Director: Katsuhito Ishii
Screenplay: Katsuhito Ishii
Starring: Maya Banno, Takahiro Satô, Tadanobu Asano, Satomi Tezuka, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Tomoko Nakajima, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya
Country: Japan
Running Time: 143 min
Year: 2004
BBFC Certificate: 15

The Japanese writer-director Katsuhito Ishii found commercial success with his first two feature films, the wacky crime-capers Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Party 7. These are reportedly (I haven’t seen them) quite Tarantino-inspired, which is interesting as he worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until Ishii changed tones quite drastically, however, creating a light, leisurely-paced comedy-drama with his follow-up feature, The Taste of Tea (a.k.a. Cha no Aji), that he found critical success. The film picked up awards at Fantasia, the New York Asian Film Festival and other festivals around the world. Ed Park even picked it as one of his choices of the greatest films ever made in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll.

Despite this attention from festivals and critics, The Taste of Tea never had a commercial cinema or DVD release in the UK (that I can find any record of). So, hoping to rectify things, Third Window Films, those fine purveyors of East Asian cinema, are bringing us a shiny new Blu-ray of the film. I tend to trust their judgement, so thought I’d give it a watch. My thoughts follow.

The Taste of Tea focuses largely on the Haruno family, who live in the rural Tochigi prefecture of Japan. Each member of the family has their own little story that we follow through the film’s fairly substantial running time, along with catching glimpses of a few other side-characters.

The family’s stories range from the classic to the bizarre. For instance, the teenage son Hajime (Takahiro Satô) is saddened by the fact the girl he had a crush on at school but never approached has left town, but he soon falls head-over-heels for the new girl in class, Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). Once again, he struggles to let her know how he feels, but is thrilled to hear she’s a fan of the game ‘go’ (which Hajime also plays regularly) and joins an after-school club to play it.

So far, so standard. However, Hajime’s young sister Sachiko’s (Maya Banno) troubles involve wanting to get rid of a giant version of herself that keeps appearing (to her eyes only). After hearing her uncle’s bizarre tale involving pooing on the skull of a dead yakuza that reappears as a ghost, Sachiko believes the only way to rid herself of this large shadow haunting her, is to successfully do a front-flip on the horizontal bar of an abandoned playground.

I told you it was bizarre.

The father, Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), probably has the lesser arc in the film, when compared the rest of the Harunos, though we see him performing hypnotherapy on clients and his family. His wife, Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka), is an anime artist who has been away from work for a few years (presumably to have her children) but is working on her first project for a while.

Also featuring heavily are two uncles, the successful sound mixer Ayano (Tadanobu Asano) and manga artist Ikki Todoroki (playing himself strangely, according to the credits, though I’m sure he’s referred to as Ayano and Nobuo’s brother). The former we discover still has feelings for a girl he split up with years ago and the latter is wanting to celebrate his birthday by professionally recording a ridiculous song he’s written about his love of mountains, attempting to rope his family in to help.

Loosely tying everything together, or at least observing everyone more carefully than at first perceived, is the grandfather of the family, Akira (occasional Studio Ghibli voice actor Tatsuya Gashûin). He’s eccentric, to say the least, singing strange songs, constantly striking action poses and hiding out in his little room for long periods. However, we learn that he is supporting his family and loves them in his own funny little way, leading us to the film’s touching climax.

The Taste of Tea is a most unusual film, mixing sweet and subtle drama with outlandish surrealism. It’s like Ozu meets Dali or Koreeda meets Jodorowsky. This combination might not appeal to everyone, but I thought it gelled surprisingly well and made for a warm, touching film with an enjoyably quirky edge. I had a worry that all the bizarre goings-on would get too much as it went on, leading to an overdose of quirk, but sensibly things are toned down in the latter half (though one of the most unusual scenes comes at the climax of Sachiko’s thread). A celebration of the simple joys of everyday life takes over and by the end I found myself quite moved by the film, despite all the potentially distancing wackiness.

There are some interesting techniques used too. The film generally looks very nice, making good use of the idyllic countryside locations, but these are complemented by some effective special effects. There are several surreal touches, such as the small train that comes out of Hajime’s head and the frequent appearances of the giant version of Sachiko. There’s also a brief but wonderfully colourful and psychedelic visualisation of Yoshiko’s hypnosis dream. The short anime film that character makes is shown too and is impressive in its own right.

It’s quite a rambling film, without a clear theme or ‘message’. Ishii himself acknowledges this in a ‘making of’ interview included on the disc, when he says, “it’s easy to understand and then it’s not. It’s something you remember and then you don’t … This movie isn’t too deep. Some people might empathise with it. Others might not get it at all. Others might really get into it. It could be something or nothing. How can I put it… refreshing is what I’d call it.” So, like the titular taste, it can be difficult to define and come in different flavours, but can really hit the spot when you give it a drink. There are a lot of artistic characters in the film, which suggest it might be an examination of the dynamic of a creative family, but this doesn’t fit the bill for every strand.

Once again, this difficult to pin-down, free-flowing nature won’t be for everyone, but I found its individual charms difficult to resist. It’s a long film, no doubt, but I never grew tired of it. I could have happily stayed with the family for a while longer. I found, rather than the tea analogy that Ishii seems to be going for, the film felt like one of Nobuo’s hypnotherapy sessions. You’re calmly lulled into this other world, that can be strange but provides a potentially healing reflection of life.

So, The Taste of Tea may be slow-moving and puzzling at times, but it’s utterly entrancing, sweet-natured and enjoyably quirky. I loved lounging in its relaxed, often bizarre world and enough of it is grounded in the everyday to prevent the film from becoming too precious.

The Taste of Tea is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Third Window Films. The picture quality is lovely, with a detailed image and natural-looking grain. Audio is solid too.

There are a few special features included:

– 90 minute Making Of
– ‘Super Big’ animation
– Reversible sleeve with original release artwork
(*special features in standard definition)

The animation has added dialogue and effects, so is slightly different from that shown in the film, but obviously the main draw in the extras is the feature-length ‘making of’. It’s rough around the edges, a little fluffy perhaps and could have been tighter, but it provides a thorough look at the film’s shoot. The director has some interesting thoughts about the film in his opening interview too.

The Taste of Tea - Third Window
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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