When director Katsuhito Ishii went from anime to live action with his debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, I was less then impressed. Essentially, the film was an okay offbeat crime film, though I thought it aspired- hell, downright pleaded- for a hip factor that I thought it didn't deliver. His follow-up Party 7 was universally reviled and sent him back to the animation drawing board where he lent a hand to the anime sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1. So, it was much to my surprise that his third film A Taste of Tea (2004) is a real winner. Stylistically, the film is a familial comedy drama with a solid surreal, magical realism feel.
The Haruno family lives in an idyllic part of the rural Japanese countryside. The family is made up of teenage Hajime (Takahiro Sato), little sister Sachiko, animator mom, therapeutic hypnotist father, their urban uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), and odd duck grandpa. Hormonal Hajima is experiencing a deep crush on the new girl in school. Mom has just returned to work as an animator, a talent she inherited from her father. Now, grandpa's main pastime is composing odd little ditties, like a song about his bathwater. Little Sachiko is followed around by a giant doppleganger, which lazily stares on while she is in school doing her homework, or perched atop the house at night while she eats dinner. But, that kind of thing is typical when it comes to the Haruno's.
Now, the wacky family film isn't exactly a new concept, and you can point to cliched characters in this sub-genre. For instance, in every wacky family the grandpa is always the wackiest. But, formula works for a reason, and be it Happiness of the Katakuris or The Royal Tenenbaums, in the end it is the execution and the depth of the characters that matters most. A Taste of Tea is all character. There is no real plot to speak of; though, pretty much, each family member does have their own particular hurdle- Hajime's crush, Sachiko ridding herself of her gigantic double, Mom returning to the workforce, and so forth. So, it feels more leisurely (and it is a longish film, around two and a half hours) because there is no real dramatic thread.
Imagination is everything and The Taste of Tea is filled to the brim with beautiful surrealism and great black humor. Not only does each character have their own little quirks, but the film throws in other asides. For instance, a tv show the family is watching details a tabloid discovered jungle girl becoming part of a comedy duo, only when she gets a punchline wrong, she attacks her straight man. That is just a typical throwaway bit the film tosses at you. When Hajime watches his old crush leave town, it is visualized as the train emerging from his forehead and floating off into the sky. When Mom's bolwcutted, geeky boss makes an unwanted advance on her, she beats him to a pulp, the unassuming, sweet woman suddenly becomes WWF-worthy. Words, at least mine, really fail to capture the visual touches and the ease and flow of The Taste of Tea's world where odder moments feel completely natural and alive.
But it isn't just about the oddness, the biker trio tooling around town, songs with the lyrical hook "Why are you a triangle?", stories about a first outdoor shit taking place on top of an egg in a haunted forest, or giant versions of yourself tagging along behind you. There are also quieter, very rational moments that make the film genuinely affecting. Things like, Hajime alone in his room having an imaginary conflict where he defends the girl he hasn't even spoken to yet, or Asano running into an old flame and engaging in an awkward conversation where the two must be friendly, though their time has clearly past. The Taste of Tea is a dreamy tale of quirky family, in a quirky world, that somehow still feels close to our own.
The DVD: Rentrak Ent., Region 2 Japan.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Good presentation of a film with some very striking imagery; they lensed some gorgeous stuff. The film was made very recently, so in terms of print damage or spots, you just won't find many problems. Color and sharpness details are in fine shape. The contrast has good black levels but I wish they were just a bit deeper. The biggest quibble is in regards to the grain. The transfer is a tad gradient which will be noticeable even on smaller screens.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo Japanese language tracks with optional English subtitles. Clear dialogue. Very good, flub free subtitles. Atmospheric fx covey the free and easy sounds of the back country setting. When it comes to the scoring, it is pretty simple. That is until you get to grandpa's catchy, show stopping number, "The Mountain is Alive." Catch it like a fever.
Extras: First of all some nice packaging with a thick booklet insert, though it is exclusively Japanese text. Disc One contains- Teaser trailer, TV Spots and an MTV Special (no English subs).
Disc Two contains great but "damn-it-they-just-are-not-English-subtitled" extras, like- "Making Of" Featurette (90 mins)-- Cannes Featurette (35 mins)-- Animation short, a longer version of one seen in the film-- Opening Night Featurette (19 mins).-- First Contact promo clips for Katsuhito Ishii's next film.
Conclusion: This is the kind of gem I live for. Looking at the bulk of my DVD collection it straddles the line between exploitative an darker artistic fare, but it is this kind of gentle and imaginative film that melts the heart and makes me all warm and fuzzy. In the world of cinema, genuinely good surrealism is far too infrequent. The film is available in no less than three editions, this being middle range "Good Taste" 2-disc edition. While these more extra-packed editions are not entirely English friendly, snooty collectors may want to pick it up just for the meticulous packaging/presentation. Regardless, I highly recommend the film for foreign film fans looking for heartwarming head trip.