Review: Films Set In Japan – House Of Bamboo (1955)

When it comes to films set in Japan there are usually two sorts of movie; those from many decades ago which usually feature a geisha of some kind and those more modern ones where the protagonist arrives in Japan for some vague reason and is a ‘fish out of water’. Sadly, for me, ‘House Of Bamboo‘ is the former but I really shouldn’t have let my prejudices get the better of me for this 1955 remake of the black & white noir ‘Street with No Name‘ (1948) is actually better than most films of that era.

This was the first American movie to be filmed in Japan since WWII and the magical and mystical Mount Fuji lingers beautifully in the background (a matte painting perhaps given it really is captured so perfectly in the centre of the screen!) as the scene is set. The narration at the beginning of this Sam Fuller directed film informs viewers that it was filmed entirely on location in Japan with Tokyo, Yokohama and the Japanese countryside featuring throughout. Fuller makes great use of its locations and the likes of Ginza, Asakusa and the Great Buddha of Kamakura are used in scenes along with other places in Tokyo and Yokohama which are impossible for me to recognise given the facelift they have undergone over the years.

Herein lies the problem as I enjoyed it so much from a cinematography point of view that I forgot there was some kind of gangster story amongst the wide-shot travelogue of post-war Japan! It seems that too many things were sacrificed in the name of capturing the broad vision. In fact, making out who is who, is not so easy as there are rarely ever any close-up shots of the main players or was this because Robert Ryan only ever had one facial expression!

House Of Bamboo‘ is a tale of undercover cop Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) who tries to infiltrate a gang and ultimately take them down thus proving that Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) is the man behind a protection racket that rules the capital’s numerous pachinko parlours and commit bank robberies, knock off jewellery stores and rob trains carrying military ammunition. It has to be said that some of the violence is rather comical and the robbery capers are dealt with only briefly and without the expected rising tension.

When a U.S guard dies during the aforementioned train-heist in the foreground of Fuji-san, Kenner is despatched to save the day and ends up becoming closely acquainted to the dead man’s widow Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) which all gets more air-time than it really merits. Furthermore, its all a bit corny and the dialogue is slightly cringeworthy and thankfully only a smattering of Japanese language is used throughout.

Anyway, Kenner somehow worms his way into Dawson’s group and later informs the police of a planned robbery but Dawson gets wind of there being a mole in the camp which inevitably leads to jealousy (aspects of homosexual tension!) and mistrust among the ranks, fingers of blame being pointed and set-ups being put into place, all of which culminates in a shoot-out at a great set piece on top of an amusement ride.

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This story of deception, betrayal and ruthless criminality is a pretty looking movie which turns ugly. There’s only so far you can take ambiguous tension but overall its a slightly above average film which stands the test of time far better than I’d anticipated and shows Tokyo and Yokohama at a time when it was still on the brink of modernisation and still a world away from what we know and see today.

Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

The Hairy Bikers Asian Adventure – South To Kyoto

It’s very rare in this day and age of television viewing that I actually have to wait a whole week to watch the follow-up programme of something I’m interested in but thats exactly what I had to do regarding the second Japan-based episode in this series which aired on BBC2 last Thursday. I was very keen to see what a non-Tokyo programme would involve given that the capital city has featured prominently in many programmes over the years.

You can watch the episode here

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First to feature is Fuji Yoshida in Yamanashi-ken which is not exactly a huge distance from Tokyo but its still a couple of hours away. They visit the oldest noodle restaurant in the area and learn how to make udon (thick noodle) which starts off with Dave pounding the dough with his feet and brings to the proceedings a nice little reference to his time on ‘Celebrity Come Dancing‘ last year. The whole process really is a work of art and it brings it home how much time, effort, energy (and heart!) is put into each bowl of noodles.

