Like virtually all of the films he wrote and directed in the second half of his career, YasujirÃ´ Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke no aji) is about life in mid-century Japanese culture and how familial and interpersonal connections can slowly wither and erode if not tended and cherished. Ozu’s constant subject was the Japanese family, and while he has been rightly celebrated as ‘œthe most Japanese of directors’ due to his close attention to the details of Japanese life and (evolving) culture, his dramas transcend cultural limitations in the way to speak to universal human experiences of love, loss, regret, and restitution. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is very much a drama about coming to terms with and accepting difference in the ones you love, and the manner in which it ends makes it one of the most hopeful of Ozu’s late dramas, offering in microcosm the possibilities of mending frayed relationships that might otherwise seem beyond repair.
The film’s central relationship is between a long-married, childless, middle-age couple: Mokichi (Shin Saburi), a low-level executive at an engineering firm whose life revolves almost completely around his job, and Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), his wife who aspires to a more cosmopolitan life and quietly (and not-so-quietly) resents her husband’s provincial tastes. Early in the film she constructs an elaborate ruse as a means of getting his permission to visit a weekend spa with several of her friends, among whom is included Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), Mokichi’s niece. In a pointed scene, the women throw breadcrumbs to a bunch of carp in a small pond and start comparing the fish to their husbands, none so ruthlessly as Taeko. Setsuko takes notice, especially since Mokichi and Taeko’s wedding was arranged, an event she is currently facing and by which she refuses to abide. The tradition of arranged marriages makes no sense to Setsuko, an exemplar of the ‘œnew’ modern woman emerging in mid-century Japan, and Taeko’s attempts to talk her into it carry no weight due to the manner in which she talks about Mokichi (‘œI would never talk about my husband that way,’ Setsuko says).
Meanwhile, Mokichi has his own set of little white lies that enable him to spend evenings out with a younger friend named Noboru (KÃ´ji Tsuruta), who goes with him to dinner and takes him out to a pachinko parlor that happens to be run by Sadao (ChishÃ» RyÃ»), with whom Mokichi fought in the war. Taeko’s criticisms of her husband feel harsh, but it is obvious that Mokichi is very much wrapped up in his own world and pays her little attention; they essentially live in parallel lives, sharing the same physical space, but little else, which is why it is so easy for them to lie to each other.
Out of these relations, Ozu and his frequent co-writer KÃ´go Noda develop a seemingly simple, yet emotionally rich portrait of a wide range of characters whose intersecting lives throw into relief all kinds of questions about family, marriage, gender roles, and cultural tradition. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice emerged during one of Ozu’s most fertile artistic periods, following Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and directly preceding his masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953), all of which similarly dealt with issues in the contemporary Japanese family. In Green Tea, Ozu breaks with his typical lock-down visual style by self-consciously moving the camera in several instances, sometimes to follow characters as they walk down hallways, but just as often to push into empty spaces after the characters have left them, which both emphasizes the importance of human presence and also foreshadows important events to come in which those empty spaces will be filled.
Ozu, who began his career directing comedies and never entirely abandoned the form even as he become known primarily for austere family dramas, finds a great deal of humor in the various interlocking stories, and he isn’t above suggesting that some of his characters’ predicaments are fundamentally absurd. Yet, he also pays the characters the respect of dramatizing their dilemmas in such a way that we can see how and why they feel the way they do and how they might be willing to entertain their own hypocrisies if it gets them what they want. Ozu is clearly looking to the future, especially once Setsuko and Noboru meet and bond over their shared love of good, cheap food and the idles of youth (the kids, it turns out, are alright), but at the same time he allows the older couple to find their grounding together via the dish of the title, which represents the simplicity that Mokichi enjoys and Taeko resents. Their ability to share the dish together is a beautifully modulated mini-drama of marital reunion, perhaps in a manner that makes the relationship stronger than it is ever has been because they finally see each other for who they are. It’s a lovely bit of optimism from a director who is more often than not happier to remind us of how disappointing life can be.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice Criterion Collection Blu-ray
1.37:1AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monauralSubtitles
EnglishSupplementsWhat Did the Lady Forget?, a 1937 feature by Yasujiro Ozu
Video essay by film scholar David BordwellOzu & Noda, a documentary by Daniel Raim
Essay by scholar Junji YoshidaDistributor
The Criterion CollectionSRP
August 27, 2019
Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice derives from a new 4K restoration that was undertaken by Shochiku from a 35mm fine-grain positive. The image looks very good, although like a lot of Japanese films from the time period, it has a slight softness to it that is often the result of lower grade film stock being used (the fact that the restoration was done from a source two generations removed from the negative certainly affected it, as well). The image is extremely clean, with almost no signs of damage or wear, and it boasts good detail in the darker parts of the frame and strong contrast throughout. The Linear PCM monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm optical soundtrack positive. It is a bit thin owing to the film’s age and recording technology, but it sounds clear and works very well with the film. The supplements kick off with an additional Ozu feature, 1937’s What Did the Lady Forget? (71 min.), a satire of the Japanese bourgeoisie that foreshadows a number of themes in Green Tea, particularly the tension between a young, modern woman and older traditions. It is also notable for being Ozu’s second sound film (his first being 1936’s The Only Son, which Criterion released on DVD back in 2010). While there is no audio commentary on Green Tea, we do get a deeply informative and thoughtful 25-minute video essay by film scholar David Bordwell about the film’s themes, story, and aesthetic design (he is interestingly undecided on what exactly those rare camera movements mean, although he offers a few possibilities). We also get a 16-minute featurette by filmmaker Daniel Raim about the close working relationship between Ozu and his screenwriting collaborator KÃ´go Noda (they co-write 27 films together) that features illustrations of the two men’s working habits and an interview with film scholar Daisuke Miyao, author of The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema. The insert fold-out includes a new essay by Japanese film scholar Junji Yoshida, a professor at Chapman University.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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