A Story to Savor
by Tatiana Farmer
The Taste of Tea (2004) is a surreal film directed by Katsuhito Ishii. It is set in rural Tochigi prefecture, Japan, and peeks into the life of the eccentric Haruno family. At first glance, this film seems to be out of this world. The characters and story lines are bizarre and meandering. The cinematography is simple yet captivates the audience by its illogical and sometimes unnerving scenes. The family, much like the film, seems to have difficulty in living in the moment. They are all over the place, rarely showing an intimate moment together. Even when they are present physically, their minds and their lives are elsewhere.
The film begins somewhat normally. The screen is black and nothing can be seen or heard except for the sound of frantic panting. This is how we are introduced to the first character. Hajime Haruno is the eldest child of the Haruno family. The camera trails him as he is seen desperately running through rice fields after a train. The scene switches back and forth from Haruno outside of the train to a young girl inside the train who is revealed as being his unrequited love, who is moving away. Hajime stops running and looks up at the train as it leaves the frame of the camera. He is full of regret and the camera switches to a close-up of his sad face. There is no music playing, only Hajime’s dazed face looking off into the distance. Then, a lump begins rising under his forehead. A train extrudes from his head, leaving a square-shaped hole in his forehead. This scene is the first sign to the viewers that this film is not at all what it is seems.
Connecting the film in relation to tea, even food in general, was a difficult process in the beginning. It is extremely easy to be drawn in (or pushed out) by the otherworldliness of the film, which causes the subtle meanings hidden within the film to get overshadowed. Food in the film can be seen as a link to normalcy. Despite the strangeness of the family, when we see them sitting around the dinner table enjoying a meal together, we are reminded that they are human and for a moment they do not seem so foreign to the viewer. However, even at the dinner table it is hard for them to separate from their individual lives for even just a moment. This is seen when Yoshiko and Akira are practicing poses for her animation. The only times we see them truly connected physically and mentally is through tea.
All the characters have their own quirks that make them seem alien to the viewers. Sachiko, the youngest child of the family has a recurring problem throughout the film; She keeps seeing a silent bigger version of herself that mimics or watches her from afar. She cannot seem to get rid of it, but upon hearing her Uncle Ayano’s account of a similar problem with a ghost that kept following him, she tries to get rid of her bigger self by doing a backflip over a horizontal bar. Yoshiko, Hajime’s mother, is no regular housewife. She juggles domestic work on top of her dream of being an animator. Often she is seen drawing at a table or getting her father to help her by posing in various positions for her characters. Nobuo, Hajime’s father is a clinical hypnotist. He enjoys his job and even practices on some of his willing family members. Ayano is Hajime’s uncle who is visiting. He is a music producer and is taking the time off to reflect and get away from the city. On his visit, he manages to settle an old relationship and indirectly helps Sachiko with her problem. Akira, the grandfather, is the most peculiar character of them all. He almost seems senile. His actions are playfully immature and he has frequent outbursts of singing or acting. His family, nonetheless, adores him because he gives life to the family.
After Akira dies, life moves quickly for the family, but they do not seem to be living in it. When the funeral passes, they all gather on the porch and drink a cup of tea together. A picture of Akira is seen propped against the wall in the house, but it is facing the backs of the family. Hajime and Nobuo both have their eyes cast down, their faces solemn. Sachiko and Yoshiko are both looking up, but their eyes are not looking at anything in particular. There is no music or talking, the only sound we hear is from the slurping of the tea; this is a big contrast from the beginning of the film when the small house was full of life. In this instant we connect with the characters on a personal level. We understand their loss and sympathize with their vulnerability. Tea plays a significant role in this scene. A famous Japanese expression called “Ichie Ichigo”, which translates roughly into “One time, one meeting,” is an expression used to highlight the importance of appreciating each moment as unique. In this scene the family’s chaotic life is left in the background as they take the time to enjoy a cup of tea together. The intimacy associated with this simple action is therapeutic, promoting a congenial environment for healing.
This film is not meant to be enjoyed or understood with only one quick watch. Instead, the director intended for his audience to savor this film, to take in all of the flavors of the characters and interconnected storylines and have them come together in a subtle, yet sensational way. Just like the perfect cup of tea.
A Taste of Tea. Dir Katsuhito Ishii. Grasshoppa, 2004. Film.