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Madame X: Mie Hama Bond's Bride, Kong's Consort, & Godzilla's Girl-on-the-Run
The actress recalls her years working with 007 and fleeing from Japanese giant monsters.
By Stuart Galbraith IV
November 30, 2000
At 52, Mie Hama is still an incredibly sexy woman. The former 'Bond girl' arrived for our interview wearing a tight leather miniskirt, and she appeared remarkably youthful for a woman whom most American viewers have not seen for 30 years. Nevertheless, she had the fortune (good or otherwise) to appear in the kinds of films that fans recall even decades later. In You Only Live Twice
, she played a Japanese spy who 'marries' James Bond (Sean Connery) as part of the superspy's cover. In King Kong Vs. Godzilla
, she was menaced by both title monsters. And in King Kong Escapes
she was the seductive femme fatale known as Madame X (or Madame Piranha, depending on the country of release).
Hama is, first and foremost, a reluctant film star. Unlike other stars of her caliber, she abhors the celebrity game. She is indifferent to the profession in which she excels. Like Brando, Hama seems to regard acting as a rather trivial vocation. She now spends most of her time as a political and environmental activist.
Anyone familiar with her career would find this most ironic, as Hama specialized in carefree, even ditzy characters, especially opposite Japanese comedian-singer Hitoshi Ueki and The Crazy Cats. Because of this, I at first thought Hama was something of a snob; only later did I realize that she simply and genuinely has ambitions beyond motion pictures. After the interview, we chatted for a time, and during our conversation my interpreter, Atsushi, mentioned that he had been the victim of the infamous subway gas attack. Several people in his train car died, and Atsushi survived almost accidentally (though he was blinded for several weeks). The experience changed his life, and, like Hama, he abandoned his dreary salaryman existence to look for something more. In the end, I think Hama got a lot more out of her conversation with Atsushi than she did reminiscing about King Kong vs. Godzilla
and The Lost World of Sinbad.
HOW DID YOU COME TO WORK FOR TOHO?
I was working on a bus line as a kind of conductor, and some colleagues of mine applied to the New Face Contest and entered my name without telling me. I didn't watch those kinds of films at all. I had no great interest in working in filmsI was more interested in politics. Even when I got the offer, I still had no great interest in film, and I knew I was lacking in experience. And so at first I refused, though even my boss at the bus company thought that it could be a really good experience for mehe said my job at the bus company and acting in films was similar in the sense that I would be trying to please people and make people happy. I finally said, 'Okay, I'll do just one film.' It took three months to make, and once it was over, I learned that Toho had been secretly negotiating with the bus company, Tokyu, and that at the end of shooting, my position there suddenly became unavailableand so I had no choice but to stay and be an actress.
YOU MADE MANY FILMS IN THE '60S, INCLUDING COMEDIES WITH HITOSHI UEKI, YET YOU EVENTUALLY LEFT THE BIG SCREEN.
To be honest, I was not too crazy about making them. It's a story with a lot of contradictions. It was fun, but I often argued with director [Kengo] Furusawa about the characters I had to play, and after 13 years in film, I really wanted to quit being an actress. There was something else I really wanted to do, something personal. When I was 17, I went to Europe for about three weeks; even then I knew about European cinema: The Bicycle Thief,
Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren. I was in Rome for ten days. I saw that Marcello Mastroianni was on stage there, and went every day for a week. I spoke some English already, but not very much Italian. I went to the Japanese Embassy to have the script translated into Japanese. Then, one day at the theater, a lady asked me if I was a fan of Mastroianni, and I said, 'Yes, I am.' And she said, 'It might be possible for me to get you in to see him.' The play itself was not very great, but the next day, right after the performance, I was introduced to him. At the time I had long hair; I wore jeans and a T-shirt, just like a student. He asked what I did for a living, and I said I was a young film actress in Japan. I told him I wanted to quit. He asked why, and I said it was kind of boring for me. He said, 'Can you see how much I'm sweating? Have you ever tried so hard to please an audience that you worked up a sweat?' That really surprised me, and I became more serious about acting. But even though I became a big star, I rarely had a chance to work up a sweat as an actress. Even though there were great actresses making great films, I was working with Hitoshi Ueki and Godzilla. Still, over time I came to understand it and have fun with it.
WHAT KIND OF DIRECTOR WAS ISHIRO HONDA [KING KONG VS. GODZILLA
AND KING KONG ESCAPES
He was a really great director. Totally different character from Kurosawa. Very quiet direction. I really liked his way of directing film.
SO HE WAS AN ACTOR'S DIRECTOR, THEN?
Yes, he was.
ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST HITS WAS KING KONG VS. GODZILLA
I didn't know what was going on. I was put in the palm of King Kong, and in front of the blue screen running away; I had no idea what it was all going to look like. It was very impressive technically, thanks to Mr. [Eiji] Tsuburaya's special effects.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION UPON SEEING THE FILM?
