This penultimate episode of the first series principally focuses on the fates of Blanche and Debbie, following the failure of their reckless escape attempt, and on Rose and Marion as they come to terms with the potentially tragic consequences of having reported them.
Although both Rose and Marion are initially ostracised for ‘shopping’ the pair, the narrative principally focuses on the guilt of the former, as Stephanie Beacham turns in a performance of considerable conviction. Rose clearly regrets her actions due to her relationship with Blanche and is horrified by the prospect of her friend’s possible death. Her fears are most explicitly expressed through an intimate scene which she shares with Beatrice. The doctor firmly believes that it is ‘part of the human condition’ to live through such guilt, ‘even someone’s death,’ words that are honest, if of no comfort to Rose. Their conversation also sees Beatrice insightfully allude to Rose’s immaturity: ‘Do you know when I finally discovered I’d grown up? When I realised I couldn’t be right all the time,’ stating that Rose, by contrast, always seems sure of herself. Rose’s character is examined further when, despite the fact that she insists to Marion that she can only focus on Blanche’s and Debbie’s survival, she takes time to relate how personally aggravated she is by Sylvia’s well-intentioned kindly intercession on their part. This scene, which goes on to see Rose reminisce about her ‘fairly strapped background’ (vividly brought to life by her description of the ‘same old dress for mother, revamped year after year, new collar, flower at the throat’) and her memory of a kindly school prefect, demonstrates that she naïvely believes that only she has suffered in such a way. A frustrated Marion subsequently relates that this has happened to almost all of the women there one way or another. Despite this rather unforgiving exploration of Rose’s personality, as the narrative progresses and Yamauchi delivers the means of Blanche’s survival through the unlikely route of the production of 500 hats, no-one can fault her all-consuming commitment to the task of delivering her friend from certain death. She is the most impatient to begin production; will not be drawn into a discussion begun by Nellie about the possibility of a men’s camp, despite her love for Bernard; and fervently implements Christina’s idea of using the children to prepare the materials. One could argue that Rose has a vested interest in seeing Blanche survive due to her burden of guilt, but there is a stronger suggestion that her overriding motivation is one of loyalty and love for someone who has become a very dear, if highly unlikely, friend.
Unlike Rose, Marion has the excuse that Judith’s dying request for her to become Debbie’s guardian effectively demanded that she alert Yamauchi to the escape. However, the women initially treat her no differently to Rose, with even Sylvia shunning her at first, saying: ‘Words fail me.’ Marion’s failure to hide her growing obsession with her diary – a document set to have much post-war significance – also antagonises the women, especially given the straits which Blanche and Debbie are now in. However, they perhaps underestimate its importance to both her survival and her sanity. Dorothy’s comment about how good she is at ‘chatting to the Nips’ also speaks of a wariness of her privileged relationship with Yamauchi, or at least of the danger of her belief in its worth. The negative reaction to her decision to report the escape leads Marion to make a suggestion that for the first time is not worthy of her: ‘Perhaps it would be better if someone else represented us?’ Not only is this proposal self-pitying but it is also distinctly disingenuous as it is clearly something she neither wants, nor would be allowed (by Yamauchi), to relinquish.
Yamauchi’s sadistic treatment of Blanche and Debbie, staked out in the sun all day with no protection and little food or water (although we don’t see them receive either, we must presume they do, otherwise Blanche in particular could not possibly have survived for the duration of her punishment and, like Lia, would have died much sooner), prompts serious re-evaluation of his morality. Despite Marion’s previous claims regarding his humanity, the Captain is coldly impassive throughout. He even seems unmoved when presented with the ravaged face of 14-year-old Debbie, whose distress quickly degenerates into a terrifying blank-eyed stupor. Not only does he fail to show any emotion, but, initially at least, he also refuses to meet with Marion, presumably in order for him to re-establish his might and remind her of the power of life and death he commands over her and her fellow fourth-class women. That he makes sure that she sees him ‘moving the pieces on his Go board so delicately,’ rather than busy with paperwork, deliberately emphasises the low priority he affords her motivation for an audience and also therefore the wellbeing of Blanche and Debbie. (‘Go’ is an ancient game of strategy played with counters on a grid.)
When Yamauchi does finally deign to see Marion, it is clear that he feels that recent events require him to behave quite differently with her than he has in previous interviews. Initially at least, this is very much formidable Commandant condescending to see a lowly prisoner. However, Marion does well to break down these barriers, especially as it is her emotion rather than her logic that guides her. After her opening – highly sarcastic – gambit (‘Thank you for seeing me’), she quickly defends Debbie’s actions and fails to hide her frustration at his lack of understanding, particularly of the girl’s recent bereavement. However, it is as her voice cracks with emotion, when she offers herself in Debbie’s place and reminds him: ‘I’ve never begged before,’ and asks that the young girl be allowed to live rather than be honoured after death…
This is an excerpt from Andy Priestner’s acclaimed book Remembering Tenko in which this episode is reviewed in full. The book also explores and details how the series was made and boasts hundreds of behind-the-scenes photographs. You can purchase Remembering Tenko on Amazon.