The Taste Of Tea (Cha no aji)

Japan (2004) Dir. Katsuhito Ishii

Life in rural Japan would, one might imagine, to be a laid-back existence where the days are lazy, the nights serene, and problems are something other people have. If A Taste Of Tea was an Ozu or Yoji Yamada film then that might be true – but it isn’t…

Central to this tale are the Haruno family of the rural Tochigi Prefecture north of Tokyo – father Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura) is a hypnotherapist, wife Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is an animation artist, grandfather Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), young daughter Sachiko (Maya Banno), teen son Haijme (Takahiro Sato), and their uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano) is a sound mixer taking a break from his job.

Each member of the family has an issue plaguing them – Ayano is in a funk over his ex-girlfriend Akira Terako (Tomoko Nakajima) marrying another man; Sachiko is being spied on by a giant version of herself; Hajime is living with regret from not confessing to a crush before she left; Nobou is bored with his job; and Yoshiko is trying to rebuild her artist career whist being a mother/homemaker.

These skeins provide the basic framework for this 143-minute head-trip from director Katsuhito Ishii, whose body of work vacillates between live action and animation, with The Taste Of Tea featuring both. Ishii’s most notable mainstream credit would be for directing the animated sequence in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1, whilst anime fans might recall his manic and visually explosive 2009 film Redline.

Mentioning Ozu and Yamada in reference to this film before wasn’t an accident; there is a palpable sense of warmth and wistfulness both directors infuse their films with to be found here, that Ishii has his cast ignore no matter how wacky things gets. The result is subversive family drama that doesn’t seem like one purely because everything fits in so naturally, like our anxieties are visualised and our daydreams coming true

Fortunately, these inner torments do not equate to the Harunos being a dysfunctional family, one cliché Ishii was wise to avoid. They are individually troubled but they don’t make such a drama out of their problems that they bring everyone else into them. In fact, by not burdening each other the Harunos appear far closer than families that do cause each other grief.

In the meantime, the adults have arguably the slightest issues with simpler resolutions. Yoshiko’s work/home life balancing act is helped by Akira, now a little senile but willing to adopt the crazy poses of the characters she is drawing. Nobou is the least featured family member, perhaps an allegory for the emptiness he feels from no longer enjoying his job; Ayano gets over his emotional hump by talking to his ex in an awkward but convivial conversation, before finding solace in a stranger doing interpretative dance.

As a distraction, we see Ayano in his day job as an egotistical manga artist Ikki Todoroki (as himself) wants to record a song about a mountain, in a deadpan piece of comic relief absurdity. Todoroki is the most overtly comical figure in the whole film and most of his scenes are largely apropos of nothing, and could have been chopped to make the run time more bearable, yet the juxtaposition of his silliness against the predominant stoic tone serves to make the Harunos look more normal.

This leaves us with the children. Hajime may have had his heart broken yet he admits if he did speak to his crush, he wouldn’t have had the guts to confess to her anyway. Ishii illustrates the pain of the girl’s departure via a train bursting through Hajime’s forehead, I suppose by way of saying “out of sight, out of mind”. But this pain doesn’t last long for Hajime when transfer student Aoi Suzuishi (Anna Tsuchiya) arrives at the school, and she plays Go, the game Hajime’s father is teaching him.

Sachiko wants rid of her giant self – maybe her conscience, or some manifestation of her insecurities – and thinks she may have a solution courtesy of story Ayano tells, about how he stopped the ghost a yakuza haunting him. Or more accurately how he thought he stopped it… The scenes of Sachiko trying to execute this particular procedure are rather adorable as her perseverance suggests a girl much brighter and emotionally tougher than her years imply.

But what is Ishii trying to say here and what does any of it have to do with tea? To answer the second question first, us Brits can relate to the tea motif as the leveller of the tumult, the soothing drink to calm the mood, or bring people together. Just as we turn to a cuppa in times of need, tea shares the same unifying qualities for the Japanese too, and all issues temporarily fly away whenever a brew is on offer.

Divining Ishii’s intent for this film is less simple, partly because of the surreal interludes which he manages to make somewhat cogent in their own way without intruding on the main story. The Harunos are less a family divided and more a family suffering in silence but the key is they remain a cohesive family unit during their individual searches to find themselves or the inner peace they crave.

When considering how offbeat and abstract things tend to get, it is surprising how Ishii isn’t afraid to employ a convention or familiar plot beat if it matters to the story, as this is about ordinary people, living ordinary lives after all. But this is not to the detriment of the overall quirky tone which is more a red herring than anything, nor does it make any of the situations needlessly sentimental, just relatable.

The Taste Of Tea is too long but the Haruno family are such a welcoming lot that we find an odd sense of comfort in being in their presence that we don’t mind. Not for all tastes through its eccentric content, but its sincerity is heart warming.   

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