Criterion Prediction #43: The Taste of Tea, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Taste of Tea
Director: Katsuhito Ishii
Cast: Tomokazu Miura, Satomi Tezuka, Maya Banno, Takahiro Sato, Tadanobu Asano, Tatsuya Gashuin
Synopsis: In the tradition of Japanese domestic dramas the film centers on the functional, and seemingly ordinary Haruno family, recently relocated to the country where they have what appears to be a simple existence. Mom (Tezuka) is an animator, working hard on her new masterpiece that will buy her ticket back into the limelight of her profession. Dad (Miura) is a hypnotherapist who sometimes practices his profession on his family. Their son Hajime (Sato) is navigating the perilous world of puberty and adolescence, and the daughter, Sachiko (Banno), is curiously followed by a towering doppelganger of herself everywhere she goes. Grandpa (Gashuin) is an eccentric old-timer, devoted to starting a band, and Uncle Ayano (the always-captivating Asano) has moved in too, seeking respite after living in Tokyo for several years.
Critique: The seasonal family drama is a unique strand in Japanese film that is time tested and culturally indicative. This informal genre of sorts imbue a mono no aware (translated as ‘the pathos of things’ or ‘transience of gentle sadness’) concept; life goes by at a languid pace and there’s very little outward action – thus emphasizing an appreciation for the fleeting transience of life, time, and everything in between. Thanks to directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and most significantly Yasujiro Ozu, whose many seasonally-inspired familial dramas personify this method of storytelling. Thematically, The Taste of Tea is in line with these films, but stylistically, Katsuhito Ishii is on a radically different plane by employing a lysergic layer of surrealist perception, offering an unseen degree of quirky humor and whimsy to a territory forged by the great forebearers of Japanese cinema. Ishii’s film (presumably) evokes Ozu’s 1952 title The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, but Ishii comes from a place of sincerity, embracing a style of storytelling that is consistent with Japanese culture and expanding its boundaries with a spirited flair of revisionist innovation. The deliberate pace is as hypnotic as it is involving, and the eccentricities of the Haruno family are delightful. In striking contrast to the tonally worn “dysfunctional family” model, we come to like these people and the transportive fantasy seduces our senses. The relatable context and the deliberate pacing allows us to sink into the films encompassing spell; whether you’re wondering how Sachiko will rid herself of her giant shadow, or if Grandpa’s band and their bewilderingly catchy song “Mountain” will be a hit. I would chalk this up to the films un-self-conscious celebration of life, treating its inherent strangeness as something to embrace without embellishing jocular antics, or ironic posturing for laughs. Alongside the director’s visual flourishes, the overall earthy flavor the covers the canvas of this film reigns in the texture of this seasonally driven film. The best way to describe this low-key burst of imagination, and the mono no aware aesthetic is that it’s more than taking the time to stop and smell the roses, but take a seat and watch clouds pass for a few minutes too.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The Criterion Collection hosts a great variety of Japanese cinema; from the Ozu films, to new wavers like Oshima and Suzuki, then most recently the runaway imagination of Takashi Murakami’s 2013 film Jellyfish Eyes. As far as tone and style and style are concerned Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea is an all too perfect marriage of classic and contemporary styles in Japanese filmmaking.
The only official release of this movie (I know of) is the Viz Pictures DVD, and a handful of region three imports. The interlaced transfer against the black outlined yellow subtitles (on the Viz DVD) tend to burn through the picture, which is a shame because there are some truly striking images throughout. This is a beautifully-shot film that should look gorgeous, yet its current presentation will leave you wanting. If a movie is hard to sell, then it is often overlooked, which is the case The Taste of Tea; no matter what version you come across you’ll have a compromised image which is a shame when one of the film’s strengths lie in its visuals. There’s little to base this recommendation on, outside of the distribution theory this is largely based on preference. But The Taste of Tea is a film that I believe in, as a champion of its content and its potential as a Criterion title. Should this come to fruition, Ishii’s animation would be ideal in the bonus feature department. Remember the anime sequence in Kill Bill Vol.1? That was Ishii.