Renowned for their cooking locations the guys make ramen noodles in the foothills of Fuji-san and they even make the pork broth part of it from scratch too. Those watching in the hope of seeing some weird Japanese inventions get their wish during this part as they have an egg contraption on hand which can shape the soft boiled eggs. I’m not sure how many British viewers watching will bother to follow suit but has that ever really happened on food television?! I, for one, enjoy watching such shows but have never really felt the urge to try and replicate such a dish.

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Mount Fuji is the most climbed mountain in the world (one that I conquered back in 2007) and its peak is only really visible for 100 days a year which sadly doesn’t include their time in the vicinity but that doesn’t seem to bother them too much. Their eyes light up when they see the spiritual mountain and they giggle with excitement. The word “privilege” is used many times by Si throughout the programme and this was one such time.

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Before leaving Fuji behind they take an onsen in a scene which does come with a warning that those of a nervous disposition may want to look away before their naked bottoms are seen on screen. Now, I’m no fan of hot spring baths but this setting does look wonderful and the kind of one I wouldn’t mind taking one day.

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On reaching their destination of Kyoto they ride their bikes through the geisha district of Gion and on to the buddhist temple where they spend the night. The next morning they’re on breakfast duty and make tofu dumplings. Such cooking is labelled shojin ryori which loosely translates as cooking of the purified mind and their task shows the work and discipline involved in making tofu and indeed being a monk too!

Like Si, I have stated in the past that tofu is boring but recently I’ve started eating it far more regularly for breakfast and certainly when its mixed in with natto and okura its lovely. Similarly, the tofu they taste during their temple stay looked really nice.

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Of course they couldn’t go to such a place without meditating and yet again they take it on and reflect on it in such a positive manner. Its just about being still and quiet which in the modern world is very difficult to do is how Si sums it up in a quick soundbite.

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The pair know their audience and inform them where certain ingredients can be bought as well as suggesting alternatives too. At the buddhist temple they make tofu, aubergine and lotus roots stew for their monk and from that purity they then move on to okonomiyaki which has them drooling with excitement as they cook the pancake-style dish for a 5-a-side football team. I was a bit surprised to learn that this basic dish is the most popular fast-food in Japan despite the western invasion of burgers and so on. As I mentioned in my review of the Tokyo episode it is nice to see such people bumbling with enthusiasm and excited by food which I probably take for granted these days.

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The merit of Anthony Bourdain’s programmes on the Travel Channel, and more recently CNN, is that he (mostly) sampled the everyday food of the regular person and that is what this duo did by including Japanese service stations in their adventure. Back home these places are hardly renowned for the quality of food and its debatable whether they are in Japan but one thing which I can be sure of is that every single service station has its own speciality snacks and this is the kind of thing that interests me. However, the duo, particularly Si, are not impressed by the melon buns which they have!

Before embarking on their trip to Japan the bearded men had a trilogy of quests; Tsukiji fish market, Fuji noodles and perhaps the defining moment of their trip was to try Kobebeef on its own turf. This kind of meat is said to be the finest in the world and boy are they excited to be there. No cows in the field there as the wagyu are treated so preciously that they’re not allowed outside. However, the idea that such Japanese cattle are fed beer, massaged, listen to opera and lie on straw beds are sadly a myth.

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After using the Kobe beef in sukiyaki, cooked for the owner of the prized beef cows, the two down-to-earth northern lads return to Kyoto for a kaizaki banquet of 16 courses dating a long way back. This is all eaten in the company of an apprentice geisha known asmaiko. Yet again their reaction to everything is refreshingly positive.

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They compare the art of it all to being like theatre and the fan dance and games which follow, a world apart from playing darts down your local, are lapped up with relish. That was to be their final event in Japan and just goes to show that it can be a great place to visit for a trip. Progressing beyond being seen just as a visitor is a different kettle of fish altogether and can have its frustrating moments but watching this show can make one feel how lucky we are to live in such a country.

