Posted on Monday, November 12th, 2012 by Russ Fischer
Part way into the new James Bond film, Skyfall, 007 is led to a deserted island, wherein waits the film’s villain, Silva. But this isn’t your typical deserted island — it’s no sandy outcrop with a couple palm trees and a few buried, empty bottles of rum. No, this is a portrait of urban blight in miniature, a place where everyone’s luck ran out, but the city-like structures they built still stand.
And it’s a real place. Or, at least, it is based on a real place. The island in the film gets its own fictional backstory, but the look of the place is based in great detail on an island called Hashima, on which thrived a tiny but densely populated company mining town. Abandoned in the ’70s, Hashima stands now as one of the strangest ghost towns on Earth.
Hashima, also called Hashima Island or Gunkanjima, (“Battleship Island,” so called for the battleship-like outline of the island, from one angle), is about 15km off the coast of Nagasaki. It was settled in the late 1800s and became a center of coal production. In 1916 the island became a prototype of industrialization in Japan, after Mitsubishi bought the land and decided to house workers right on site. Concrete housing blocks started to spring up to house the workers who dug coal from undersea mines.
5200 people lived on the island by 1959. That doesn’t sound like much, but the island is only 15 acres, and that population number made it the most densely populated place on Earth at the time. That’s a big part of the reason it turned into a sort of prototype model of late-20th Century urban landscape. Cabinet Magazine explains that the town eventually came to look much like a regular city, with a doctor’s office, restaurants, bars, and entertainment added over the years. The city turned into a thriving snow globe of a location, with tunnels linking many sections.
As Japan’s reliance on coal declined, so too did the island’s fortune. Mitsubishi closed the mining facilities in April of 1974, put all the residents on boats back to the primary Japanese islands, and closed Hashima.
In Skyfall, the primary approach to Hashima is seen, with the island’s structures getting some CG augmentation. Most of the scenes taking place on the island itself were shot on sets; the production built a full-scale replica of a few streets outside Pinewood Studios in the UK. That exterior set also featured the courtyard and ruined statue where one of the film’s stranger confrontations takes place. I walked around the set this past summer, but wasn’t allowed to take pictures. But Roger Deakins’ cinematography in the film does it far better justice than I could have. (He also has the benefit of some CG augmentation, to add extra stories above the upper limit of the set.)
Gakuranman.com has some fantastic photos of the island as it stands now. Travel there was officially restricted from 1974 until 2009, and the island became a prime destination for both urban spelunkers and those interested in turn of the century Japanese life and architecture. Few other sites were as well-preserved on the scale of Hashima.