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