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50TH Anniversary 1967-2017

 
 

The Japanese Greta Garbos?
In search of Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi
by LUKE G. WILLIAMS

Mie Hama

Akiko Wakabayashi

Of all the actresses who have appeared in the James Bond series, Japanese duo Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi – who played Kissy Suzuki and Aki respectively in Lewis Gilbert’s 1967 epic You Only Live Twice – both are undisputedly the most enigmatic and low profile.

Today a lucrative convention and autograph industry has been built up surrounding actors and actresses who have played roles – both large and sometimes surprisingly small – in pop culture classics such as the 007 films, but you won’t ever see Hama or Wakabayashi sat at a table meeting and greeting fans, posing for snaps and selling their autographs.

Post-007, neither actress ever appeared in a ‘western’ film again and – so far as I can tell – they have granted just one English-language interview each since 1967 – Wakabayashi having given a (translated) Q&A to Armand Vaquer and Brett Homenick of the Godzilla magazine G-Fan in 2006, while Hama granted an interview to the New York Times in March 2017.

In many ways Hama’s and Wakabayashi’s resolutely low profile intriguingly parallels the fate of Ian Fleming’s fictional creation Kissy Suzuki, who in the original novel YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE rejects Hollywood and instead returns to her home in Japan, settling for a quiet existence as an Ama diving girl. Thereafter, she is referred to by the media, as reported to Bond himself by ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, as “The Japanese Garbo”.

Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi photographed shortly before filming on You Only Live twice commences in1966

Both actresses have led fascinating lives and careers; of the two, Hama is undoubtedly the more renowned in Japan. Born on 20 November 1943 in Tokyo, her family were poor, a factory producing cardboard they owned having burned down during World War II.

While working as a ‘bus girl’ checking tickets on the public transportation system, Hama was talent spotted by film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who worked at the legendary Toho Studios and was one the original co-creators of Godzilla – alongside Shigeru Kayama, Ishiro Honda, Takeo Murata and Eiji Tsuburaya.

After making her movie debut in 1960, Hama became a well-known and regarded actress on the Japanese movie circuit, appearing in dozens of films throughout the decade which ran the full gamut of genres, from comedy to domestic drama and horror, including several appearances in the popular ‘Crazy Cats’ comedies and an appearance in critically acclaimed director Mikio Naruse’s 1964 film Yearning.

However it was Hama’s iconic appearances in cult genre classics such as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967) that made the biggest splash. By the time she was cast in You Only Live Twice Hama was a highly recognisable face in Japan, having appeared in around 60 films, often in leading roles, as well as appearing on posters for many of these films and being one of the most photographed actresses in the country.

Akiko  Wakabayashi’s debut in a supporting role in Ishiro Honda’s 1958 A Song For A Bride | Akiko (1961)

ABOVE: (left) Wakabayashi’s debut in a supporting role in Ishiro Honda’s 1958 A Song For A Bride. (right) An early lead role was in the 1961 Italian film Akiko, an interesting oddity in which she played a young Japanese woman born out of wedlock to an Italian soldier during World War II, who then visits his widow in Rome.

The elder of the two actresses, Wakabayashi was born on 26 August 1939 or 1941, depending on which sources you consult, and had a similar, albeit more low profile, career compared to her fellow actress. In 2006, she explained to Vaquer and Homenick how she broke into the film industry:

“Girls were sought to play major female roles in Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and Senkichi Taniguchi's Uminari (its production was cancelled). I applied for the role with a friend from senior high school. It turned out to be the opportunity to join Toho as one of five girls selected from among more than 3,000 applicants.”

A regular in Toho Studios productions from 1958 onwards, Wakabayashi’s debut appears to have come in a supporting role in Ishiro Honda’s 1958 A Song For A Bride. An early lead role was in the Italian film Akiko, an interesting oddity in which she played a young Japanese woman born out of wedlock to an Italian soldier during World War II, who then visits his widow in Rome. As in You Only Live Twice, Wakabayashi’s character was given the same first name as her own.

Generally, Wakabayashi’s roles – which more often than not were supporting appearances rather than lead roles – fell into three genres – monster movies, such as King Kong vs Godzilla, Dogora the Space Monster, and Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster; spy movies, often imitating the 007 films, such as the International Secret Police movies, and ‘salaryman’ comedies (a popular genre at the time, set in Japanese offices).

Prior to appearing together in You Only Live Twice, Hama and Wakabayashi appeared in two films together, Key of Keys, a 1965 International Secret Police picture that was later redubbed and reworked by Woody Allen into his 1966 spoof What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, and the 1962 Toho production King Kong vs Godzilla, the third film in the iconic Japanese monster franchise.

King Kong Escapes (1967) | Key Of Keys (1965)

ABOVE: (top left) US poster for the 1967 Toho film King Kong Escapes. (bottom left) Mie Hama appeared as Madame Piranha in King Kong Escapes. Hama had earlier appeared in King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962 as Fumiko Sakurai (top right) Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi  appeared together in the 1965 International Secret Police film Kokusai himitsu heisatsu: Kagi no kagi [also known as Key Of Keys], footage from which was was later redubbed and reworked by Woody Allen into his 1966 spoof What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (bottom right) Tatsuya Mihashi (1923-2004) starred as Agent Jiro Kitami with Akiko Wakabayashi playing White Orchid, and Mie Hama as Mi Chen. Key of Keys was the fourth installment in a five-film series of International Secret Police spy spoofs produced from 1964-1967.

CONTINUED


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