This opening instalment of the second series takes up the action almost immediately after the finale of series one, joining the women early on in their long journey to a new camp. Behind-the-scenes casting decisions and availability dictated that not all of the original regulars would return here, a fact that is papered over in the narrative with the excuse that certain characters have been separated into a different group prior to the action of this episode. The loss of Sylvia and Nellie from the principal cast is disappointing, as we had come to know them well as characters, however it is larger-than-life cockney Blanche, who brought such colour to the first series, whose absence is most keenly felt.
The episode is notably distinguished by having its location sequences shot on film and for some breathtaking cinematography as the women are seen making their way across the baking hot terrain of Sumatra. The shots of their slow progress through the jungle, across the beach-side plain and along the dirt road with wooded mountains in the background are worthy of a feature film (and indeed would later be closely re-created for the movie Paradise Road). However, by the episode’s close, as the women sight their new camp for the first time, we are back in Dorset at the site of a second purpose-built set. This switch from film to video is unavoidable but slightly jarring.
Once again, despite the fact that Tenko unquestionably catalogues the horrendous cruelty endured by women in internment camps, this episode seeks to ensure a balanced portrayal of the prisoners’ Japanese captors. Indeed it rather unexpectedly opens with Shinya playing ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ with the children (‘I see you and you and you!’) and Marion and Beatrice commenting of the more quick-tempered Kasaki that even the ‘other little rat seems half-human today.’ Nevertheless, this unexpected scenario is tempered by their admission that they feared that the earlier splitting off of the women into two groups heralded a massacre, given their experience of their unpredictable Japanese conquerors thus far. That Shinya in particular is different to the other guards is further reinforced by his refusal to accept ‘payment’ from Dorothy for a cigarette. However, as the episode progresses and the need to deliver the women to the new camp becomes more imperative, the mood changes and once again the women’s survival becomes secondary to the orders the guards receive from Japanese High Command. Nevertheless, Shinya has the decency to explain the constraints that he and Kasaki are operating under: ‘Not we say. High Command say. We late for camp. They angry.’
When Sister Ulrica leads a passive resistance protest to ensure Debbie’s Christian burial, there is further examination of the Japanese mindset. While Joss comments that they ‘can’t expect our fearless foes to understand’ their protest, Dorothy simply states: ‘Nips don’t listen.’ Marion’s failure to get Debbie to a hospital the previous day, despite her desperate pleas and the girl’s failing health, would seem to bear this observation out. The passive resistance approach may have worked before, but its efficacy with the Japanese is a terrifyingly unknown quantity and at first Rose is quite certain that Ulrica will be shot regardless of the fact that she is a nun. Kasaki’s incandescent and incredulous fury at this show of disobedience is no surprise and he immediately resorts to threats of punishment. However, when he realises that the women are united on the matter he is rendered powerless, just as Sato’s sadistic treatment of the distraught mother at the camp gates in series one was prevented by the women’s collective show of might.
The idea that the women will be pleased to be incarcerated again by the narrative’s close seems unthinkable as the episode opens. Marion equates their time outside of camp with ‘being able to breathe,’ while Kate, who has regularly dreamed of the open bush of her native Australia, revels in the fact that there are ‘no tenkos, no sick bay, no chores’ and that, for a time at least, she finally has the space she sorely needs…
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.