Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Writer: Yasujirô Ozu, Kôgo Noda
Cast: Michiyo Kogure, Shin Saburi, Keiko Tsushima, Kôji Tsuruta, Chishû Ryû
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
Music: Ichirô Saitô
Cinematography: Yûharu Atsuta
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Running time: 115mins
The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is released as part of the BFI Japan 2020 season
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What’s the story: Frustrated well-to-do housewife Taeko (Kogure) is exasperated when her niece Setsuko (Tsushima) refuses to enter a traditional arranged marriage. Taeko’s own marriage reaches a crisis point when her husband Mokichi (Saburi) sides with Setsuko.
What’s the verdict: Due to his famed minimalist style and focus on the small intricacies of family life, Tokyo Story director Yasujirô Ozu is typically regarded as a maker of difficult movies. Or worse still, boring movies.
Happily, when viewing his films it swiftly becomes apparent these domestic dramas are as enjoyable as Kurosawa’s sword-swinging epics. Ozu’s no-fuss camerawork and elegant compositions mean his films age well, and his influence can be felt in the work of Jim Jarmusch, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Wes Anderson and more.
The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is a good entry point for Ozu newbies. Sprightly, comic, with memorable characters and a compelling dramatic arc, it showcases how his style was always in service of a strong story. Admittedly, it does feature more movement than other Ozu films, with the affluent characters using planes, trains and automobiles to reach various destinations.
Kogure strikes a cool figure as the bored, calculating Taeko, concocting elaborate lies to spend time with friends and belittling her husband for his country upbringing.
Providing counterbalance is Saburi as her unassuming spouse. Ozu intended to make the film as a comedy in the early 1940s with Saburi in the lead. But the project was shelved after the military government rejected the script as insufficiently patriotic.
Wisely, Ozu held onto the idea of retaining his leading man. Saburi’s gentle performance contrasted against Kogure’s complex turn gives the film its two finest moments: when Mokichi explains why his simple tastes give him pleasure and a climactic scene which provides the film its title.
The director’s signature themes are present and correct. Younger generations pushing for independence, with wry commentary from the elders. The pleasure and sorrow of family ties. The Westernisation of Japan following the war (although bar one oblique reference the film provides few signs the country was still under US occupation at the time).
Ozu’s 1949 film Late Spring also featured an arranged marriage plot, but The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice finds him in a lighter mood. Keiko Tsushima’s willful Setsuko seems to be the director’s statement on shifting attitudes, with the character resisting pressure to enter a loveless marriage. Although the film does comically suggest her romance with eager suitor Non-chan (Tsuruta) will have its own challenges.
The only real solemnity arrives courtesy of Ozu regular Chishû Ryû, here a dour pachinko parlour owner and army buddy of Mokichi, circumspectly talking about their wartime experiences.
Ozu was not pleased with the film, which is sandwiched between 1951’s Early Summer and 1953’s Tokyo Story, acknowledged classics both. Those films may leave a more profound impact, but that does not detract from the feelgood warmth here.
DISC AND EXTRAS
The crisp Blu-ray transfer from a new 4K remaster shows off the set design and costuming within those carefully executed shot compositions. The disc also presents a restored audio track, plus an unrestored version. The restored version, minus hiss and more nuanced in the dialogue, is preferable.
Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns delivers a spirited and informative audio commentary. Modestly describing a talk track for an Ozu movie as a “daunting task”, Rayns is more than qualified for the job. He delves into the film’s production, its place in the filmographies of cast and director, historical context and product placement by the film’s studio Shochiku.
For audiences interested in Ozu’s approach to filmmaking, Rayns provides excellent scene breakdowns, describing how the director’s visual style and plot pacing resembles and diverges from what was happening in the West.
Crucially, he says Ozu recognised that his directorial idiosyncrasies would be accepted only if the story was well-told. The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is well-told… and will be fondly remembered after viewing.
Speaking of idiosyncrasies, the disc also features two charmingly eccentric educational and instructional British shorts.
1932’s The Mystery of Marriage, directed by Mary Field, is a half-hour delight. Examining commonalities between human mating rituals and those found in the animal and botanical kingdoms, it is offbeat, imaginative and laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew mould was so choosy when selecting a reproductive partner?
The 1949 public information 8-minuter The Good Housewife “In Her Kitchen” breaks the fourth wall for lively debate between cast and crew on the best ways to store food. Not everyone has a fridge, you know.