茶の味 「Cha no Aji」
Release Date: July 17th, 2004
Duration: 143 mins.
Director: Katsuhito Ishii
Writer: Katsuhito Ishii (Screenplay),
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Takahiro Sato, Maya Banno, Satomi Tezuka, Tatsuya Gashuin, Tomokazu Miura, Anna Tsuchiya, Ikki Todoroki, Hideaki Anno,
Katsuhito Ishii is probably best known for making weird films and while The Taste of Tea is one of his most restrained, it is probably his most popular work. At its simplest, The Taste of Tea is a cross between Yasujiro Ozu’s gentle comedy Good Morning (1959) and the playfully bizarre Survive Style 5+ (2004). Try to imagine the styles of the two melding with and diluting each other and you come close. The result is a film where everyday characters and their small dramas are given the odd flights of fancy that burst out from beneath the surface of normality.
Like in a typical Ozu film, we follow multiple generations of a family. Here, we are spending time with the Haruno family who live in an old-fashioned house in a small mountain town just north of Tokyo. They consist of the mother, Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka), Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), the father, their son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), Sachiko (Maya Banno), their daughter, and eccentric grandfather Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin). They will soon be joined by uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano) who is taking a break from his job as a music producer to visit for a few days.
Each member of the family has some weight that is tugging at their heart. With her kids in school, Yoshiko is trying to balance housework with her old career as an animator by working on an indie project named Super Big in her spare time. High schooler Hajime bitterly regrets never telling his first love his feelings for her before she transferred to another school but is soon in love with another girl. Sachiko has just entered elementary school and is haunted by a huge alter ego of herself that stares down at her from time to time, something which makes her very uncomfortable. Nobuo finds his work as a hypnotherapist stable but boring. Ayano has returned to confront his feelings for ex-girlfriend Akira Terako (Tomoko Nakajima) who married another man. Grandpa, meanwhile, is senile and spends his time singing and re-enacting the character poses of anime and reminiscing about his wife. Over the course of Ayano’s visit, their lives and the lives of others will change in a series of surreal and small-scale dramas that occur in a series of vignettes.
Prior to The Taste of Tea, Ishii’s films were the superficial and stylish hitman movies Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998) and Party 7 (2000) which were populated by knife-wielding and gun-toting characters. Here, Ishii dials down the silliness for the more normal and heartfelt to create easy to relate to slices of reality. He then uses his oddball sense of humour and visual imagination to add surreal moments that are sure to draw laughter from the audience but, more importantly, underline the emotional lives of the characters in a meaningful way.
The film was shot in Motegi Town, Tochigi Prefecture, and its beautiful scenery makes a nice contrast to the surreal happenings that go on.
Rice fields, haunted forests, schools and the Ayano’s traditional house form the landscape, as do the miles of roads and countryside which the characters traverse. The soundtrack is alive with birdsong and the song of the wind. The summer sun shines gently on everyone and the pace is slow, lazy even, as the film wends its way through each characters stories.
The slow build effect is immersive so that we get caught up in their lives and pick up details without the need for unnatural dialogue that shovels in exposition. We aren’t shown the sketches that Yoshiko is working on until an animated film is played but all the while, we see her balance home and artistry and we come to understand her former career through visits by former colleagues (one played by Evangelion director Hideako Anno). Hajime’s romance is really touchingly told, from the moment that he falls in love with a transfer student named Aoi Suzuishi (Anna Tsuchiya) and his excitement that she plays the board game go just like him, to their walk in the rain which allows the film to indulge in some sweet aiaigasa (相合傘) action that ends with a long-held overhead shot following a beaming Hajime as he runs, the sheer exhilaration of love powering him through.
The awkward homecoming Ayano experiences is bittersweet to behold as he and his former love dance around their past while Sachiko’s story sees her very sombre even as ridiculous things happen around her. It is a sweet existential self-examination from a child’s perspective with a fine performance from a child actress. One thread running through these stories is the eccentric grandfather who is easy to write off simply as a comic character but Ishii has an emotional gut-punch of an ending that had me crying as it spoke to the importance of family bonds and memory.
The comedy comes from the odd characters who pop up and do odd things, which feel totally in character. The variety shows that have concepts and participants that are not too outrageous to break the sense of reality but are laugh out loud funny, the eccentrics who have heartfelt desires that are odd but actually play into the idea of the importance of self-expression as exhibited in various stories. Then there is the Mountain Song which everyone who watches this film remembers.
Aside from the anime interlude, images of a giant Sachiko, a ghost yakuza, and a train departing from young Hajime’s forehead, and adventures in the realm of hypnosis, most of the proceedings look and feel natural and even relaxing, the CG, physical effects and stylings of Ishii’s other works kept to a minimum. The best special effects are the acting and all of the performers do well to capture their characters, playing them straight with just a shade of comedy to provide a nod and wink to the audience.
Each individual’s story gets taken seriously and given enough screen time to ring true and evoke a rich medley of emotions. Nobody is an archetype and it feels like Ishii loves everyone on screen, a feeling that I also felt as a viewer.
Overall, it’s just fantastic spending time with these characters, whether it is watching father and son play go on the engawa, Yoshiko create anime, or Sachiko puzzle through life, the odd entertainment shows on TV and the sense of community which feels close to reality. Watching this is to get sucked into an ever so slightly warped (but never too much to distract) version of life that feels rich with emotion that lingers long after the film has finished. The film mixes comedy, light and dark so well that it feels effortlessly done like the best of Japanese cinema. I am so glad I got reacquainted with the taste of tea.
Extra features (*in standard definition):
90 minute Making Of
‘Super Big’ – Animation
Reversible sleeve art
On top of the improved visuals, this Third Window Films release has the animation Super Big that Yoshiko was working on in thee film. It’s sort of like Dead Leaves, the anime, in look and style. It’s a fun little aside and it is subbed for those who want to know just what is said.
The biggest prize is the 90 minute Making Of film which features substantial behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew. Director Katsuhito Ishii goes into great detail about his working method, which is fascinating, and how he related to each of his actors and we hear from the principal cast about their thoughts. This gives a real sense of what it was like to work on the film and it’s also fun hearing about the mishaps (a fight scene that turned bloody), the happy accidents and the way everyone bonded together and tried out different acting styles. It is also fun seeing the many and varied members of the cast give their personal opinions – the names are really impressive and cover Hideaki Anno, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Ryo Kase and Anna Tsuchiya. Special mention goes to the laid back and wise Tomokazu Miura and the adorable Maya Banno who worked so hard.