Mist moves across the mysterious mountains of Manchuria. The red columns and roofs of ancient temples are decorated with gilt. Scenes of exotic flowers, frills and furbelows shift to the dragon screen protecting a house from evil spirits. The elaborate gown of a Victorian bride contrasts with the subtlety of kimonas.
The four-part "The Ginger Tree" begins tonight (Channel 26 at 9 p.m.) on PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre." The East-is-East and West-is-West story has all the requisite bells, whistles, gongs and cymbals. The time spans the years from the Russo-Japanese War in 1903 to Pearl Harbor in 1941, though, thankfully, the war is always away from the camera's eye. Instead, the focus is on the expectations of women and society, on both sides of the world, as reflected in the experience of the heroine.
A naive but plucky red-haired Scottish woman (played by Samantha Bond) arrives to marry a British military attache whom she's met only three times. As you might expect, given the exigencies of plot, the man (played by Adrian Rawlins) is an oaf in or out of bed. The bedroom scenes are remarkable for their offensiveness. Fortunately, thanks to the Russo-Japanese War, the stupe is sent away to a temporary posting. Unfortunately, he comes back.
By that time, the wife has met Daisuke Ryu, playing a Japanese noble. He invites her to tea. The ensuing ceremonial Japanese tea service is surely one of the most seductive ever filmed -- delicate, sensuous, delightful. The tea leaves of her cup of life rise and settle in an unexpected pattern of prophecy.
The series is worth watching if only for the Western television debut of the 6-foot-3-inch Ryu. He spoke no English when he began the movie -- but with those enticing eyes, he didn't need any other language. His English surely exceeds the demands of his dialogue.
As any soap opera (English or American) viewer would expect, Bond becomes pregnant, and her life is forever entwined in the intricate, silken strands of the ancient culture of Japan.
Fumi Dan, another Japanese actor, plays well a spunky young feminist who befriends the heroine. Joanna McCallum as an rueful English missionary unsure of her calling has just the right restraint. Bond is in almost every frame of the series -- a taxing role for the best of actors. She is best in the early scenes, when playing a woman close to her own age. The smaller roles, a French diplomatic wife, an ardent Japanese student and a forward-thinking Tokyo merchant, are well-carved cameos.
The scenes -- Oriental city streets, country shrines, exquisite houses -- were beautifully filmed in Japan, Taiwan and England. The series is the first filmed in the high-definition television process, touted as the sensation of the '90s, to be shown in the United States, though it's converted to the U.S. 525-line broadcast standard. The camera sees such detail that sometimes it detracts rather than enhances -- for instance, the gray wigs and aging makeup of the later episodes appear far more fake than they would with a normal camera.
Christopher Hampton, well regarded for his script of "Dangerous Liaisons," adapted the novel by Oswald Wynd. In a triumph of art over geography, the wonderfully named Timothy Ironside-Wood produced "The Ginger Tree" with Alan Shallcross, Naonori Kawamura and Marilyn Hall. Morimasa Matsumoto and Anthony Garner directed.
The British -- and perhaps the Japanese -- are far better when working with story and scenery in their own countries. "The Ginger Tree" is neither "Rashomon" nor "Brideshead Revisited," but it will keep you awake on four Sunday nights without regret.