343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)

Cha no aji

UNCLE: It’s a pretty good story, right?

HAJIME: Yeah, weird… but cool.

The Taste of Tea

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Satô, Satomi Tezuka, , Maya Banno, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya

PLOT: A Taste of Tea follows the Haruno family living in rural Japan. The young son has his first crush; the young daughter has a giant doppelganger only she can see; the mother is attempting a comeback in her career as an anime artist; the father is a hypnotist who sends his subjects on psychedelic trips; and a visiting uncle is still melancholy from a romance that ended years ago. A grandfather with a thick gray unibrow and a permanent cowlick watches over the clan while practicing strange poses and singing nonsense songs.

Still from A Taste of Tea (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title may come from a quote by the ancient Chinese poet Lu Tong, who said, “I care not a jot for immortal life, but only for the taste of tea.”
  • (of “Neon Genesis” series fame) appears in a cameo as the anime director.
  • This was Katsuhito Ishii‘s third feature film, but the first to attract much attention outside Japan. It played at Cannes and won awards at smaller festivals. Ishii had just come off directing the animated sequences for ‘s Kill Bill. His next project, 2004’s Funky Forest, was even weirder and more random than Tea.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Little Sachicko’s giant double, who silently and mysteriously watches her as she goes about her daily routine.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forehead train; giant doppelganger; egg-head yakuza

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Katsuhito Ishii revamps the least weird genre of cinema, the familial drama, with gently surreal CGI and a narrative that wanders off into mildly scatological yakuza ghost stories, psychedelic hypnotism, and in-progress anime rushes, all watched over by a giant mute schoolgirl.


Clip from The Taste of Tea (2004)

COMMENTS: The family in The Taste of Tea do drink tea, occasionally, but they never comment on its taste. The film itself, however, might warm your chest like gulp of hot green tea: peaceful, yet invigorating. As in much of the eastern world, the Japanese drink tea not merely for pleasure, but as a cultural activity with Buddhist overtones. The substance is a bridge between the sensual and the spiritual, and a way of reinforcing a sense of community. A Taste of Tea shares a lot of the same tea ceremony values: it’s a quiet, pleasant time getting to know a family and their culture, with a sort of unforced spirituality that creeps up on you as you sit sipping a warm beverage and contemplating the falling cherry blossoms.

Most of the episodes here are self-contained stories that do not impact what passes for an overall plot. For example, there is the uncle’s tale of defecating in the woods as a boy, and then being haunted by the ghost of a yakuza, events that he does not see a linkage between. This digression is like a newly-minted folk ghost story embedded within the movie. It rhymes with Sachiko’s situation with her own mysterious presence, but does not entirely illuminate it—although there is a synchronistic payoff down the line. Other detours involve the teenage boy’s developing “female phobia” (seen in a pair of incidents, one involving breast implants), an impromptu game of bridge baseball, robot cosplayers on the subway, and an amateur music video. Observational, naturalistic moments, like Asano’s awkward chance encounter with his ex-lover, alternate with surrealistic bits. Every now and then an omniscient female narrator politely adds additional exposition. It’s a whole pack of shaggy dogs… very cute show dogs, coiffed to the paws and in glittering rhinestone collars.

The family’s problems are ordinary and easily overcome: shyness about returning to work after a long layoff, first loves, lost loves, and so on. There is violence, but only among the minor characters; and one of the most raucous of these is also the movie’s funniest bit. All human struggles here are handled in a spirit of equanimity. Death has no sting; it only leaves a soft bruise which serves mainly to remind one of happier times. The family are sometimes too wrapped up in their individual concerns to pay attention to one another, but they are all brought together under the watchful eye of the grandfather. He seems like the least significant character—mere eccentric comic relief—but in fact is the glue that binds the clan together. The low-key nature of the film makes for undisturbed experience where we drink in the individual scenes and images without worrying too much about where we are going; there is always the sense that everything will turn out okay.  For the weird movie fan, A Taste of Tea can serve as quiet refreshment between spicier cinema courses.

A Taste of Tea‘s most notable feature is its surreal CGI-Expressionism. Ishii uses special effects to render his characters emotional and psychological states; the technique reminds me, in many ways, of a loopier Amalie. When Hajime’s first crush is leaving, we see a computer-generated train barrel straight through his forehead, leaving behind a hole (it closes up). Meanwhile, Sachicko’s giant doppelganger (with a different hairstyle) clearly expresses… something… about her. It’s not clear specifically what that might be, psychologically speaking, but the disturbing yet harmless apparition suggests the unease and uncertainty of early childhood. The blissful, swirling colors emanating from the mother’s post-hypnotic body are similarly ambiguous as a symbol, but they jibe with the essential serenity of her character. And the movie closes with a CGI sunflower engulfing the solar system; a soothing vision of apocalypse as transcendence that fits Tea‘s mood of consoling wonder to… well, to a t.

One IMDB reviewer also compares The Taste of Tea to Amalie, and praises it because there is “substance to be found under all that style.” This confirms something I’ve long suspected: when people use the word “substance” in the phrase “style over substance,” what they probably mean is “realism.” The movie has little conflict or character growth, only a few crumbs of quiet pathos, no meaningful plot, and no morals or epiphanies or life lessons–at least, none imparted directly. Those are the sorts of things I would think people would normally be looking for when they speak of “substance.” What Tea does have is a poetic, parablistic quality, that is rooted in a quaint version of reality, an emphasis on family drama as opposed to more escapist fare, and a “positive vibe.” These are personal preferences that some may misread as “substance.” Perhaps Tea is approachable to more conservative cinema viewers because it seems like a postmodern take on a “substantive” Tokyo Story-style family drama. But what sets Tea apart is its innovative weirdness, its florid willingness to go wherever its childlike imagination leads it, even if that be to cosmic sunflowers swallowing the earth for no clear reason. Just as the gaudy and useless flower is more valuable than the productive soil, the taste of tea is more important than its nutritional content. In my mind, Tea is very much a case of style over substance, flavor over message. That is a compliment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a description someone gives of a song involved in one of the film’s many detours neatly summarizes the movie itself: ‘It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.'”–Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“‘Weird but cool,’ as one character says—yet the movie is also remarkably touching.”–Andrea Grobvall, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

“Too many films falsely pretend that people aren’t inherently weird; here, that quality is the one most celebrated.”–Rob Humanick, Slant (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: The Taste of Tea (2004)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Taste of Tea – Asian Wiki – The Asian wiki includes basic info, a trailer, and an image gallery

HOME VIDEO INFO:The Taste of Tea didn’t get much notice outside of a limited theatrical release, but it did earn a DVD from Japanese specialists VIZ Pictures (buy). The disc has a fine picture and sound but is light on extras: cast and director bios, two untranslated Japanese trailers, and previews of other VIZ properties.

A Taste of Tea is not currently available on Blu-ray or streaming services.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who said “I’ve never seen a movie that mixes up frenzied surrealist scenes and depiction of the simplicity of a Japanese family.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)”

  1. A film not undeserving of inclusion.

    My favorite bit is a set-piece close to the end, that showcases a certain character’s propensity for documenting his perception of his familial relations vis-à-vis flipbook drawings. It’s a magical scene, and the highlight of the film, and don’t be surprised if it invokes a tear or two.

  2. This sounds fantastic. I don’t really feel up to paying fifty bucks for a dvd at the moment. If there is a place to see it streaming, I hope someone will tell me, thanks

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