Film Reviews

The Taste of Tea Katsuhito Ishii

Rating - 9/10

A pleasantly tender surprise from director Katsuhito Ishii (who might be best known for his animated "O-Ren" segment in Kill Bill Vol. 1), The Taste of Tea is a quirky comedy-drama set in the rural countryside outside Tokyo, Japan, with a broad focus on the unconventional Haruno family.  Each member of the Haruno ensemble is innately symbolic of Ishii's diverse artistic and humane attributes; the temperate mother, Yoshiko, aspires to be an at-home animator; brother-in-law Ikki works as an illustrious if comically disgruntled manga artist; timid teenage son Hajime develops interest in strategic board game "Go" while wrestling with affections for new student Aoi; young daughter Sachiko confronts an immense doppleganger (a manifestation of the id) and struggles to banish it; father Nobuo's work as a hypnotist contributes to the charmingly surreal and hypnotic nature of the film; uncle Ayano is a renowned sound mixer, a physical incarnation of Ishii's love for utilizing musical backdrops within his works without the vigor that would lend them to the "musical" genre categorization; and retired grandfather, Akira, spends days at home meditating and modulating his vocals with tuning fork.  For the majority of the film, the grandfather acts secondarily to the other family members, but it is his magnetic presence that exposes the family's defining gifts and immortalizes ritualistic bonding memories of years long past.

The idiom "the taste of tea" would characterize one fond reminiscence, yet the phrase also facilitates the emphasis on modest pleasantries of life in general.  As a film, The Taste of Tea is a essentially series of cleverly woven memoirs or anecdotes that exude a protective warmth and perpetuate the childlike wonderment of its director.  Brimming with all varieties of life's microcosms far beyond the savvy and appreciation of an initial viewing, the film accentuates picturesque long shots of agrarian areas expounding the beauty of nature, Ayano's otherworldly encounters with an eccentric spiritual dancer and the ghost of a deceased Yakuza, Hajime's showered celebration of an intimate moment with his crush, a silly, collaborative and choreographed "Oh, My Mountain" birthday song between brother-in-law and grandfather, Nobuo and Hajime observing the antics of live-action anime actors on a train ride home, Yoshiko contentedly sketching to receptive co-artists, and a simple family dinner.  The metaphorical notion of the film's embodiment of existence comes to a literal fruition by its end, involving the inordinate growth of a sunflower, instigated by Sachiko's efforts to perform a backflip on a high bar at an abandoned playground near her home.  At this moment, Ishii's visionary quirks may literally swallow the Earth and solar system, yet the film's resolution returns to the innocence of a communal transfixion of a sunset.  In the preceding 130 minutes of the film, Ishii effortlessly meanders through the boundaries of verisimilitude and phantasmagoria.

An ideal equilibrium is achieved through a profound stylistic application of directing methods, which include the integration of realism (the true-to-life depiction of a family's habits), surrealism (dopplegangers, coveted manifestations, absurdist humor, reflexive vignettes) and animation (the mother's "Super Big" anime premiere in front of her colleagues).  Collectively, these styles establish a transcendental bond between dreams and reality (or latent and transparent), the arguable central theme of the film.  While The Taste of Tea may project a certain cursory wistfulness, Ishii's initial collations propel his ideas into a universal vitality, a Buddhist-like ideology, expressing an overarching human experience; people intrinsically face the same jubilations, serenity, confusion, misfortunes and traumas, which comprise definitions of life.  With primary on-location shooting in a peaceful villa, The Taste of Tea is inherently a subdued affair and unrepresentative of all walks of life, particularly heavily urbanized regions, but it is never arduous or marginalized, accredited to the director's valiant and progressive efforts to recall familiar familial images (such as the inactivity of a lazy afternoon), blending them into an idiosyncratic narrative.

The central motifs may provoke a majority of film aficionados to deem The Taste of Tea as a "surrealist Ozu ode" after a preliminary viewing, as the film's origins suggest a wealth of offhand references to Yasujiro Ozu, the cinematic master of rendering the nuclear family in Japanese film in the 1930s through the early 1960s.  Of course Ishii is discernibly a postmodernist who flourishes with zany tangents, offbeat storytelling, a love of images and wide angles rather than Ozu's orthodox love of static camera placement and persistent dialogue, but there is a fundamental consistency to each director's talents. Both have advertently illustrated the massive transmissible transitions in 20th and 21st century culture; as Ozu frequently acquired the title of "greatest director of all-time" after a renaissance in the 1970s, Ishii's unconventionality has won him accolades at the Hawaii International and Entrevues Film Festivals for best film and best foreign film, respectively.  If that's any small indication, perhaps Ishii's minor successes will launch him into an instantly recognizable part of the medium as well.  But if nothing has changed in three-quarters of a century, the family unit remains the quintessence of Japanese culture.