Director: Yasujir么 Ozu
Screenplay: Yasujir么 Ozu, K么go Noda
Starring: Shin Saburi, Michiyo Kogure, K么ji Tsuruta, Keiko Tsushima, Chish没 Ry没, Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Miyake, Eijir么 Yanagi
Country: Japan
Running Time: 116 min
Year: 1952
BBFC Certificate: U

Tom Milne (in the included booklet) talks of how Ozu鈥檚 films are 鈥渁t once the easiest and most difficult to write about鈥. I had similar worries when approaching this review. I love Ozu鈥檚 films, but they鈥檙e often great for similar reasons and his work has been written about countless times. In fact, I鈥檝e reviewed 11 of his films here over the years, through a handful of boxsets. Ozu largely stuck to the same family drama genre, with a similar style, similar settings and even often the same actors. This could be seen as a criticism, but he made it work. I鈥檝e never been disappointed by any of Ozu鈥檚 films, other than a couple of early comedies he made before he hit his stride. So, regardless of any worries I might have had about approaching a review, I couldn鈥檛 resist taking the BFI up on an offer of a screener for this newly remastered release of Ozu鈥檚 1952 classic, The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, as part of their Japan 2020 season (see below for more details).

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice was originally devised and written around 1939/40 but Shochiku, the studio Ozu worked for, vetoed the film as it wasn鈥檛 deemed patriotic enough during the war. It was picked up and tweaked to fit after the war though.

The story centres around Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi), a childless middle-aged couple whose marriage is growing stale. Taeko sneaks off with her friends for a break where the married women in the group poke fun at their husbands. She calls Mokichi 鈥楳r Bonehead鈥, due to how easy he is to trick into letting her go away for the weekend, and due to what she sees as a lack of personality. In reality, he鈥檚 not quite so gullible but doesn鈥檛 seem to care what his wife does anymore.

Running alongside this story is that of Taeko鈥檚 niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who is due to be pushed into an arranged marriage. Setsuko is a modern woman though and believes the practise is barbaric, so she tries to get out of it. After hearing Taeko badmouth her husband, she expects her aunt to side with her, but Setsuko is shocked to find Taeko actively approving the arrangement. When Setsuko ducks out of a 鈥榙ate鈥 with her intended husband, she heads to a pachinko parlour with Mokichi and meets his younger friend Noboru (K艒ji Tsuruta). Setsuko and Noboru seem to have some chemistry but neither thinks anything of it, at least at first.

The subject matter then is typical of Ozu, with a subtle plot that鈥檚 low on grand melodrama and hits on themes common to most real lives, particularly in Japan at the time. He鈥檚 always been interested in nostalgia and here Mokichi provides this through his longing for the simple life he used to have before he moved to the big city and began living a middle-class life with servants and such. Ozu鈥檚 films are usually light on big dramatic incidents but lead to one emotionally powerful, yet generally understated point. The climax here, which makes sense of the strange title, makes this yearning for simplicity the key proponent in solving the fractures of the central relationship. I won鈥檛 explain this in too much detail though, for those that haven鈥檛 seen the film.

There are also quite a lot of references to the modernisation of Japan and we see how different characters react to it. The relatively new at the time pachinko parlours are discussed a lot for instance, with the younger characters drawn to the excitement of them, whilst the older generation worry it鈥檚 too addictive and shallow, yet one such detractor is the owner of the parlour they visit.

The US was occupying Japan at the time and whilst there aren鈥檛 any bold political statements made about this, the contrast between modernity and traditionalism in the film is often reflected in western influence. This is used to show differences between the central couple too. Mokichi wears a western suit to work but falls back on traditional Japanese ways when comfortable at home. Taeko, on the other hand, is more modernised in her styles and interests and has a particularly western-styled bedroom.

It鈥檚 little touches like this that show what Tony Rayns (in his commentary track) calls Ozu鈥檚 鈥榥ano-level of detail鈥. The director exercises restraint at every level. On top of the quietly unfolding drama, he avoids excessively stylised compositions and special effects (he鈥檚 only even used dissolves/wipes in one or two of his early films), keeps production design simple and rarely moves his camera. Here we get a couple of small pushing in and out shots of the couple鈥檚 living room, but that鈥檚 about it. Rayns believes visual patterns like these in the film are there to reflect the repetitive drudgery of everyday life for the couple. That鈥檚 where the 鈥榥ano-level鈥 details come in. The outward simplicity of everything masks the fact that Ozu hides seemingly minor touches in the film that help create something greater than the sum of its parts. You see or rather feel this in an Ozu film when it reaches its emotional climax and you find it hits you harder than you might expect from such a humble build-up. The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is no different, with the making of the titular meal providing a beautifully poignant moment.

I鈥檝e found a few other Ozu films more powerful though, it must be said. There鈥檚 a light, slightly comic tone that prevents the film from having a great emotional impact, but it makes for an easier watch than something like Tokyo Story that feels rather slow, despite delivering a more affecting final act. The tying up of story strands in The Flavour of Green Tea also seems a touch too neat, with a coda where Taeko speaks more highly of her husband to her friends feeling a little on-the-nose. The predicted outcome of the Setsuko and Noboru pairing is left a little more open though, which was a nice touch.

I鈥檝e noticed this review is filling out more than expected, so perhaps my worry about reviewing another Ozu film was unfounded and I should tie things up.

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is perhaps not Ozu鈥檚 best film, but even mid-range Ozu is recommended viewing. Elegant, quietly touching and even a little funny at times, it鈥檚 another carefully orchestrated masterclass in understated drama from one of cinema鈥檚 greatest craftsmen.

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is released on 18th May on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. It鈥檒l also be simultaneously available to stream or buy via iTunes and Amazon Prime. From 5th June 2020 it鈥檒l also be available on the BFI Player within a collection of 25 Yasujir么 Ozu films released on BFI Player鈥檚 Subscription service as part of JAPAN 2020, a major new BFI season launching this month (more details can be found here –

I watched the Blu-ray version. The picture is slightly soft perhaps and I noticed a slight judder at times, but there鈥檚 a good dynamic range and the print is relatively free of damage. The sound is solid too.

There are a few extra features included in the set:

– Re-mastered at 4k and presented in High Definition for the first time in the UK
– Feature-length audio commentary by critic and Asian-cinema expert Tony Rayns
– Alternative unrestored audio track
– The Mystery of Marriage (1932, 34 mins): educational filmmaker and pioneering female director Mary Field draws peculiar and poignant parallels between the mating rituals of humans, animals and mould in this eccentric, entertaining educational film
– The Good Housewife ‘In Her Kitchen’ (1949, 9 mins): the fourth wall is shattered in this imaginative public information film, filled with good advice for kitchen users – whether they have a refrigerator or not
– ***FIRST PRESSING ONLY*** Fully illustrated booklet with archival essay by Tom Milne, and writing on the archive films by the BFI’s Vic Pratt and full film credits

Tony Rayns鈥 name is always a welcome sight in any list of special features and he doesn鈥檛 disappoint with his incisive commentary track.

The two archive shorts are fun. 鈥楾he Good Housewife 鈥業n Her Kitchen鈥欌 is amusingly dated in its hygiene advice (would you clean raw meat with your dishcloth?!) but it has a nice post-modern slant. 鈥楾he Mystery of Marriage鈥 is an amusing and actually quite fascinating nature documentary.

The booklet is impressive, packing 25 pages with writing on Ozu and the short films in the set. Strangely though, Milne makes no mention of The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice in his essay, instead dissecting Ozu鈥檚 style through a small handful of what he considers some of his best and weakest films.

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice - BFI
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