Taste of Tea, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/25/05 21:56:00
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "The Taste of Tea" is the kind of film that can drive me insane: Two hours and twenty minutes of a relatively typical family facing relatively small day-to-day challenges. The fanciful visuals dress this up a bit, though not enough to stop wondering "hey, is there any kind of actual story here?" Despite that, the movie is sort of mesmerizing. It regards its subjects with a sort of detached fondness, and by the end has managed to get us to share that affection.We watch a the Haruno family, living in a town outside of Tokyo a little too far out to really call suburban (I grew up in a place like that, and jokingly called it supra-rural). Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), the father, works in the city as a hypnotherapist, while his wife Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) stays at home, drawing, getting assistance from the grandfather (Tatsuya Gashuin), whose mind is slipping. When not posing for Yoshiko, he spends a great deal of time in his room, peeking out the window at six-year-old Sachiko (Maya Banno). Sachiko is a very serious little girl, concerned about the product of her imagination - a giant version of herself - that is following her around. Her older brother, Hajime (Takahiro Sato) has just seen the girl he has a crush on move away, whereas Uncle Ayano (Tadanbou Asano), an record producer staying at the family home either on vacation or because he's currently unemployed, is more concerned with the girl he'd loved as a younger man moving back.
There's a certain amount of quirkiness to this movie and these characters, but seldom so much that it's hard to take them seriously. Sachiko, for instance, is clearly very worried about the big Sachiko that seems to be following her around, and takes a story her ungle Ayano tells Hajime about an imaginary yakuza who seemed to follow him when he was a boy to heart. She may not see how turning a backflip on a playground will solve her problem, but it's worked before, right? Similarly, Hajime keeps his own adolescent heartbreak to himself, channeling it into long bike rides (as in, distances where sensible people take the train) and having strange, train-themed daydreams. Of course, he also starts pestering his family to play go with him more when he sees that the new girl (Anna Tsuchiya, not quite so tough as she plays in Kamikaze Girls) has joined the school's go club. Writer/director Katsuihito Ishii doesn't trivialize the family's concerns, including those of the children, but he doesn't indulge in melodramatics, either. Even when his characters are being funny, Ishii treats them with dignity.
Similarly quiet is Ishii's use of special effects. Not only are they visually seamless, the filmmaker doesn't feel much need to punch them up with music or sound effects. Indeed, many are eerily silent, as if they represent the things in the characters' minds that they can only whisper about. The special effects aren't the only unorthodox bits of storytelling, though - there's a segment with a man swinging a baseball bat that is almost as funny as it is surreal, and a subplot with Yoshiko's brother, a successful and highly eccentric manga artist occasionally veers into the bizarre.
The performances are all very good. Banno and Sato are both excellent child actors, not mugging for the camera and not playing little adults (and when Maya Banno's Sachiko smiles for the first time, it's both a delight and a relief). Ubiquitous heartthrob Asano (also recently seen in Survive Style 5+, Zatoichi, Bright Future, and Last Life in the Universe) is a relaxed, friendly presence. Tatsuya Gashuin, wearing some twenty years' worth of prosthetic makeup, does a really excellent job as the grandfather. The character is not senile yet, but he's not quite sharp any more, either. His job is to make us like the kind of off-kilter man we see now, but also make us curious about what he must have been like in his prime.
The way the filmmakers shoot the country and the city in this movie is interesting. The small-town environs are almost austere at times, with both children and Ayano sharing tatamis on the floor, the playground Ayano used to play at is overgrown for Sachiko, and few people wait at the same train station as Hajime and Nobou. There's little near the house, and the roads are somewhat dusty. Oddly, perhaps, the city doesn't look much more bustling or crowded. Even the establishing shots are seldom at street level, and the shots of Yoshiko's brother's apartment/office make it look more spacious and empty than the Haruno family house.I feel like I should have more to say; it's a long movie with a bunch of characters. But it's such a gentle film, with such a delicate structure, that it's difficult to talk about it beyond mere description - and its little treasures deserve to be seen on the screen, as opposed to read in a review.
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