Category: Film

Skyfall: The Fighting Temeraire

Skyfall: The Fighting Temeraire

In a scene in the 2012 film Skyfall, James Bond sits in the National Gallery, silently contemplating a painting when he is joined by Q. Q briefly remarks on the painting before identifying himself to a visibly irritated 007. While the moment serves as the introduction of the new Quartermaster, it also underscores the tension between the new and old as well as the question of Bond’s place in the modern world, major thematic components of Skyfall. This is done in part by making a connection between Bond and the ship in the painting, a familiar icon to many British.

Bond and Q contemplate obsolescence, modernity and relevance in Skyfall.

“It always makes me feel a little melancholy. A grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?

“A bloody big ship.”

Q and Bond, Skyfall

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838 is a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, arguably one of the greatest of all British artists. The artwork itself was voted Britain’s favorite painting in a BBC radio poll in 2005. The 98 gun HMS Temeraire was built as a second rate ship of the line in 1798, one of three Neptune class vessels. She was named for a French ship captured by the British in 1759, which then served out a career in the Royal Navy under the same name. (For the curious, téméraire means “reckless” in French.) The designation “second rate” was by no means a commentary on the ships worthiness in battle but rather an indication the vessel was smaller and less expensive than the costly and valuable first rates. As such, second rate ships often sent on missions and formed the core of fleets, while the relatively rare first rate vessels were often considered too valuable to risk on anything other than the greatest of engagements.

Fun fact: The naval term “first rate” used to describe the most powerful Royal Navy ships is the origin of the modern term “first rate” to describe anything optimal or excellent.

The Temeraire served a generally quiet career, seeing a major fleet action only once at the Battle of Trafalgar. There the Temeraire was credited with saving the HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson, taking on two French ships at once and emerging victorious after a bloody fight. The ships actions earned accolades and a place in the hearts and minds of the British people, as well as the nickname, “The Fighting Temeraire.”

Yet time, as Q notes, erases worldly glory. After becoming obsolete as a warship, the Temeraire passed through a number of roles, including time as a prison ship and a guard vessel. Eventually, the ship was ordered to be scrapped and was taken under tow by to the shipbreakers. While no longer viable as a warship, the fame of the Temeraire remained and thousands came to view the last days of the ship.

Turner painted the artwork in 1838. It is worth noting that Turner took artistic license with his painting, as the Temeraire was stripped of its masts and rigging and was towed by two tugs, not just one. Rather than serving as an accurate impression of the last voyage of the Temeraire, Turner imbues the painting with symbolism representing the end of an era.

The themes of the painting underscores Skyfall‘s depiction of Bond as a agent past his prime, struggling to remain relevant in a world that discards old warriors. It also mirrors the relationship between Bond and Q, evoking the idea of the new surpassing the old, reflected in Q and Bond’s testy exchange. The Temeraire being hauled away by a steamship is akin to the gap in technology in Skyfall, where Bond’s martial skills are of questionable use in a world of hackers and cybercrimes, where an errant hard drive is more dangerous than a gun. Like the Bond franchise, the Temeraire is depicted as a glorious old warship of a bygone era, while the dark, dirty steam tug of the modern world mostly obscures it on its final voyage. Unlike the Temeraire, Bond survives and redefines himself, even if it may only be to die another day.

References and further readings

  • Skyfall, 2012 – Directed by Sam Mendes
  • “Towing the Temeraire: A drawing rediscovered” – http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-the-scenes/blog/towing-temeraire-drawing-rediscovered
  • Skyfall and the Importance of Thematic Clarity – https://storypunchpodcast.com/2014/01/16/skyfall-and-the-importance-of-thematic-clarity/
  • “Reboot, Rebirth, Repeat: Skyfall” – http://cinema-scope.com/currency/reboot-rebirth-repeat-skyfall/

 

Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and the Fear of a Rising Japan

Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and the Fear of a Rising Japan

For some, John McTiernan’s 1988 Die Hard has undergone a cultural transformation into the unlikely position of a favorite Christmas classic. The setting of the film on Christmas Eve and the inclusion of Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC, Let It Snow over the end credits, and Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th playing as the terrorist/thieves loot the Nakatomi vault as as exuberantly as children opening presents have firmly cemented a connection between the holiday and the film in the minds of most viewers. Yet often overlooked is Die Hard‘s intentional subtextual commentary on the state of America in the late 1980s and the fear of a rising Japan overtaking the United States. It was a fear that appears alien today, with Japan viewed more positively for its popular culture.

Die Hard is based on Roderick Thorpe’s 1977 novel Nothing Last Forever and adapts many elements of the book fairly faithfully, including some of the more iconic moments seen on film such as the final confrontation between Gruber and McClane. However, one major change to the setting of the book influenced the entire tone of the film and reflected a pervasive social anxiety over Japanese power in late 1980s and early 1990s America. Thorpe’s novel was originally set in the headquarters of Klaxon Oil, a large American company. The film switched the firm to the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation. The change fit the times. Oil was a hot button topic in the late 1970s, as the two oil shocks, the gas crisis and clashes with OPEC dominated headlines. Japan was squarely in the news as a global competitor to the United States in the late 1980s–a rival that seemed to be winning on all fronts.

