Ochazuke no Aji (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)
I’m not sure it’s possible to argue that Yasujiro Ozu was not, during his long and prolific career, one of the world’s finest filmmakers. (I’m not sure anyone has ever tried. But still.) At least one professional critic ranks an Ozu film, Tokyo Monogatari, as the best movie ever made. The critical consensus as They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? lists ten of Ozu’s films in the thousand best ever made as of the 2013 list (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is not one of them. Neither is Record of a Tenement Gentleman, for my money Ozu’s finest moment; it sits at #12 on my own thousand-best list as of December 2013, while The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice languishes, relatively, at #307). To put that into perspective, Scorsese has nine entries on that list, Welles and Truffaut eight, Spielberg and Tarkovsky seven; the only directors represented more often are Bunuel, John Ford, Godard, Bergman, and Fritz Lang. (Akira Kurosawa also has ten on the list.) This guy, he’s good. Of course, he also churned out movies like Merzbow churns out CDs, and there are any number of nooks and crannies where a film geek can get lost in the Ozu canon; there may be no one alive who’s seen every movie the guy ever made. I got the chance to catch two of Ozu’s “minor” films, this and A Hen in the Wind, at the Cleveland Cinematheque, the only two I’ve had a chance to see on the big screen so far. A Hen in the Wind is good; The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is great.
There are two parallel storylines going on here. The first concerns an older couple, Mokichi (Late Autumn‘s Shin Saburi) and Taeko (Lake of Tears‘ Michyo Kogure). They have reached middle age and, simply, are starting to get on one anothers’ nerves. Mokichi, a salaryman with a stable if not massive company, is often sent on long business trips, and years for the simple life of his youth, while Taeko is suffering a midlife crisis and years for action. Along with this is the story of their niece Setsuko (The Seven Samurai‘s Keiko Tsushima), who is rebelling against the Japanese tradition of arranged marriage through a series of elaborately-staged reasons for begging off arranged dates—until one time where she simply doesn’t show up. Now, reading that synopsis, if this were an American film, you would know exactly what to expect, especially given the first extended sequence, where Taeko concocts an elaborate lie (involving Setsuko) in order to go on a spa weekend with some friends; the two women would bond over their shared rebellion blah blah blah. Ozu, who co-wrote, goes you one better: Setsuko runs into Mokichi, the two of them go off and play pachinko together, and they form a bond (as well as Setsuko meeting Michiko’s co-worker Noboru (Kôji Tsuruta, of the Red Peony Gambler franchise), who’s quite the hunk.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an Ozu film that one could describe as a comedy; A Hen in the Wind and Record of a Tenement Gentleman come closest, but there are small touches of humor in every Ozu film, even the saddest. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, on that number line, struck me as being on the more comedic side; there were moments when the audience laughed out loud. Not many, mind you, but there is a lighter feel to this than, say, Tokyo Story or Late Spring. And for the love of geishas, the cinematography in this thing. I just sat there gape-mouthed during a couple of shots in the opening titles (pay attention to where Ozu puts the camera in relation to buildings; this becomes a motif throughout the film, though it is never as up-front as it is during the first few moments, and it’s kind of genius). Ozu’s films are usually beautiful, even when they’re supposed to be grimy (think Floating Weeds here), but a couple of shots here really knocked me for a loop—this is Apichatpong Weerasethakul-level stuff decades before that guy was even born. I opened the review saying it, and I will close the same way: this is a great film, all too rarely screened these days. Definitely go ahead and rent it, but if you get a chance to catch it on the big screen, it’s the rare domestic drama that plays out even better when you have a massive screen to take in all the wonderful stuff Ozu is doing with a camera. ****
Part 1 of the full film (all eight parts are currently available).