"To Boldly Grow: Some Celluloid Bonsai"

by Robert J. Baran

Originally published in the ABS Bonsai Journal, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 143-144.
© 1995 American Bonsai Society, reprinted by permission

{ Additional information not in the original publication is included below in italics between braces. }

         Bonsai have made surprisingly frequent appearances on the large and small screens.  The value of these lies in the audience's repeated exposure to the fruits of our interest.  To most non-enthusiasts, these trees, whether living or artificial, look about the same.  But multiple viewings, however briefly, can help generate an interest in the bonsai art.  Part I of this historical guide follows the exposure that bonsai have enjoyed in the entertainment world from the 1940's through 1990.

starring Irene Dunne
& Cary Grant
     The earliest known cinematic portrayal of dwarf potted trees is this black and white Columbia film.  About twenty minutes into the film, a few nondescript trees are seen, mainly inside the traditional home in Japan recently purchased by Roger Adams (Grant).  With a few upturned bunches of needles, a small pine in a rectangular pot sits on a low table in the middle of the first room.  A curving tree in a medium-sized decorated Chinese bowl is against a wall by the window in the upstairs bedroom.  An artificial Ming*-type creation is also inside, and at least two other living trees are seen briefly outside the house, which shortly after is demolished by an earthquake.  {Released April 24}

starring Frederick March 
& Ann Harding
     About halfway through the 20th Century Fox color production, there is a brief scene with the actors, Frederick March and Ann Harding.  In a scene taking place in the Connecticut home of Mrs. Hopkins (Harding), two pines are seen in a large white shallow round dish around the corner from the main entrance on a raised level.  The three-foot-high trees are not in a traditional bonsai shape or closely pruned, but other Oriental decor is visible in the scene.   { Gregory Peck is the star of the film, March is his boss.  Released May 8 }

TV Channel 5 KTLA
     John Naka gave a bonsai demonstration on "Garden Chats" with Joe Littlefield.

starring Jack Webb
& Harry Morgan
(Mark VII Production)

{"The Gun" episode}
     An {April 27} episode of "Dragnet" paid homage to the art.  Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb), and his partner, Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan), investigate the death of Reiko Hashimoto, a woman who had been shot to death in her home.  A foot-high Ming tree is clearly visible in several scenes.  It sits on the front room table in a very shallow black rectangular tray.  Piled sand and a white porcelain figure complete the piece.  When a seated nurse (Kathleen Freeman) talks to Friday, she briefly touches a branch of the tree as the camera moves in for a close-up of the bright green but -- to us -- obviously artificial pine needles.
     { What looks to be a large juniper in a deep round pot is seen when Friday steps out to contemplate the crime in the victim's garden.  Two large pom-pom trees in large dark undercut trapezoid containers flank the doorway to the house, a pine to the left and a short-needled pine or juniper to the right.  They are seen again at the end of the episode. }

TV - "Family Affair"
     John Naka served as a consultant for the script of the "Mr. Osaki's Tree," an episode of "Family Affair" TV series. (Don Fedderson Production, CBS)  {While John worked on the episode in 1969, the actual air date was Jan. 22, 1970}

TV - Channel 23
     John Naka gave lecture-demonstrations on Channel 23 "Garden Master" TV show, as a guest of Pensacola, Florida botanist, Dr. William Benette.

TV Channel 4
     John Naka gave a lecture-demonstration on Channel 4 KABC "Expressions East/West" for the episode "Bonsai -- Nature's Echo."  He appeared again on Channel 23.

