The Taste of Tea (Japan, 2004)

The third feature by writer-director Katsuhito Ishii, The Taste of Tea is an absolute wonder. Shunning what typically is the definitive basis of a film narrative – its drama – Ishii creates a vivid visual world from the creative headspaces of a family living in quiet contentment. Capturing the idyllic countryside life of the Harunos, Ishii revels in their expressive antics and experiences of the mundane. There is no high-stakes suspense yet The Taste of Tea is utterly captivating.

As Ishii jumps into the mindscapes of the protagonist family, Emi Wakui’s narration tenderly introduces each of them. Teeange son Hajime (Takahiro Sato) is girl-shy yet has fantasies of getting together with his latest crush, new classmate Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya), which are rendered with great affection for that phase of life. Bicycling happily through the lush countryside as he comes to know she plays the board game Go just as he does, he completely ignores his schoolmates (including a brief appearance by Kenichi Matsuyama) trying to hilariously throw him off track. He imagines himself to be her hero fighting villains and his fantasies are given wild graphic representation by Ishii.

While Hajime ecstatically daydreams during his train rides, his father Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura) beside him merely notes, ‘Ah, did you have a good day at school.’ Nobuo is a hypnotherapist and is leisurely introduced way past the hour and a half mark. Working with his patients’ dreams, he marvels at their mind states. He hypnotises his family for fun at their behest, with Ishii further pushing his protagonists to delight in their imaginative subconscious. Little Sachiko (Maya Banno) has to contend with the made-up existence of her giant self that often appears and stares at her, wherever she is at. Even though she is just six, she coolly admits this ‘stupidity’, deciding to find a solution herself to rid this presence, thanks to her uncle Ayano’s (Tadanobu Asano, suitably trippy) wacky childhood reminiscence.

Sachiko’s experiences are given as much respect as her serene mother Yoshiko’s (Satomi Tezuka), who is an animator and is getting back to work after a sabbatical. Her world comprises of her ‘master’, the family’s grandfather Akira ((Tatsuya Gashuin). An artist, Ishii writes him as one living completely in his own world of imagination of manga heroes and of strange dances to lyrics like ‘Why are you a triangle’, getting rapt attention from Hajime and Sachiko. Much of Yoshiko’s screen time is her thinking about, drawing, enacting her animation characters.

If Ishii introduces other characters, they are on the same wavelength as the Harunos making The Taste of Tea an experience of living through an exploration of one’s imaginative mind. At the same time, he is not naïve and startlingly injects a few doses of the real, through yakuza violence witnessed by Hajime and his father, and later Sachiko. Hajime eavesdrops on, but does not comprehend, the dynamics of unstable, violent relationships. An episode in which Hajime’s male teacher casually, unsuccessfully harasses his female student stands out as does the incessant sexual predation of Nobuo’s sleazy brother (Ikki Todoroki). Despite these sharp interjections, Ishii ensures that the precious world of the Harunos is not an illusory one, but one that is lived with decency and good intentions.

The Taste of Tea is more than a decade old yet its special effects and animation sequences do not seem dated since Ishii bonds them to the emotional cores of the protagonists. An observational yet very playful use of the camera gives the feeling of a warm home. Throughout the film, the Harunos partake in drinking tea together and it becomes not just their time together but, importantly, a time when each accords space to and is aware of the other being in relation to their own self. Much time is spent on the family members together with their tea, yet at times drifting off into their own reveries. It is a cosy, familiar and safe ritual, far removed from the harshness of the world.

Katsuhito Ishii has not made a feature film in several years, and even if he has decided to not to make anymore, The Taste of Tea suffices. It is a uniquely inspiring film pulling off the difficult premise of living decently and gracefully in a world where violence and depravation abound.

The Taste of Tea is now available on Blu-ray from Third Window Films.