By the 1980s. Japan’s economy was firing on all cylinders. An unprecedented economic revival since the end of World War II had positioned Japan as the third largest economy in the world. Alongside this economic might appeared to be elements of a strong, stable society. Crime rates were very low compared to the States, the educational system was lauded as superior, living standards were high, companies cared for their employees, family was held in high regard, and Japanese technology was seen as the pinnacle of advancement. As Marty McFly stated in Back to the Future, “All the best stuff is made in Japan.” Japan in 1988 was seemingly an unstoppable powerhouse–but a fatal flaw lay at the heart of the Japanese economy.

Japan leveraged that economic power and began purchasing assets in the United States, eventually holding over a third of America’s total debt. Japan appeared ready to surpass America in global economic, if not military, power. This did not go over well with several groups within the United States, many of which took to Japan bashing or to argue for stronger sanctions in an economic showdown with an unexpected rival. The underlying tension in U.S. – Japanese relations in the late 1980s is evident in a short exchange of dialogue between John McClane and Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi:

McClane: You throw quite a party. I didn’t realize they celebrated Christmas in Japan.

Takagi: Hey, we’re flexible. Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so we got you with tape decks.

Another, more subtle reference to the state of the U.S. – Japanese relationship is found in the set design for the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Tower, where the Christmas party takes place. The exposed stone and waterfall design of the floor are replicas of elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a masterpiece of design by one of America’s greatest architects. The unspoken takeaway for the audience is that the Nakatomi Corporation purchased Fallingwater to serve as decoration for its headquarters, suggesting the sale and breaking up of America echoed in reality by the purchase of Rockefeller Center by Mitsubishi Estates in 1989. Reports stated that 30% of Hawaii and Los Angeles were owned by Japanese interests with 53 billion in American assets purchased, often more as a display of economic strength than economic practicality. The decision to use an architectural landmark rather than famous American paintings (works by Jackson Pollock and American Gothic come to mind), is again meant to evoke the then high-profile purchase of American property by Japanese firms. The result is a more visceral mental image, as it suggests the loss of territory, the expected outcome of a defeat in war. American icons are the prize of a dominant Japan, heritage displayed as trophies in the halls of a foreign power.

Pearl Harbor is also tangentially referenced again when Theo cracks the first code to the Nakatomi vault. The password is “akagi” which directly translated means “red castle” in Japanese. Akagi was also the name of one of the aircraft carriers that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Business is war, after all.

Die Hard‘s subtext of Japanophobia is not unique. Other films of the era touch upon anti-Japanese sentiment and fear of Japanese economic dominance, including Michael Crichton’s 1992 thriller Rising Sun, which was turned into a mediocre film in 1993. Coincidentally, or perhaps simply reflective of the perceived financial power of Japanese companies buying up American real estate, Rising Sun also features a high rise building named Nakamoto Tower. Several other works use the fear of a rising Japan and an America outmatched by Japanese efficiency and sharp business sense in various ways, including Ron Howard’s 1986 comedy Gung Ho about an ailing American auto plant bought out by a Japanese firm. (Point of fact: The term “gung ho” is not derived from Japanese rather from Chinese. It is a commentary on the general lack of understanding about Japan that still persists to this day.)Tom Clancy’s 1994 novel Debt of Honor has the more outlandish premise of Japan going to war with the United States. A more speculative take on the eventual future of the U.S-Japanese rivalry can be found in the 1992 Emilio Estevez vehicle (pardon the pun) Freejack, where the United States has lost “the trade wars” against a vague Asian power (or powers). The growing influence of Japan upon the United States is seen in the costuming and art direction of Blade Runner and Demolition Man.

The anxiety about Japan buried in Die Hard was not simply restricted to entertainment. Like alien invasions of the 1950s or the zombie films of the 1990s, popular culture reflected the social anxieties of the times. Fear of what was seen to be unfair Japanese business practices and the impression of Japanese workers as superhuman were pervasive. Labor unions exhorted Americans to boycott Japanese products and buy American, particularly automobiles. Politicians and new organizations chimed in on the subject, such as Time magazine in a 1987 cover feature. Writers and academics also pursued the issue, resulting in scholarly analysis such as Politics and Productivity: The Real Story of Why Japan Works, The Enigma of Japanese Power, and Japan. Inc. More alarmist and Japanophobic books hit shelves like Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It, Zaibatsu America: How Japanese Firms Are Colonizing Vital U.S. Industries, and The Japanese Conspiracy. These books either offered advice on how to better emulate Japanese business tactics or attempted to portray Japanese business strategies as a sinister attack on America, akin to a second Pearl Harbor.