"Shogun" mini-series
NBC, Paramount
     In the first episode of James Clavell's "Shogun" mini-series, an upright dwarfed potted pine and two unpruned maples are seen on the veranda of the house in which John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain) first awakens after being shipwrecked.  Approximately twelve to eighteen inches high and in medium-sized light brown rectangular earthenware or wooden containers, the trees are briefly seen there later as Blackthorne starts toward the beach to board an Osaka-bound galley.   {Aired September 15}

     In the Warner Bros. movie, what appears to be a rock-grown juniper or pine is seen in the quarters of detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). {Released June 25}  In the 1991 Director's cut version, about 15 minutes into the film when Deckard first meets Raechel (Sean Young) in the Tyrell office, a tree is briefly seen on the long table where they sit down to talk with Tyrell (Joe Turkel) during the interview.  Actually, a pair of trees is on the table, a foot-tall or slightly more with foliar masses as uncut pom-poms.  The tree on the left side has multiple foliage layers and mounded soil; the one on the right is in a rectangular pot.  About fifteen minutes later, in Deckard's apartment, when he goes into his kitchen to get a glass for Raechel, another bonsai is seen up front right of center when looking back at her.  The trunk line moves to the right as it goes up into two thin foliage layers.  In the dim lighting it is seen briefly again when she leaves.  Then it is seen again about another quarter hour later when Deckard goes to watch TV.  This time we see the tree from the side, off the end of his couch.  It has a more complex design than initially viewed.

TV - NBC "Night Court"
{"The Nun" episode}
     In an episode of "Night Court," Judge Stone (Harry Anderson) goes to a Japanese restaurant with Sarah (Dinah Manoff), a former novice nun.  At least three bonsai are seen, two of them on either side of the pair's booth.  (Air date Sept. 27.)

     The art's biggest celluloid popularizer was also released this year.  "The Karate Kid" introduces Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) who has just moved from New Jersey to California.  Ralph learns karate and the essence of bonsai from the local maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita).  {Released June 22}    {Note: The 2005 Special Edition DVD of this movie has a "Life of Bonsai" featurette listed in the special features.  That is an interview with Ben Oki at the Huntington Botanical Garden!  When he mentions that he never called John Naka anything but Naka-san, Ben is trimming Leroy's olive.  (Finally seen by RJB 07/27/08, at son Andrew's first complete viewing of movie.))

     "The Karate Kid, Part II" takes place on Okinawa in Miyagi-san's home village.  Some assorted trees appear in a garden courtyard of a private home.  They do not fare well when a message is delivered to Miyagi from his old friend and rival who seeks to avenge his injured honor.  {Released June 20}

PBS-Station WGBH
     A November "Victory Garden" featured John Naka and his collection.

Winter Olympic Coverage

{Oops!  SUMMER was in SEOUL (Winter was in Calgary, Canada)}
     The Winter Olympic coverage from Seoul, Korea, had a single bonsai placed on the table in the announcer's pagoda, but only during Bob Costas' stints (afternoons, local time).  This informal upright, a green broadleaf tree with thumbnail-sized leaves, had a trunk splitting off into two main branches.  It was about a foot tall in a dark green bowl and was placed on Costas' right. 

PBS "Victory Garden"      The bonsai collection at the Montreal Botanic Garden was shown in an episode of "The Victory Garden" which aired in late February.

"Good Morning America"
     From 1988 through 1994, the ABC "Good Morning America" program had bonsai and Ming trees as set decorations.
     In a late November, 1988 "Good Morning America" episode, Spencer Christian interviewed Bob Drechsler, curator of the National Bonsai Collection at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.
Stay tuned for ......... Celluloid Bonsai - Part II 1990-1995 

  * Notes for this Internet reprint:

       Ming Tree :  an artificial nonliving construction, made out of some combination of driftwood, wire, plastic, and paper and attached into a porcelain bowl.  This superficially resembles a living bonsai and is used as a piece of interior decoration.  Popular in the U.S. especially during the 1950s.

       The John Naka lecture/demonstration citations are, of course, from his book, Bonsai Techniques I (Whittier, CA: Bonsai Institute of California, 1973..1991, Tenth printing, pg. 258) 

        And, yes, for the purists: I am now aware of the variable punctuation used in Parts I and II. Most of it was probably my fault.  I hope I got it right in Part III.

Celluloid Bonsai II
Celluloid Bonsai III
Celluloid Bonsai IV

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