Following the success of his brash Tarantino-esque outings Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Party 7, it would only be natural to be surprised by the sudden shift in style displayed by director Katsuhito Ishii when he made The Taste of Tea. Very much a change of pace Ishii, the film noted for its more methodical and subdued approach won big at festivals, winning the award for Best Feature Film at the 2004 Hawaii International Film Festival, and earned its place on the slate for Cannes the following year. Now, thanks to Third Window Films, we’re offered a chance to see it on this side of the pond, in its first Blu-Ray release.
The film follows the Haruno family who live in the rural north of Tokyo, and guides us through the many facets of the members’ lives, both in naturalistic presentation and through the wonderfully literal visual metaphors born of the two children’s imaginations. The film excels when playing around with its visual quirks; a train extending out of pre-teen Hajime’s forehead as the film opens, and a giant version of the young Sachiko following her everywhere she goes are great examples of the curious nature of the film that permeates through each scene and gives them a childish delight. The Taste of Tea is a fascinating and beautiful film, with oft-appearing wide shots that pay a welcome tribute to the beauty of rural Japan, and a silly sense of humour that breaks long silences with charm. Yet, the film isn’t flawless.
The quirks of the film are offset by moments of sheer naturalism, moments of long, human pauses in conversation that stretch until eternity. This attention to very real human nature drags the film thin, pushing it to a 143-minute runtime that feels undeserved and padded. In a very different film these moments would soar, but in contrast to its bizarre visuals, they feel remarkably out of place. The irreverent and the methodical are warring in The Taste of Tea, and neither can take credit as a consistent tone for the film.
Ishii is more interested in these characters than the audience can be made to be; the film spends most of its time divided between the problems that face the family’s two children Hajime & Sachiko, and their uncle Ayano. Our time spent with these characters is equally too short to develop a true connection to them (safe for Sachiko, whose subplot about trying to rid herself of the giant version of her that follows her remains charming throughout) and so segmented that the shifts between characters are jarring. The Taste of Tea adopts a seemingly unintentional story anthology structure, and the family don’t feel truly connected to one another until the ending, which ties them to one another in an admittedly gorgeous and heartwarming sequence. Until then, though, these stories feel detached and without a meaningful throughline. The characters that the Harunos meet don’t have much impact on the plot, and due to this, our meeting them doesn’t feel to have been a worthwhile way to spend almost two and a half hours.
The Taste of Tea is a mixed bag. Its surreal and goofy elements are funny and endearing, and set on such a beautiful rural backdrop, it’s hard not to become enamoured by it. Yet, without the strong backbone of a consistent tone or pace, its admittedly sweet ending doesn’t feel deserved, or come with a great enough payoff to justify its bloated runtime. A blend of silliness and maturity that doesn’t go down perfectly, but with enough charm to evade a sour taste by the time the credits roll.
The Taste of Tea is released through Third Window Films on 5 October 2020.