It is hard to put a finger on what exactly is so great about “The Taste of Tea” (“Cha no Aji”). There is no real story to speak of, the movie drifts from one bizarre instance to another, and becomes just a hodge-podge of small vignettes vaguely connected by a circumstance of family. A bit like real life, I suppose, but without the bleeding ghosts and giant girls.
What ever it is, “The Taste of Tea” is a great flick. Director Ishii Katsuhito (Party 7) has put together a modern version of an Ozu film, focusing on tiny family dramas that anyone could encounter and making them the focus. No grand drama, no heroes and villains, just life. Everything focuses around the Haruno family, with each member having a story to tell. Effects are used to create the surreal atmosphere, but never overpower the story. An American equivalent would be Big Fish, which also combines the nostalgic with the surreal.
The ensemble cast is pure quality, each of them stars of the Japanese film industry. Asano Tadanobu (Kakihara from Ichi the Killer) plays a younger brother who needs time with his family to recuperate from lost love. Tezuka Satomi (Isola) plays the mother, a woman who has given up her career as an animator to raise her family, but wants to break back in now that her children are older. Gashuin Tatsuya (Spirited Away) is amazing as the unhinged grandfather, a man with an artist’s soul and the innocence of a child. Anno Hideaki, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, even pops in for a cameo role.
The scenery of rural Japan is also beautifully filmed, and is enough to make you nostalgic for it even if you have never been there. All the sites and sounds are perfect, with vivid colors crisp and alive. I have spent some time in rural Japan, and “The Taste of Tea” made me want to chuck my job, pack a suitcase, and head back to the mountains and rice fields and just soak up the lifestyle.
This limited edition of the DVD is worth getting picking up over the regular one if you can. A two-disk collection, there is a subtitled 90-min “Making of” feature, as well as the full version of the animation “Super Big” which was featured in the movie.