Johnny Depp and the Nakajima Typewriter

A Lighter Portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson

By Robert Messenger

When Amazon started selling Chinese-made Royal portable typewriters a few years ago, the advertising blurb suggested the users would feel like they were Ernest Hemingway at his 1930s Royals. No such luck, I’m afraid. I tried it and didn’t feel in the least bit like a big-game hunter, deep-sea fisherman and bullfighting aficionado. The plastic Royal didn’t make me feel like much of a writer, either.

These latter-day Royals, however, were mechanically based on the Silver-Seikos and Nakajimas which came out of Japan from the early 1960s right through to the last days of full-on manual typewriter production. And they were sturdy and dependable machines at that. Marketed throughout the world by Litton Industries, they carried a wide range of model names, including Royal, Imperial, Silver Reed, Adler-Triumph and many others.

It was just such a typewriter that was used by Johnny Depp playing the Hunter S. Thompson (Paul Kemp) character in a movie adaptation of Thompson’s novel, The Rum Diary ("One part outrage. One part justice. Three parts rum. Mix well"). The film is set in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, which is a bit before Nakajima typewriters were first made. Nonetheless, Depp’s Nakajima seems to very much fit the picture, as it were.

What’s more, it was a much lesser load for Depp to carry than what he toted around in the film version of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a big red IBM Selectric. And that’s not the type of machine Thompson used when he worked in San Juan in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, writing for the sporting magazine El Sportivo. Thompson later worked as a stringer for the New York Herald-Tribune then moved back stateside, to Big Sur in California, where his typewriter of choice was an Olympic SF portable. He was also known to use an Olivetti Lettera 32, before finally converting to machines not at all portable, IBM Selectrics.

For the period in which The Rum Diary was set, therefore, the little lightweight Nakajima was entirely appropriate. And its reliability made it an excellent choice for Depp – as Thompson - to type with.

As a good typing friend of mine once said, “Never scorn the humble Nakajima”. He was right. Forty years ago a Nakajima could be bought for about one-third the price of an Olivetti, but that in no way means it is one-third the quality. Indeed, the Japanese portables may look a little more basic, but essentially they are just as durable and just as useable as any of the more “prestigious” brand names.