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The link between Oblivion Island, Battleship Island and Skyfall

Question: What’s the link between the sweet CGI family fantasy Oblivion Island – about a girl, a fox and a magic mirror – and the hardboiled Bond pic Skyfall – starring Daniel Craig, Adele showtunes, and Hollywood’s favourite Aston Martin? The answer is a tiny Japanese island as far-fetched as either story.

If you’ve seen Skyfall, then you’ve seen the island in question – well, kind of. It was the model for the deserted, ruinous Evil Mastermind base where Bond first confronts his nemesis Javier Bardem, who monologues insouciantly about trapped rats and touches Craig up in ways to launch a thousand doujinshi. The Oblivion Island link is odder, and requires some explanation of the island’s history.

About an hour by boat from Nagasaki, the real island’s official name is Hashima, but Japanese people know it as Gunkanjima. The nickname means “Battleship island,” because it was so massively built up. Some people might call Gunkanjima a rock rather than an island – it’s tiny, 480 metres long and 150 metres wide. Incredible fact: in its 1950s heyday, more than five thousand people squeezed into this space, making it perhaps the most densely populated place on the planet.

As Brian Burke-Gaffney writes in a vivid essay on Gunkanjima, “People were literally jammed into every nook and corner of the apartment blocks.” There were schools, a gym, a public bath, a pinball parlour, a cinema, a hospital, and restaurants. There was a temple, a Shinto Shrine – oh, and a brothel. About the only things the island’s people didn’t have were cars. Burke-Gaffney: “One could walk between any two points on the island in less time than it took to finish a cigarette.”

So why did so many people live here? In a word, coal. The island was bought by the Mitsubishi Corporation in 1890, which sank pits as deep as 600 metres below sea-level in the next decades. The miners would sleep in high-rise apartments, and work in the bowels of the earth. Early on, the slag from the depths was used to reshape the island itself. Like much Japanese land, Gunkanjima is largely artificial from the ground up, bristling with more than thirty concrete buildings.

Many accounts of Gunkanjima stress its industrial and human achievements, reflecting Japan’s modernisation. Burke-Gaffney stresses, though, it had a darker history. During the 1930s and 1940, Japan turned it into a forced-labour camp for Korean and Chinese men, where hundreds of victims were worked to death. A Korean survivor, Suh Jung-Woo, recalled: “The digging places were so small that we had to crouch down to work. It was excruciating, exhausting labour. Gas collected in the tunnels, and the rock ceilings and walls threatened to collapse at any minute. I was convinced that I would never leave the island alive.”

In the 1950s, Japanese workers and their families came voluntarily to a mine that was booming because of the demands of the Korean war. Gunkanjima’s prosperity lasted until the late 1960s, when oil displaced coal in the Japanese economy. Miners were laid off in droves, and Mitsubishi officially announced Gunkanjima’s closure at the start of 1974. Four months later, every soul had left the isle to its ghosts.

Over the next decades, Gunkanjima fell into disrepair, exacerbated by typhoons. The island was barred to sightseers for decades. Today, tours are allowed of a strictly limited area, though a few adventurers break the rule. Photographer Michael Gakuren’s remarkable pictures of Gunkanjima can be seen here and here.

Burke-Gaffney also explored the derelict island. “Almost all the windows were broken,” he wrote, “and glass crunched underfoot everywhere I walked. Great sheets of concrete facing had fallen from walls and scattered on the ground. Half-rotten doors, shutters and railings dangled on their hinges, creaking and clattering in the wind… A departure schedule, clock and calendar were literally frozen in 1974 time.” No longer a battleship, Gunkanjima had become a stone Marie Celeste.

Different people read different morals from the ruins. For Burke-Gaffney, it symbolises urbanisation and exploitation, though one might object that Gunkanjima was only given ‘life’ by its exploiters in the first place. For fans of SF and anime, Gunkanjima is the kind of apocalyptic landscape that writers have dreamed of for centuries, a decayed tombstone for civilisation. Small wonder the island appeared in an episode of the documentary series Forgotten Planet, beside relics such as Pripyat, the Ukrainian city emptied by Chernobyl. How much of Japan’s Fukushima region will share their fate?

Both Skyfall and Oblivion Island make indirect use of Gunkanjima. According to a Japan Times story, the Bond film was not actually shot on the island; rather, the island was visited by production designer Dennis Gassner, who recreated it on the famous 007 Stage at Britain’s Pinewood Studio. Some of the shots – we suspect when Bond is first led through the island by Bardem’s goons – were created digitally. But even in this virtual way, Skyfall encouraged a new global generation to learn of this lost world.

As for the Oblivion Island connection, it’s explained in an ‘extra’ film on the Blu-ray and DVD. While Gunkanjima doesn’t seem to have influenced the anime, one of Oblivion Island’s main themes is the tragedy of abandoning objects and memories. The live-action ‘extra’ (called “Battleship Island: An Actual Oblivion Island”) shows the day when Gunkanjima was visited by director Shinsuke Sato and Haruka Ayase, the voice of the eponymous heroine Haruka.

They bring a certificate making Gunkanjima the “sister” island of the fantastical Oblivion Island. “This is heartbreaking scenery, it overlaps with the movie,” Sato says. The certification ceremony – yes, it really is a ceremony – is attended by the Nagasaki City Mayor, and takes place before mounds of rubble and dead-eyed concrete buildings. Perhaps inevitably, two people suit up as cartoons, Disneyland-style: one as the film’s cute fox character, Teo, and the other as (presumably) a local mascot. The scene’s utter strangeness can only be appreciated by watching the film.

Yes, it’s an offbeat publicity stunt, but at least it’s in tune with what the film says. As Ayase comments, the fantasy Oblivion Island is “an island made up of things that humans abandoned… I think that many people’s memories remain on Gunkanjima too. In this story, we wanted to express that the memories that things hold within them may be what’s really important. On [Gunkanjima] too, people lived and worked and made lots of memories.”

Oblivion Island is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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