Apart from its inherent qualities, The Ginger Tree is of interest because it was the first drama anywhere in the world to be recorded in HD. The BBC had been running HD trials since the mid 1980’s, but this four-part 1989 serial was the first production designed for broadcast.
Because of the prohibitive cost of working with the new technology, a co-production deal with other broadcasters had to be arranged. The choice of NHK Japan as one of the production partners no doubt influenced the novel chosen for adaptation, but that turned out to be one the strengths of the serial. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, if you needed a Japanese-looking actor then you’d get Burt Kwouk if you were lucky and if you were unlucky you’d have a British actor doing his best to look Oriental. The Ginger Tree, despite being shot on (albeit HD) VT has a filmic sweep and the lavish period setting, location filming and authentic Japanese actors all help to give the serial a rich, immersive feel that the BBC by itself would never have been able to afford.
One irony is that back in 1989 there was no way for British viewers to enjoy the high definition picture. Compatible televisions didn’t exist and the HDVS recorder used to make the program was essentially an NTSC system – so the programme had to be converted back into the PAL format for screening on the BBC, meaning that it looked somewhat washed out. This DVD release is therefore able to present the programme in better quality, although it’s a pity that a BD release isn’t available as that should have been better still (although to be honest, it doesn’t look any sharper or better in SD than a typical VT production of the era).
The Ginger Tree was a novel by Oswald Wynd, originally published in 1977. Wynd was born in Japan in 1913 to Scottish parents who had come to the country to run a mission. Wynn spent his formative years immersed in what must have been a very alien culture (which obviously helped to inform the writing of The Ginger Tree). After WW2, where he spent several years as a Japanese prisoner of war, he returned to his native Scotland and pursued a writing career, penning thrillers under the pseudonym of Gavin Black as well as several books under his own name. The Ginger Tree, helped in part by this adaptation, remains his most popular work.
The book was written as a series of diary entries and letters penned by Mary Mackenzie. This literary device naturally presents some problems for the adaptor, but Christopher Hampton (who had won an Oscar in 1989 for Dangerous Liaisons) was able to capture the essence of Wynd’s novel.
The year is 1903. Mary MacKenzie (Samantha Bond) has travelled to Manchuria to marry her fiance, Captain Richard Collingsworth (Adrian Rawlings). Because they barely know each other it’s clear that their marriage is doomed from the start. But Mary’s affair with Count Kentaro Kurihama (Daisuke Ryû), a Japanese soldier, plunges her into a scandal from which there seems no escape. After bearing his child, she finds herself facing an uphill battle as she attempts to find herself a place in the extremely rigid and formal Japanese society.
It’s possible to believe that Mary is something of an innocent. She’s never journeyed out of Britain before and now finds herself setting out on the long trek to Manchuria to marry Richard. Is she in love with him? He seems personable enough and she certainly seems keen to reach him as quickly as possible, so maybe. But they’ve only met a handful of times before their marriage was arranged, which casts obvious doubt that their union will endure.
Their wedding night is a key moment. He doesn’t turn instantly cruel, instead he becomes indifferent, which is possibly worse. He shows Mary her bedroom and then mentions he’ll be sleeping elsewhere. But he is prepared to do his duty as a dutiful husband and make love to her – although in the most perfunctory way. There’s no passion or tenderness and Bond’s silent, frozen face speaks volumes.
Samantha Bond had racked up some decent credits prior to this (Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, Mansfield Park, Rumpole of the Bailey) but The Ginger Tree was her first major starring role and it required a subtle and nuanced performance, which she delivers.
Bond plays Mary in a very internalised way. This isn’t a surprise, given that ladies of her class and era weren’t encouraged to express their feelings. But given how inarticulate (emotionally) she is, it seems initially unlikely that she’ll ever form a relationship with the sensative Kentaro. Which makes the chain of events towards the end of the first episode – they take tea, they become lovers, she finds herself bearing his child – something of a whirlwind. Due to the languid pace of the episode up to this point it all seems to happen very suddenly.
Daisuke Ryû has tended to work mainly in Japanese language films, which could be the reason why Kurihama seems slightly stilted at times. But it could also be a performance choice and either way it helps to differentiate Kurihama from Collingsworth (Kurihama’s slight vulnerability constants sharply with the indifference of Collingsworth).
The sight of a heavily pregnant Mary quickly wipes the smile off the face of her returning husband. He immediately decides to pack her off back to Scotland, although he doesn’t intend to give her a divorce – for purely monetary reasons. It’s a remarkable revelation that Mary’s mother has pledged half her yearly income (some three hundred pounds) to Collingsworth for as long as the pair stay married.
Ar the station she’s faced with another option, a train ticket to Tokyo, provided by Kurihama. She accepts it and is accompanied by Baroness Aiko Onnodera (Fumi Dan). Dan gives a sparkling performance, which contrasts well with Bond’s more withdrawn persona. Aiko is an ardent campaigner for women’s rights, which has recently earned her a spell in prison, but she remains unrepentant. She’s able to explain exactly what Mary’s life in Tokyo will be like.
Kurihama has provided her with a house and servants, but as a women, a foreigner and essentially a concubine, her movements will be very restricted. Mary’s fleeting hopes that Kurihama will marry her are dashed when she learns he’s a married man with four children.
Although the general theme of The Ginger Tree is quite downbeat, there’s also a feeling of optimism. Mary might be portrayed initially as something of a naive, downtrodden figure but over time she gains strength and becomes less of a victim. Samantha Bond is very watchable, although her soft Scottish accent seems to come and go a little. Daisuke Ryû is equally impressive, as are the rest of the Japanese cast. The co-production budget allowed for a generous number of extras and set dressings, plus filming in Japan was obviously another major plus. The story unfolds over some forty years, ending during WW2, necessitating ageing makeup to be applied to the main cast, which is done very effectively.
Oswald Wynd’s tale of love and loss is effectively brought to life in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation and it’s sure to strike a chord with many.
The Ginger Tree is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016. RRP £19.99.