Tea's okay, but Judge Brendan Babish prefers the taste of coffee.
Meet the Harunos, a rather unconventional but happy and loving family.
The Taste of Tea is an absurdist Japanese family drama written and directed by Katsuhito Ishii, who is probably best known in the United States for overseeing the animated sequence in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. The Taste of Tea is not animated, though Ishii sure doesn't let that limit his imagination.
The movie documents a short but trying period in the life of the Harunos, a middle-class family living in the bucolic Tochigi prefecture in Japan. Hajime, the quiet teenage son, has fallen for a new classmate, but has no idea how to get her to notice him; Sachiko, the adolescent daughter, is constantly being spied on by a silent, giant version of herself; Yoshiko, the mother, is attempting to reenter the animation business after taking several years off to raise her children; Nobuo, the father, is a hypnotist who often puts members of his own family under his spell; Akira, the spirited grandfather, has written an ode to the mountains, and is anxious to have it professionally recorded. Then there is Ayano, the uncle, who arrives in town to achieve closure with an ex-lover.
Though Sachiko's subplot is the only one contingent on fantastic elements, the entire film is suffused with absurdist flourishes. It's difficult to describe exactly the matter in which Ishii works these into the plot, because I can't think of any American filmmakers who are willing (or allowed) to experiment with earnest drama in this fashion. The obvious corollary in American cinema would be David Lynch, though he seems to restrain his eccentricities when dealing with earnest, conventional material (The Straight Story).
The Taste of Tea establishes its eccentric tone early when a train emerges from Hajime's forehead while he watches a real train carry his secret crush out of town and out of his life. Soon afterward we see Sachiko's giant head, expanded to the size of a small house, spying on the real Sachiko while she sits on her back deck (a shot of which you can see on the DVD cover art). There are countless other oddities in the film, some charming, some lewd, all unexpected.
The danger in employing such gimmicks is that could they undermine the dramatic impact of the plot. To a certain extent, this is what happens in The Taste of Tea. Though each character's subplot seems carefully thought out, it's difficult to focus on the story when a giant sunflower suddenly sprouts from the Harunos' backyard and keeps expanding until it envelopes the entire earth (yes, that really does happen). Though that sequence was charming, it takes the onus off the family and puts it instead on the giant sunflower.
That said, the eccentricities of The Taste of Tea are enjoyable. With so many family dramas in existence, it's refreshing to see one that employs creative irrelevance in its storytelling. Still, these flourishes of magical realism compromise the drama, and I can't help wondering if the film would have been more affecting with a bit more restraint (just a bit, mind you).
The sound and picture on this transfer are very underwhelming. The colors are soft, the contrasts are weak, and the Japanese countryside looks dank and very unattractive (although that last one may have intentional). Though this is a foreign film, and most foreign films have smaller budgets than mainstream Hollywood fare, that is no excuse for this presentation. I have seen some great looking Japanese movies on DVD; this is one of the weaker ones.
The Taste of Tea is being released on DVD in both a bare bones single-disc edition, and this limited edition two-disc set. The two-disc set has many minor extras, including a Japanese trailer, and director and cast bios; the main offering is an exhaustive, 90-minute making-of feature. Though I am rarely a fan of these often studio-mandated creations, The Taste of Tea's manages to be a cut above your average promotional piece. Ishii speaks extensively on the impetus for the film itself, and well as its myriad subplots. Additionally, nearly every single cast member is interviewed—including Rinko Kikuchi, who would later earn an Oscar nomination for her performance in Babel, and who only has a few lines here. It is clear that almost everyone involved had a great time working on the film, and this enthusiasm is infectious.
Still, I'm not sure this feature and the insubstantial extras necessitate purchasing the deluxe two-disc edition. If you are a fan of the film, then go for it; if you are just a casual admirer, the single disc will do.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Viz Media
• Director and cast profile
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