I’ve often heard Yasujiro Ozu described as someone whose work you have to “get.” Which I kind of understand. His films often challenge what we consider to be the essentials of drama and cinema alike. Where we expect high emotion, he delivers a careful response; where there would otherwise be histrionics, Ozu works in silence; when others might stage a scene on its feet, the Japanese director has his actors sit down. (Look at the Criterion promo pieces on their site: everyone is sitting!)
In all honesty, even as someone who likes Ozu a whole lot, the full impact of his 1952 domestic drama The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice didn’t hit me until its final act, I wasn’t seeing how all the pieces fit. In those last scenes, the filmmaker works with the quiet of late night, using the stillness that occurs when most everyone is in bed. In this scenario, an older married couple, Satake and Taeko (played by Shin Saburi and Michiyo Kogure), who up until now have not carried on a real conversation, are reunited after a trip Satake was taking is cut short. The surprise of his return disarms his wife, and she offers to make him a snack. In the kitchen, they hunt for food (the servants who know where everything is are asleep) and eventually sit down to share the meal--the titular green tea over rice, an old standby, always reliable. Animosity and disappointment dissipates, and they actually chat. It’s a restrained scene, full of inconsequential small talk, and yet everything said means so much. It’s basically watching a couple remember why they got together in the first place.
Though, the irony is, their union is the result of an arranged marriage, so why they got together was not up to them. One of Ozu’s regular themes is the divide between the old and young, between tradition and modernity, and that is no different in The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice. The second story of the film is of Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), Taeko’s niece. Setsuko is of the age where social expectation says she should be wed. Her parents are keen to arrange this for her, but Setsuko is not so hot on the idea. In one comical sequence, she ditches out on a date, leaving Taeko behind with the would-be suitor. Even after her uncle brings her back--she and Satake have a strong and tender relationship where they confide in and look out for each other--she escapes again, ultimately joining him and his young friend Noboru (Koji Tsuruta) at the pachinko parlor.
Setsuko and Noboru are of a younger generation who are mindful of their parents’ traditions but eager for more freedom. It’s a pre-War/post-War divide. It’s not that the youngsters are rejecting everything--Noboru is very respectful of the ladder he has to climb in his burgeoning career--but the shift in Japan’s position in the world has opened their eyes to different possibilities. Not to mention the defenders of the old ways deliver a mixed message. Taeko says fixed marriages work, but then why is she so unhappy in her own?
Taeko and her gal pals are a particularly lively pocket of The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, resembling a Cukor-esque cadre of women, coming together for some good times out on the town, inventing ridiculous lies to fool their husbands (pre-Google, apparently folks’d make claims to having things like “appendicitis” without knowing what that meant and hope for the best), and generally being catty drunkards. Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda don’t particularly judge them, but they certainly throw enough obstacles and juxtapositions in their way to make them question what they are doing, even if they don’t say anything. For instance, when Aya (Chikage Awashima) sees her husband on a date with a younger woman, the script asks for callous denial via the dialogue, but the director asks his actress to deliver something completely different with her face. It hurts, but to admit it would be to put a lie too her carefree demeanor.
The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice isn’t an exciting movie. It’s not a sexy movie. It’s not peppered with pithy quips or energized with shocking violence of either the physical or emotional kind. It is, however, quite exceptional in its restraint. In an Ozu world, the tiniest feelings have the greatest resonance. All moments are important whether or not they are played at full volume, all desires and hurts are of great magnitude even when expressed in the most polite manner possible. The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice creates a feeling of comfort and familiarity that only serves to reinforce the movie’s ultimate affirmations. We get the two outcomes we wanted--old love reinvigorated, new love validated--and we feel it all the deeper for being so much in the movie’s groove.
The high-definition restoration of The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice is really nice, with a clear picture and nuanced values brought forth in the black-and-white photography. If you really want to see the difference between a big upgrade like this and just working with materials available, you can look elsewhere on this Blu-ray for a second Ozu feature, What Did the Lady Forget?
What Did the Lady Forget? was released in 1937, and it was Ozu’s second sound film. The direction is fine, though maybe the pacing is a little slower, and the writing was not as sharp as it was the director collaborated with Noda, his preferred writer (such as on Green Tea). The disc has a short documentary about that relationship that is well worth checking out, as it explains some of their approach and what made their partnership so special.
Yasujiro Ozu and Koga Noda
It’s easy to suss out why Criterion paired What Did the Lady Forget? with The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice. The earlier picture also involves a willful niece (Michiko Kuwano), though this one is a drinker who likes to go out to geisha houses. Her presence brings attention to a rift in the household--the wife is pushy and often unpleasant, the husband a passive go-along kind of guy. Except when he sneaks out on his own and lies about it. After a boozy night with the niece and a young colleague (Shuji Sano), his fibs unravel and trouble brews.
Though not as polished as Ozu’s later films, What Did the Lady Forget? is a bit sharper in its satire, with the characters being more forceful in their actions. The niece in particular is a pistol and a troublemaker. The ending is also surprising, hinging on a passionate slap, and a knowing revelation.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.