The endgame for this particular form of Japanophobia in the United States came from within Japan. A property bubble had been building for years, as speculation drove land value in Japan to astronomical levels. As an example of the massive overvaluation of property, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were worth more on paper than the entire state of California. Stock prices also went soaring, fueled by a ready supply of currency. Japanese banks were inefficient and issuing bad loans, saddling themselves with debt. The central Bank of Japan was aware of the problems but did not react quickly enough to solve the issues. The result was the bubble bursting in 1992, resulting in losses of trillions of dollars and shattering the gears that propelled Japan’s economy. Japan entered the Lost Decade and has struggled to recover ever since. The undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment largely vanished from American popular culture and politics with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy and a resurgence in the American economy in the early 1990s.

References

  • Japan-Bashing: Anti-Japanism since the 1980s by Narelle Morris
  • “Revisiting the ‘Revisionists’: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Economic Model” by Brink Lindsey and Aaron Lukas
  • Contemporary Japan by Jeff Kingston
  • The Bubble Economy: Japan’s Extraordinary Speculative Boom of the ’80s and the Dramatic Bust of the ’90s by Christopher Wood
  • Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan
From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

Studio Ghibli’s From  Up on Poppy Hill is a quiet romance set among the turmoil of Japan’s return to the world stage in the form of the 1964 Olympic Games. However, Japan’s economic revival did not come with the frenzy of construction (and destruction) that accompanied the games but with the outbreak of the Korean War. The fate of Matsuzaki Umi’s father is tied up in Japan’s participation in the conflict.

The Korean conflict was a surprise to American military planners, who had banked upon a European start to any Cold War hostilities. American units in Japan were poorly equipped, inadequately trained and generally unready for combat, a consequence of rapid postwar demobilization and a far cry from the military machine that had been instrumental in the victory over the Axis powers in 1945. The South Korean government of Syngman Rhee had been allotted little in the form of weaponry and support by the US government over fears that Rhee would be the aggressor in a Korean conflict. As a result, the surprise North Korean strike across the border reaped rapid gains for the communist forces. Yet early American units deployed to the combat zone were not even ordered to take winter clothing out of an expectation the conflict would be over quickly, shades of early World War One era optimism despite the hard lessons learned since then. The first American unit on the ground, Task Force Smith, suffered devastating losses in the battle of Osan.

As the conflict was far from the staging grounds of Europe and with demobilization still in effect, the American occupation government in Japan (led by the incredibly polarizing and controversial Douglas MacArthur) chose to utilize Japan’s merchant fleet in support of the conflict. This was made possible by the fact the United States was in overall control of Japan’s merchant fleet as it had had fallen to the allied powers at the conclusion of World War Two. During the war, several Japanese ships were hit by mines resulting in many casualties from which Up on Poppy Hill incorporates into its narrative.

Although Japan’s active participation in the Korean War was fairly limited in terms of ships and men, the economic repercussions of the war were far more significant. As the nearest strongpoint of American power, bearing in mind Japan would remain occupied until 1952, war material was needed as the Korean conflict lumbered towards resolution and then stalemate with the entry of China into the war. The need for war material that did not have to be shipped from the States and the urgent need to not let the European theater suffer shortages in order to carry out the fight in Korea meant that Japanese industry received a massive boost from American orders. By the early 1950s both Truman and Eisenhower were willing to use dollars to support the anti-communist policies laid out in NSC-68, the blueprint of American Cold War conduct. The resulting influx of dollars and war orders allowed Japan to rebuilt its industry from the ground up, incorporating new technologies and creating state of the art factories that would prove instrumental in Japan’s economic recovery. As a side effect, US troops taking part in the war spent their leave in Japan, putting more money into the economy and exposing even more Americans to Japanese culture, arguably facilitating the modern American acceptance of Japanese culture compared to Korean or Chinese culture.

Film: From Up on Poppy Hill, (コクリコ坂から Kokuriko-zaka Kara) Studio Ghibli

Suggested Reading: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

News: Lost Hitchcock Film Found

News: Lost Hitchcock Film Found

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films has been found in an archive in New Zealand. Archivists at the New Zealand Film Archive announced that half of the 1924 film White Shadow was discovered in their holdings and it is now believed to be the earliest existing Hitchcock film. The famed filmmaker was credited with several jobs on White Shadow, including writer, editor and assistant director. He would make his directorial debut the following year in 1925.

White Shadow survived due to the efforts of a projectionist and collector named Jack Murtagh who saved the film from destruction. After Mr. Murtagh’s death, his grandson donated his films to the NZFA. For more information on lost films, check out the MARS link in the navigation bar. The discovery of White Shadow is a hopeful reminder that there is still a chance to find some of the many films that have disappeared over the years. Future articles on Wired History will discuss lost films and the ongoing effort to recover them.

More on the story at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/alfred-hitchcocks-earliest-surviving-film-218278