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Having really enjoyed this series I may even take a dip into their back catalogue to see what they’ve done in the past. The series isn’t over yet and South Korea is still to come which doesn’t interest me quite as much as Hong KongThailand and Japan but I’ll definitely be tuning in as its really nice to watch people who are passionate about their interests and that certainly includes these two humble, infectious hairy bikers.

15 ‘Fake’ Bond Filming Locations

Part of the appeal of the 007 franchise for many is that the 23 official films have given viewers a snapshot of world travel taking them to all corners of the globe. The list of countries the secret agent has been to is pretty exhausting but as ever in the film industry all is not what it seems. Of course the world famous Pinewood Studios have been used countless times to portray all kinds of exotic locations but there are also many other examples of when James Bond locations have been faked. Cleverly edited establishing shots of a city’s landscape mixed in with the fake locations are a long-used movie trade trick and some of those go un-noticed whereas others are more visible. Here, in alphabetical order, are the details of 15 such places.

Afghanistan ‘The Living Daylights‘ (1987) – For Timothy Dalton’s debut outing as 007 this Central Asian location was actually filmed in the desert of Ouarzazate in Morocco which has played host to many films. ‘Lawrence Of Arabia‘ (1962), ‘The Mummy‘ (1999), ‘Gladiator‘ (2000), ‘Hanna‘ (2011), ‘Salmon Fishing In The Yemen‘ (2011) as well as parts of the TV series ‘Game Of Thrones’ were all filmed at this door of the desert city.

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The standout sequence in “Afghanistan” sees Bond escape from a Russian air base by aircraft. Whilst trying to diffuse a bomb he is attacked by henchman, Necros and as they scrap away the loading ramp opens and a net containing opium bags tumbles out of the back of the plane taking Bond and Necros with it. The net remains attached to the aircraft as the two men fight to the death clinging on to it as it hangs in the wind.

Azerbaijan ‘The World Is Not Enough‘ (1999) – Hankley Common in Surrey, also used to replicate Bond’s family home in ‘Skyfall‘ (2012), is used for close-up shots of the Azerbaijan’s oilfields. Cuenca in central Spain is the site of the oil pipeline. A skiing sequence of events in the “Caucasus Mountains” was filmed on Mont Blanc near Chamonix on the Italian-French border.

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Capital city Baku is all fake; the exterior shots of  Electra’s palace is Küçüksu Palace in Istanbul, while the interior is the Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf and Spa (also used in ‘Eyes Wide Shut‘ and ‘Four Wedding’s And A Funeral‘) in the glamorous town of Luton, Bedforshire (UK). The casino bar is Halton House in Buckinghamshire and the airport where Bond exits the country is Northolt Airport, South Ruislip.

Bolivia ‘Quantum Of Solace‘ (2008) – Unhappy with MI6 officer Strawberry Fields’ (Gemma Arterton) choice of hotel as part of their cover, Bond takes her by taxi to a far more upmarket hotel. The Andean Grand Hotel in ‘Bolivia’ isn’t really a hotel but is actually the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (National Institute of Culture) in the World Heritage area of Casco Viejo in Panama City.

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The main villain Dominic Greene, holds a party which Bond attends with Agent Fields shortly after he seduces her. The location of this is of course not La Paz in Bolivia but the Old Union Club in Casco Viejo where all the rich people used to go and party. The ruins were scouted out for the film in October 2007 and is (as it was back then) now like an old shell but believe it or not it was completely revamped for shooting which can be seen in the ‘On Location’ dvd extra.

China ‘Skyfall‘ (2012) – Though the aerial shots are real the rooftop pool scene was actually filmed in London in Canary Wharf at the Virgin Active Classic Health Club. Still in “Shanghai” Bond follows hitman Patrice into a high-rise building but yet again its London and the Broadgate Tower at 201 Bishopsgate although its the entrance on Primrose Street which is seen.

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Croatia ‘From Russia With Love‘ (1963) – Istanbul’s Sirkeci station plays itself as the Turkish station where the Orient Express departs from and it also stands in for Zagreb.

