with the population but makes them leave to claim it entirely for himself. When 007 approaches the island by boat, the extreme long shots emphasise its resemblance to a fortress – or, as it has become vernacularized in Japan, the “Battleship Island.”[11] The filmic time dedicated to the boat’s straightforward passage toward the concrete citadel, filled with an ominous score, creates the sense that this is a one-way street and that entrapment at the hands of Silva awaits. Even after Bond has overpowered the villain, the latter incredulously jokes: “What are you going to do now? Take me back to her [M, head of MI6]? All on your own?” Only with the help of the MI6 air fleet can Bond successfully retrieve the adversary from his fortress and position of power.

Hashima’s materiality, indicator of the control mechanisms on the island, also signals power structures in the world beyond its confines. Burke-Gaffney calls the historical site a Japanese microcosm of the industrial age and its demise. When coal was important, Hashima was important because of its soil. In the 1940s, the minuscule space helped to fuel Japan’s engagement in a world war.[12]  At the end of the 1950s, the industrial hotspot sported the largest population density around the globe.[13] Silva, a cyber-terrorist, re-appropriates the island for his personal worldwide war. In the digital age, not a mass of human bodies labouring the soil signifies power. Skyfall casts instead the individual connected to a virtual network as the most dangerous combatant of present times: a single man who blows up the MI6 headquarters and prides himself for the capacity to interfere in elections or the stock market. The deserted island occupied by one (and a few henchmen) manifests the clash between two eras, the industrial and the digital. Yet the film also represents the re-appropriation of the derelict place in the context of contemporary crime. The fictional story proposes forgotten spaces at the margins of the populated world as ideal centres from which criminal spiders such as Silva can spin their webs throughout that world without being easily detected. After the digital revolution, so Skyfall suggests, the island can still engage in worldwide power struggles exactly because it is now abandoned.

Lastly, the material appearance of Hashima turns into a metaphor for MI6 and Britain. As Silva holds Bond captive on the island, he uses the presence of the replicated environment to drive home that “England, the Empire, MI6: You’re living in a ruin as well. You just don’t know it yet.” The space prompts the villain to recall his grandmother’s island where rats ended up eating each other. Only two specimens survived to remain on the insular territory. In Silva’s parable, the grandmother stands in for M, the rats are spies, and the two survivors are Silva and Bond. This comparison makes the world of the secret service a closed-off island that no one leaves alive. The film exploits Hashima’s physical state to evoke a vivid image of decline and terror regarding the larger space in which the film is set.

Skyfall heightens its narrative power by connecting control, entrapment, and danger to the location of Hashima whose very materiality bespeaks these themes. The recent controversy over UNESCO’s appreciation of the site makes it all the more pressing to ask: should an entertainment blockbuster make use of spatial features that once controlled, entrapped, and endangered real people? Should audiences take pleasure in a space where others suffered, even if some of what they see is “only” a replica? Is it justifiable for the film and even its credits to entirely overlook the historical suffering? The example of Hashima acutely demonstrates that representation is never free of ethical responsibility.

[1] “Sites in Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Uruguay Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; Extension of Spanish Site Approved,” UNESCO, accessed July 7, 2015, http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1317.
[2] Brian Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima: The Ghost Island,” Crossroads 4, no. Summer (1996): 38; Christoph Gunkel, “Koreaner Empört Über Japans Welterbe-Pläne: ‘Einfach Ins Meer Springen Und Mich Ertränken,’” Spiegel Online, June 26, 2015, sec. einestages, http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/japan-vs-suedkorea-streit-um-welterbe-plaene-a-1040239.html.
[3] Gunkel, “Welterbe-Pläne.”
[4] Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 37-38.
[5] Diana Magnay, “Dark History: A Visit to Japan’s Creepiest Island,” CNN, accessed July 9, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/13/travel/hashima-skyfall-island-visit/; “Skyfall (2012) – Filming Locations – IMDb,” IMDB, accessed July 9, 2015, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1074638/locations?ref_=tt_dt_dt.
[6] See Ibid. 38, 40-43.
[7] Cited in Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 39.
[8] Ibid., 35, 41-43.
[9] Ibid., 41-43.
[10] Christoph Gunkel, “Vergessene Orte Geisterstadt Im Ozean,” Spiegel Online, November 27, 2009, sec. einestages, http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/vergessene-orte-a-948617.html.
[11] Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 35.
[12] See ibid., 39, 43; see also Gunkel, “Vergessene Orte.”
[13] Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 40.