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The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice

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Criterion Collection: The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) | Blu-ray Review

For those accustomed to the bittersweet greatest hits of Japanese auteur Yasujirô Ozu’s later period familial dramas, the lesser known 1952 social satire The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice reminds one of a wider range than some of his revered titles would indicate. Seeing as this more obscured title arrived just a year prior to 1953’s ineffably devastating Tokyo Story (review), with its poignant intergenerational rifts, makes the latter title all the more unprecedented. Likewise, the coterie of titles marked by seasonal or time-oriented motifs which would follow in quick succession (Early Spring; Tokyo Twilight; Equinox Flower; Good Morning; Late Autumn; The End of Summer; An Autumn Afternoon) speaks to Ozu’s own dislike for the themes and motifs used here. Despite the director’s own dislike for the film, class and gender conflicts congeal into a rather satisfying and empathetic resolution in a meaningful satire of bourgeois ideals in post WWII Japan, perhaps meant as a critique of the cultural escapism embraced in this period.

Four women meet at a spa, proud of the fact they’ve each deceived their ‘clueless’ husbands by feigning one of their illnesses to attend the outing. Eventually, we focus on Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), the spoiled daughter of a businessman who married below her class to Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi) in an arranged marriage, a man she has come to disdain. The childless couple’s life is upended when his headstrong niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) arrives for a visit, forcing both parties to look at how they’ve been treating one another.

Food, rather than seasons, becomes the central motif, as indicated by the mouthful of a title, and is used as a metaphor for what a ‘successful’ marriage is supposed to be, i.e., a heterogenous mixture of tastes, textures, traditions and nostalgia to create a messy but deliciously simple concoction. If anything, this sly portrait of a new sentiments brooding both within the current and impending generation reflects a modernization more directly explored in 1959’s Good Morning.

Ozu was not a celebrated festival favorite and thus did not enjoy the same international acclaim as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi (only his The End of Summer competed on a major platform in Berlin, though reverence for French cinema gets a sly nod in the opening moments as Michiyo Kogure and Keiko Tsushima drive by a shoot for a new Jean Marais film). It’s these two women, diametrically opposed and of a curious familial make-up, who provide Tea with its most compelling moments. Taeko’s bitter feelings for husband Mokichi are apparent in every early exchange, culminating in the film’s cruelest moments, referring to her husband as Mr. Bonehead and comparing him to a sluggish carp in a pool of fish below the spa she’s secretly traveled to with her girlfriends, all more than happy to be complicit in Taeko’s secretive excursions.

Setsuko is primed for rebellion against traditional arranged marriage, critical of her aunt’s disrespect for her affable husband and honing in on the viewpoints of the modern single woman (“Husbands are awful. They gripe from morning to night,” she’s told in early sequence by her aunt’s confidante). Of course, Setsuko isn’t averse to flirtation, and she finds a willing suitor eager to pique her interest (a dalliance Ozu uses to explore the possibility of a hopeful ending suggesting the possibility of equal footing), but it’s the stagnant relationship of Mokichi and Taeko which ends up pulling at the heartstrings as a childless, uncommunicative couple finally learns to abandon their artifice (the trappings of her class and his gender) to speak to each other honestly.

Later, Ozu would explore another stagnant marriage brought to more explicit extremes in Early Spring (1956) by introduced an extramarital affair. With Tea, the resolution is realistic but simple, never straying too close to a point of no return.

Disc Review:

Criterion presents their latest Ozu title to join the collection as a new 4K digital restoration in 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are both beautifully rendered in this presentation, lensed by Yûharu Atsuta (who filmed a number of Ozu’s most noted titles, including Tokyo Story and Late Autumn). Several notable extra features are included on the release (such as one of Ozu’s obscure early works).

What Did the Lady Forget?
As an extra treat, Criterion includes Ozu’s second sound feature What Did the Lady Forget?, made in 1937, as an extra feature. With a running time of seventy-one-minutes, the film is a satire of the Japanese bourgeoisie, and an early format of the social comedies he would come to master.

Ozu & Noda:
Filmmaker Daniel Raim created this sixteen-minute program in 2019 for the Criterion collection, which explores the working relationship and writing process of director Yasujiro Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Nada, who worked on twenty-seven films together, including The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice.

David Bordwell:
David Bordwell, author of Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, sat for this 2019 twenty-five-minute interview from Criterion to discuss the director’s influence.

Final Thoughts:

As all of Ozu’s films, its quiet exchanges are the most potent, even if with The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, this one has a bit more bite than expected.

Film Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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