Cuba Die Another Day‘ (2002) – Cadiz in Spain fills in for Cuba’s capital Havana but the cigar factory where Bond goes searching for Zao was actually shot inside Simpson House in Hackney in north London

Haiti  ‘Quantum Of Solace‘ (2008) – Due to its diversity Panama doubled up for a couple of countries; the aforementioned Bolivia and Haiti. Colon fills in for Port Au Prince and sees 007 gets into a bit of a tussle in a hotel and rides along a crumbling street to the waterfront docks in another dangerous part of the city.

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Kazakhstan ‘The World Is Not Enough‘ (1999) – Sites in Spain, England and Wales were all used to replicate this Central Asia country. Tudela in Spain is where 007 meets Christmas Jones. The pipeline terminal is the Motorola building in Swindon, Wiltshire (UK) but the actual pipeline is Snowdonia in Wales. The explosion was filmed at Black Park colliery in Chirk, North Wales.

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Madagascar ‘Casino Royale‘ (2006) – Bond chases bomb-maker Mollaka from a snake-mongoose fight to the ‘Nambutu Embassy’ which was actually Nassau in the Bahamas; a place synonymous with previous Bond films. The “Madagascan” construction site is part of a military base at Coral Harbour on New Providence Island.

Montenegro Casino Royale‘ (2006) – Bond and Vesper check into the Hotel Splendide which is actually the Grand Hotel Pupp in the town of Karlovy Vary, Bohemia on the west side of the Czech Republic.

North Korea ‘Die Another Day‘ (2002) – Would you believe it that Aldershot (UK) was used to replicate the world’s most repressive country?! Although it was mostly shot on the backlot at Pinewood, parts of this Hampshire town’s military training area was also used for the opening sequence.

Russia ‘GoldenEye‘ (1995) – The Russia bungy jump at the start was Tusker Dam in Hittnau, Switzerland. Epsom Racecourse doubled up as the St Petersburg Airport, the tank chase was filmed in Leavesden (UK), Hertfordshire, St Petersburg Square was Somerset House (which was used as MI6 HQ two years later in the next Bond movie ‘Tomorrow Never Dies‘) in London, the interior of the Russian church is St Sofia’s Cathedral in Bayswater on the aptly named Moscow Road. It’s exterior is Brompton Cemetery near Earls Court and the “Grand Hotel Europe” is the Langham Hilton at Portland Place in London.

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Serbia ‘From Russia With Love‘ (1963) – The previously mentioned Sirkeci station in Istanbul was used to portray three stations in three countries including Serbia capital Belgrade.

Siberia ‘A View To A Kill‘ (1985) – The pre-title credits may be set in Siberia but were actually filmed at a couple of places; Glacier Lake in south-east Iceland and the Vadretta di Scerscen Interiore on the border of Switzerland and Italy.

Slovakia ‘The Living Daylights‘ (1987) – Bratislava (now Slovakia but back then it was Czechoslovakia) is where the 15th entry in the James Bond series begins. 007 is assigned to aid the defection of a KGB officer from a concert hall in Bratislava. This was all shot inVienna which is less than an hour away.

Vietnam ‘Tomorrow Never Dies‘ (1997) – The caption on screen may say Halong Bay (Vietnam) but it is actually the limestone rock karsts of Phuket Bay in Thailand. It’s capital city Bangkok also stood in for the Saigon high-rise which Bond and Wai Lin abseil down. Many websites state that the building used was the Westin Banyan Tree Hotel BUT it is actually the Sinn Sathorn Tower on Krung Thonbrui Road, a kilometre down the road, where they make their escape on motorbike.

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Of course there have been many more ‘faked’ locations in the Bond films, usually with places around the UK filling in for other British and European towns and cities.