It was fun [laughs]. I thought it was great. The kids would like it.
You did several pictures with that film's star, Tadao Takashima. What was he like?
He was a friend, a good co-worker. He has a nice character.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT ACTING FROM TOSHIRO MIFUNE, YOUR CO-STAR IN THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD (1963)
Unlike the characters he played in his films, deep down he was a very delicate, sensitive person. It was somewhat tense working with him.
WAS THERE AN ACTOR OR ACTRESS WHOSE WORK PARTICULARLY INSPIRED YOU?
Not in Japan. Sean Connery. Sidney Poitier. Audrey Hepburn. Mr. Sean ConneryI think he is a very great person; I cherish him like a sister cherishes an older brother. Sean Connery could take time off work and be himself, pretty natural. He has a very humane personality. He probably affected me most.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE MAKINGYOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
Too many things! [laughs] He was having trouble with his ex-wife at the timeprobably she didn't know. She got tired of spending so much time in the hotel. My English teacher was a theater actressshe wanted to instill Shakespeare in me, but I was Japanese. I asked to have my English instructor changed, and so the next person was a good friend of Mr. Connery's. I went to her room, rang the bell, and Mr. Connery was standing there in the doorwaytall and dark and handsomestanding there with a big dog. He asked, 'Could you keep the dog with you for a while?' 'Sure,' I said. He was very concerned with the harmony of the production team. It was a long production, but I really liked him.
AFTER THE TIGHT BUDGETS OF JAPANESE FILMS, IT MUST HAVE BEEN SOMETHING TO SEE THE ENORMOUS VOLCANO INTERIOR SET BUILT IN ENGLAND.
I was really surprised! Around that time, [Jean-Luc] Godard asked me to do a film, but I had to refuse it. The volcano was a really huge set; it was six stories high. They even brought an engineer from NASA to inspect it. Ken Adam, the production designer, was really great. And when I saw something that was kind of weird and un-Japanese, I would try to point it out.
WHAT GODARD FILM WERE YOU ASKED TO APPEAR IN?
It was called 'In the Time of Other Lovers.' He was in the early planning stages and just had an idea for the plot when he asked me. It was a real adult woman's role. He came over to Japan and visited my house; we had a nice chitchat about it. I felt the role should have been played by someone else, that it just wasn't right for me at my age.
FOR YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
, I'VE HEARD THAT YOU AND AKIKO WAKABAYASHI, WHO PLAYED THE JAPANESE AGENT AKI, SWITCHED ROLES. IS THAT TRUE?
Yes, it's true. I didn't have much confidence with my English at the time. It was a sudden offer. I was asked by Toho to do it, but I didn't think I could handle the role. I studied English for several months, but in the end we switched roles.
YOU WERE DIRECTED BY JUN FUKUDA (GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER
) IN IRONFINGERr/100 SHOT, 100 KILLED
Yes, that was fun. Mr. Fukuda was easy to work with. At Toho, people were able to be very individualistic and pursue their own style. They could express their own character.
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE AMERICAN VERSION OF YOUR FILM KAGI NO KAGI
, WHICH WAS RELEASED IN THE U.S. AS WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY?
That was done by Woody Allen?
YES, THAT'S RIGHT.
I've heard of that story, but I've never had the opportunity to see it. What is it like?
WELL, THEY TOOK THE ORIGINAL FILM AND REDUBBED IT AS A COMEDY.
I'm surprised the Japanese producers let them do it!
I HEARD YOU CAMPAIGNED TO GET YOUR ROLE [AS MADAME X] IN KING KONG ESCAPES
No, I didn't do that. I've never done anything that I really wanted to do. Producer [Sanezumi] Fujimoto thought the role fit me, and arranged it. A few years later I left films and tried television drama; then I went to New York for a long time, and I became a news writer and got married. I wrote a book and for magazines, and now I have my own interview program. I changed my career.
AND THAT WAS MORE REWARDING FOR YOU THAN BEING AN ACTRESS?
During the Golden Period, I could be satisfied with just being an actress. But when Japanese film went into decline, I was dissatisfied. I worked in television for ten years; then I worked with the government on agricultural and environmental issues. Mastroianni convinced me to stay an actress for 10 years, but it was time to move on.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?
Many projects. For example, I'd like to continue to help the government and be a leader for those kinds of activities. I have my own radio program, which I've had on NHK for the last 10 years. I write for a monthly magazine. I'm often asked why I have a program on agricultural and environmental issues. 'But you're an actress,' people say. And I reply that I've always been very interested in the environmentI just became an actress along the way. Now I feel very happy.Mie Hama's Fantasy Films: The Youth and His Amulet
(1961); King Kong Vs. Godzilla
(1962); The Lost World of Sinbad
(1963); Adventures of Takla Makan
(1965); King Kong Escapes, You Only Live Twice
[Brit/US/S. African] (1967); Monsieur Zivaco