The Taste of Tea has been referred to as a psychedelic version of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, but this is to undersell the humour and warmth of Katsuhito Ishii’s tale of three generations of the Haruno family. There is no oppressive religion and little angst beyond the growing pains of the children, Sachiko and her brother Hajime, while the power of art is found in anime and Eurovision-style pop songs rather than Strindberg and the theatre.
As a film that mixes fantasy and the everyday, there are inevitably touches of Studio Ghibli (e.g. Spirited Away), but perhaps mostly in the integration of the characters within the landscape. In the tradition of humanism in Japanese cinema, Ishii sits between Akira Kurosawa, notably the eccentrics of Dodes’ka-den, and the more recent works of Hirokazu Kore-eda, such as Our Little Sister, Still Walking and Shoplifters.
A feature of the film is its ability to use clichés both knowingly and sincerely, from tea and cherry blossom to manga and yakuza. This is not just limited to Japanese culture, as it wittily evokes western tropes from Chaucer (and his earthy humour) to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
The overarching theme of the film is observing and being observed. Adults watch the young, sometimes with frustration but always with tenderness. The young are conscious of being observed. Sachiko, approaching the end of primary school, imagines a giant version of herself as a looming metaphor for growing up. Hajime escapes an ambush by schoolmates because he is more interested in the regard a fictional love letter implies than in meeting its author.
It’s a film that pays respect to individual aspirations and personal growth, but one that successfully reconciles them to the importance of family, in a manner that ultimately recalls Yasujirō Ozu in such works as Tokyo Story.
“Too many films falsely pretend that people aren’t inherently weird; here, that quality is the one most celebrated.” Rob Humanick, Slant.