Many, many thanks to Tony Reeves

The Hairy Bikers Asian Adventure – Tokyo

Following on from their adventures in Hong Kong and Thailand this pair of British TV personalities fulfilled a lifetime ambition when they came to Japan for a couple of weeks. Two Japan shows have been filmed and the first one, which aired on BBC2 last Thursday, was centred around their time in the gastronomic capital of the world known as Tokyo.

You can watch the episode here

As the programme gets under way it is actually the sound of ‘Japanese Boy‘ by Anekawhich plays over the top rather than the usual ‘Turning Japanese‘ track but of course that gets used later on in the programme.

Now I’d never seen anything by the Hairy Bikers (Si King and Dave Myers) before but over the four episodes of this series (thus far) it is quite easy to see how these two over-weight middle-aged men with beards and tattoo’s have been accepted in to so many peoples living rooms each week. They come across as such nice, likeable chaps with their warm infectious enthusiasm and easy to understand style. The presentation can seem a bit kid-like at times but its that simplicity which I’m fond of. Their strong and passionate interest in the country, its food and everything else was nice to see and they were just laughing and enjoying themselves whilst never making fun of the locals.

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They start off in Akihabara at a maid cafe (above) but not the one I took my recent guest  to the other week! The duo learn about kawaii culture at ‘Maid Dreamin‘ and Si is given a heart shaped omurais (rice omelette) with a ketchup drawn cat added by the maid. Dave has a bear katsu curry rice dish. They didn’t say it but you can sense that this kind of place is a bit weird for the pair.

Their first cooking showcase takes place on the banks of the Sumida-gawa river where they cook tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet) (below left) and then, 20 years of dreaming comes true for the guys when they go to Tsukiji fish market with a 4am start at the place where 2000 tonnes of fish arrive everyday from all around the globe. We’re told that Japan eats three times more fish than the UK which surprised me as I would’ve thought it was way higher than that. Of course fish is very important for Japanese cuisine and they say that Japanese sushi is overtaking some sandwiches as the choice of lunch for many British people.

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Anyway, Dave gets to make and serve his own sushi (above right) which may sound like a very simple thing (and it kind of is!) but for a chef like him its very exciting he’s truly delighted to have done it and was grinning like a young kid who just got the cream.

Now, some people may turn their noses up at them making a California roll (which they do at Kiyosumi Gardens teahouse) but you’ve got to remember that they are making this programme for a British audience of whom a majority may be put off by the nori(seaweed) being on the outside of the roll. Hopefully by starting on such dishes (below) some Brits will hopefully gain a taste for it and move on to the real thing afterwards.

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Ryogoku is next for a spot of sumo action (below) but not watching it. Instead they eatchanko nabe hot pot with their host and two other huge wrestlers who they inevitably have a sumo fight with, whilst wearing the proper wrestling attire that Karl Pilkington didn’t quite wear in ‘An Idiot Abroad‘ in 2011. Yet again their enthusiasm shines through and they end up gaining a better understanding of a sport that they knew very little of beforehand.

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“A miso soup a day keeps the doctor away” is a new one on me but the bikers are keen to make rice miso which they did somewhere in Chiyoda-ku with a group of women (below) who they agree to prepare something for. The Japanese ladies of course react to the tasting in true Japanese TV-style which is always over the top and very predictable!

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Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown‘ on CNN at the end of last year focused on Tokyo nights and that side of the city is further explored here as they go out on the lash with three sararimen (business men). I always tell people back home that a night out in Japan is a little different with food dishes replacing a bag of crisps. Thankfully though the beer is always flowing and the guys, wearing ties and jackets, sample a range of yakitoricooked from the heart which is what the chef tells them.

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You see, the chef in ‘The Ramen Girl‘ (2008) wasn’t just making it up when he told Brittany Murphy’s character that the food has to come from the heart. Whatever they do the Japanese pour their heart and soul into it and appreciate and respect food of all levels as indeed do the hairy bikers and I now look forward to the next episode where they travel to other parts of Japan.