Early into "Skyfall," James Bond's most recent return to the big screen, the audience finds the legendary MI6 agent in Shanghai's Pudong district, scaling the interior of a Norman Foster-esque high-rise to reach a dazzling fight scene backdrop of LED signage. The Chinese city’s noxious mixture of bleeding-edge technology and still-exotic historical undertones lends well to the franchise's sensationalist streak. But it is after the foray into Shanghai (and later Macau), when the paper lanterns, komodo dragons, and pagodas have sated the audience's fetish for the “other,” that Bond's superhuman adventures take him to perhaps the richest and most otherworldly setting of the film: an abandoned Japanese isle, where Bond's newest nemesis has taken refuge.
Leaving the nocturnal debauchery of Macau, Bond picks up a trail to Hashima Island, a depopulated landmass in Japan's Nagasaki Harbor. With its emptied buildings and high sea walls, the isle comes into view like a passing battleship, an aesthetic comparison that has given Hashima its nickname Gunkanjima or "Battleship Island." Though the island never fully reveals its Japanese roots to the unfamiliar moviegoer (I was first reminded of Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, remodeled and cast to sea), its austere, quasi-militant appearance betrays some of its haunting past. Built up with reclaimed land and piled with enough concrete housing projects to become, at one point, the most densely populated place on earth, Hashima is a case study of hyper-development. The island was the site of a fertile coal-mining operation, shaped by capitalist hubris, only to be vanquished by the same force. Its tragic chronicles are spelled out in its architecture (or, more accurately, its ruins), adding a curious new dimension to an old cinematic formula.
Brian Burke-Gaffney, a professor of cross-cultural studies at the Nagasaki Institute of Applied Science, wrote a detailed history of the island for a 2002 issue of Cabinet, tracking its development from an uninhabited rocky outcrop, through its 84-year stint as an industrial boomtown, all the way to its alacritous demise. Burke-Gaffney’s account begins more or less in the late 1850s, when Japan opened its doors to the West, and a then-tepid ocean-mined coal industry grew to accommodate a newly expanded market. Seeing lucrative potential in coal-rich Nagasaki Harbor, the Mitsubishi Corporation purchased Hashima Island — then largely undeveloped and sparsely inhabited — from the reigning feudal family in 1890. They sank new shafts into the ground and physically grew the island with reclaimed land. In 1916, the company built Japan's first large-scale, reinforced concrete apartment block on Hashima, which was followed by more than 30 additional concrete buildings to support a swelling production force that was mining up to 410,000 tons of coal per year.
While the numbers paint an attractive picture of economic growth, they predictably conceal a dark reality. World War II brought enormous business to Nagasaki's coal-mining islands, but the war also sent Hashima's native workforce into the battlefields. In his Cabinet essay, Burke-Gaffney touches lightly upon the national government's exploitation of Korean and Chinese laborers, who were sent to work and — for many — die in the mines of Hashima. Sustained in part by forced labor, Hashima's growth continued through and well after World War II. Its borders, however, could not expand any more.
"People were literally jammed into every nook and corner of the apartment blocks," wrote Burke-Gaffney. Schools, hospitals, temples, shops, and "a labyrinth of corridors and staircases” were squeezed between the island's concrete colosses. Hashima's architecture reflected the alarming density of its population. Residents made the most of the land, importing arable soil to plant small gardens and equipping their cramped units with vogue electric appliances. But when Japan switched its energy policies to favor petroleum in the late 1960s, Hashima’s dubious sustainability, lifeblood now all but obsolete, quickly dissipated. In 1974, Mitsubishi closed the mine and the buildings emptied of their residents, the island's infrastructure left to decay.
In many ways, Hashima’s evocative ruins easily uphold the criteria of a typical Bond villain lair: the island is off the map, so to speak, and the outlandish locale makes as pragmatic of a home base as the hollowed-out volcano of “You Only Live Twice” (1967). The set-up seems particularly superfluous given the nomadic quality of the free world’s newest threat: cyber-terrorism. Thus, as with other overly theatrical hideouts, Hashima’s formal significance is almost wholly independent from function. The setting is more expressive of its resident villain, a crazed former MI6 agent named Raoul Silva. As lavish as a private island may be, Hashima and its indweller conspicuously lack the air of elitism and profligate wealth embodied in more conventional 007 antagonists such as Goldfinger. In fact, the image of deteriorated concrete, of an evacuated microcosm of Japan, cut down in its own manic race to modernity, seems to critically engage with the film series’ most established (and beloved) tropes.
In a 2008 article for the Guardian, critic Steve Rose christened James Bond “the enemy of architecture,” citing the character’s remarkable track record of wreaking havoc on the built environment, sinking Venetian palazzos and exploding lunar or submersible bases with glib indifference. Detonating the lairs of his enemies, in particular, became part of Bond’s patented repertoire, a signature move that equates architectural form with criminal program. According to Rose, the origins of this destructive crusade “can probably be traced back to [Bond’s] creator, Ian Fleming, who was certainly no fan of modernism.” Indeed, earlier films spelled out Fleming’s personal vendetta, with the most iconic Bond villains of yore plotting world domination from John Lautner-designed and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired lairs. “What is the archetypal Bond villain if not a modern architect?” asked Rose. “He is usually on a mission to ‘improve’ humanity by wiping out the messy status quo and replacing it with some orderly, rational utopia of his own design.”
In contrast, Bond's newest nemesis orchestrates his virtual terrorism from the ruins of a failed modernist experiment. Hashima's sagging, overgrown apartment blocks project the image of a collapsed utopian ideal, of the rationalist dream extinguished. One could say that its appearance in “Skyfall” perpetuates the shallow negative stereotyping of modernism seen throughout the Bond series and other popular films. But Hashima's decayed state also brings an unexpected twist to the 007 formula: With the villain's den already in ruins, there is no appropriate stage to welcome Bond’s destructive heroism. As with many aspects of the new film, the constructs of good versus evil are a lot less clear.
Despite gamboling through familiar tropes, "Skyfall" is a decidedly different kind of 007 film. Daniel Craig plays a visibly aged, world-weary Bond, his invincibility less hyperbolic. Paralleling this, the rectitude of the very institution that spawned him is also put into question, as the villain himself is a gnarled product of the British secret service. Actor Javier Bardem portrays the character as an embittered victim of the system, the underdog gone rabid. Finding refuge in the concrete ruins of Hashima, Bond’s foe has no sweeping plans to restructure humanity. Instead, he is literally faced with modernism’s crumbled monuments and broken promises. The system, modernism’s ethereal building block, has failed him too, redirecting its innovations and efforts to construct bedizen cityscapes such as Pudong. In other words, the true villain’s lair has metastasized, and not even James Bond can stop it.