‘Spectre’ and the City

After the long-anticipated new James Bond film Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015) hit theatres last month, the most talked-about scene was undoubtedly the opening shot. The film opens with a minutes-long tracking shot set in Mexico City, during the Day of the Dead. We see Bond (accompanied by a beautiful woman, of course) follow a masked man in a white suit; go up to a hotel room with the woman; change into his classic tuxedo and weapon outfit; and walk the roofs of Mexico City in order to take aim at the masked man. The scene required thousands of extras to walk around in Day of the Dead fancy dress. It also visits one of Mexico’s oldest hotels, and neatly establishes Bond as the womanizer-and-professional-assassin that is at the core of the franchise. It is without question a skilfully realised sequence. But how does it compare to the film’s scenes set in the other three cities that Spectre visits: Rome, Tangier, and, of course, London?
By setting the Mexico City sequence on the Day of the Dead, Spectre clearly opts for visual impact. The holiday gives the opportunity for dressing up and disguise, and for large crowds that impair Bond’s ability to catch the villain and which increase the risk of casualties. However, the setting also plays on stereotypical views of Mexico by only representing the city on what is an extraordinary and world-famous day. It is a fairytale background that plays on already existing ideas about Mexico, and does nothing to redress viewers’ knowledge to a more realistic viewpoint.
The scenes in Tangier are mainly set inside a hotel room except for the brief shot of Bond and his travelling companion (another beautiful woman) navigating the streets towards the hotel. Yet at no point are the Euro-American views of Tangier challenged. There are steps and windy streets, peeling paint on the walls, and mice in the hotel room. It is romantic but poverty-stricken.
Rome and London are treated differently by the film. The Italian capital’s grand architecture is the backdrop for a meeting of a top-secret and highly powerful terrorist organisation. The criminals are business-like and use modern techniques. Bond’s visit to them ends in a car chase on the banks of the Tiber, in which Bond is driving the high-tech Aston Martin that has been widely used in Spectre’s publicity material. This way, the film’s representation of the ancient city is intertwined with cutting-edge technology. London is also shown to be a combination between old and new: Q’s advanced lab is located in a stone cellar under the Thames, and MI6’s old headquarters in Vauxhall are replaced by a glass and steel column on the other side of the river. This tension between the old and the new is at the heart of the film, with its conflict between the ‘00 programme’ and the new data-collection laws.
Although the film ultimately reveres the old-fashioned (as it must since its main character has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950s), it allows London and Rome to combine the old with the modern. Tangier and Mexico City, locations outside the Western world, however, remain in some sense represented as primitive and backward. For all the – justified – admiration for the technical skill of the Mexico City sequence, Spectre does not dare to challenge what it expects to be the assumptions of an imagined American-European audience.

Spectre_DdM​The Day of the Dead in Spectre (UK/USA, 2015)

Bond treading the rooftops of Mexico City

Spectre_car chaseThe car chase along the Tiber, Rome

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.