Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Taste of Tea (Cha no aji)

THE TASTE OF TEA (Cha no aji)       A                    
Japan  (143 mi)  2004  d:  Katsuhito Ishii                    Official site

It's more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.

In something of a gentle homage to Japanese master Yasuhirô Ozu, Ishii has concocted one of the most original family dramas ever conceived on celluloid, though the story is simplicity itself.  Offering more a series of vignettes than a narrative, all this film does is follow a Japanese family around for awhile in their small mountain village surrounded by rice fields, allowing each one to explore their own individuality.  Style-wise, this is a brilliant screenplay and a hilariously inventive film, not afraid to use surreal, out of body experiences, or subtitled sections when no one is saying anything, films within the film, or brilliant animé imagery side by side with other kinds of colorful animation.  What works here is that these techniques are not just used for show, but they are essential in revealing character.  This film is such a joy to watch that you don’t even realize, until the end of the film, how well you have come to know each of the members of the Haruno family, something of an astonishing surprise.  Mood is essential, and each of the characters has their own carefully defined world, where collectively, through them, we are fascinated to learn about ourselves in the process, as it taps into places in our own subconscious where we’re not used to looking, where perhaps unintentionally, a prominent theme of the film is revealed when a character makes an off-the-cuff remark about the music they’re listening to, “It's more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.”

What’s perhaps most remarkable is the transformative use of the imagination that is nothing less than revitalizing, using surrealistic flourishes where a train comes out of Hajime’s (Takahiro Sato) forehead and flies off into the sky, expressed as a real train is taking his secret crush off into the distance without him, a high school girl he longs for but is terrified to speak to, where Hajime is seen pedaling his bike furiously through the rice fields, often shouting out to the heavens, or the hilarious use of 8-year old Sachiko’s (Maya Banno) growing annoyance at constantly seeing giant images of her head wherever she goes, often floating outside her classroom, hovering just outside the window, continuously interrupting her “real” life.  The pace of the film is perfect, as each sequence flows so effortlessly into the next, weaving in and out of everyone’s lives.  It’s a quiet yet jubilant evolution balancing comical moments with the meditative imagery of a river or of mountains or of a still moment.  While we might have some quibbles, and some may think perhaps this film is too cute, but this is how the film explores the interior worlds, with an unusually poignant visual flair, and we are never disappointed, where despite the length, the film is constantly reinventing itself.  Oddly, it would probably be appreciated just as much by children aged 8 and above, as there’s certainly something in it for everyone.  Ishii is known for the animation sequence in Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOL 1 (2003), but here he’s allowed the freedom to develop his own story, to just let it go and air out his imagination.

To its credit, the film doesn't have a "target" audience, as there isn't even a hint of commercialism, yet it's nationalistic to the core, where praising the small quirks or the individuality of the family is in the Ozu school of Japanese cinema, yet where Ozu simply observes ordinary life objectively, often without an ounce of sentimentality, this film focuses on the internal worlds of the rather eccentric (not dysfunctional) characters by allowing them to open up and soar through highly inventive animated techniques, to explore the limits of their imaginations without being condescending to the characters.  Ishii offers a wonderful perspective on aging while also celebrating the worth of elders to their families, such as the elderly grandpa (Tatsuya Gashuin), by recognizing their memories in a highly personal, yet uncustomary fashion, while at the same time celebrating the isolation of youth, where they feel left out and misunderstood, being the youngest (Sachiko), or from the first crush to adolescent detachment (Hajime).  The director also explores the mid-life crisis, where an absent uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano) returns after being away for years and searches for a lost love, while the mother (Satomi Tezuka) is stuck as a career professional, deciding instead to branch out on her own and attempt something artistic with her life, which may only be understood and appreciated by a small community of other artists.  In this family, through rich character development, everyone's point of view is explored and is equally valid, where the ultimately transcendent film becomes an expression of love by demonstrating that a tolerance of others is as significant as celebrating your own unique individuality, which is given such an unusual visual flourish that it is only minimally used, so as not to dominate the overall mood of the film, which focuses on the meditations of a quiet life in the country.   

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