Like virtually all of the films he wrote and directed in the second half of his career, Yasujir 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 "the 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 "new" 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 ("I 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 (Kji Tsuruta), who goes with him to dinner and takes him out to a pachinko parlor that happens to be run by Sadao (Chish Ry), 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 Kgo 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.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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