Friday, August 30, 2019

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 27, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and her friends celebrate at a hot springs retreat in Shuzenji, Japan. They revel not only in their vacation time, but also in the shared deceptive gambit that has brought them together, a convincing lie told to each of their husbands to free up a few days to relax away from domestic obligations. Taeko only wishes the ploy had posed more of a challenge. Her husband is so stupid and simple, a real “Mr. Bonehead” as she repeatedly calls him.

The other married women laugh, but Taeko's young niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) joins in the mockery with some reluctance. After all, she likes her Uncle Mokichi (Shin Saburi) and when we finally meet him, after he's been framed through Taeko's eyes through most of the first act, Mokichi turns out to be a decent, hard-working man, maybe a little boring but surely no bonehad. Setsuko later confronts her aunt, vowing that she would never insult her husband like that. Of course, Setsuko isn't married yet and might not be for quite a while as she currently refuses to meet with the prospective suitor her mother has arranged for her.

Director Yasujiro Ozu's “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” (1952) has perhaps been somewhat eclipsed because it was released between two of his most-beloved masterpieces, “Early Summer” (1951) and “Tokyo Story” (1953), but nobody should think of it as minor Ozu. Is there even such a thing? The director, working once again with the great screenwriter Kogo Noda, uses his deceptively unobtrusive camera (moving a bit more prominently than in some Ozu films) and low-key approach to drama to observe a broad swath of post-WW2 Japanese society, or at least in Tokyo.

The film depicts a culture split by rigid gender and class divisions. Men spend most of their time socializing with men, women with women. As one of Taeko's friends notes, with sympathy, wives only see their husbands at home where they are “like turtles lazing in the sun” but in the workplace they're more “like racing hares.” Taeko remains skeptical that there's much “hare” in her Mr. Bonehead, but slowly and ever so subtly (we're talking Ozu here) her perspective shifts.

Young Setsuko feels far less restricted by hegemonic norms. Not only does she reject arranged marriage as “barbaric” but she appears supremely comfortable as virtually the only woman in male-dominated spaces, like in the stands at a bicycle race or at night at a pachinko parlor. At said parlor, her very supportive uncle thinks it's time for her to go home. When she respectfully declines his advice, he threatens to leave her alone, unchaperoned, which sounds like a mighty fine idea to Setsuko.

Taeko and Mokichi's marriage has been slowly fracturing along class lines for some time now. She's a sophisticated woman raised in the city, he's a simple working-class man and war veteran from Nagano. She's ashamed of his fondness for cheap Asahi cigarettes, but he likes the flavor and even the box design. She's embarrassed by the way he slurps his food, and he promises to do better in the future. Mokichi seems more tolerant of Taeko's expensive, modern tastes, but he's not the sort to express his resentments.

This makes Taeko sound like a judgmental nag and to a degree she is, but Ozu and Noda don't deal in one-dimensional characterizations. She's not a bad person, simply the product of her environment and she's also capable of change, and far more empathy than you might expect from someone who dishes out “Mr. Boneheads” for cheap laughs. To add another dash of complexity, it's the supposedly old-school Mokichi who endorses Setsuko's rebellion against arranged marriage, while the “modern” Taeko rages when her niece won't do the proper thing.

The film culminates in a truly extraordinary final act which a mere recounting can't possibly do justice to. A twist of fate reunites the couple unexpectedly for a night at home after their maid has already gone to sleep. They rummage through a kitchen they're clearly both unfamiliar with to prepare a light snack which they eat together. And that's it, almost the entire final act devoted to a quick meal, but that meal is everything, the entirety of a marriage, of two lives shared for many years, perhaps even of an entire society in constant change. And it is nothing short of sublime.

Can the simple taste of green tea over rice on one quiet evening save a crumbling marriage? With Ozu, nothing is insignificant, so why not? 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Shochiku from a 35 mm fine-grain positive at IMAGICA Corp in Tokyo.”

This 1080p black-and-white transfer may not be perfect, but it looks a lot sharper than any other version of the film I can recall seeing. The image is quite bright with excellent detail visible in fabric, interior decoration, and, of course, faces. I don't know how much boosting was required to achieve such a sharp look, but it doesn't seem like any detail was lost in the process. Black-and-white contrast is robust too. A couple shots looks a bit softer than the rest of the film, but it's not a problem. This high-def transfer looks wonderful.

The PCM Mono track sounds rather thin and hollow throughout, presumably due to the original audio source. There are no obvious dropoffs or distortions. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

A quick look at the back cover of the Blu-ray case makes it seems like it's a bit light on extras, but that's not true.

For starters, we get a second Ozu feature film! “What Did The Lady Forget?” (1937, 71 min.) presents a familiar scenario of a troubled couple with a freespirited niece named Setsuko. The wife here is depicted somewhat less sympathetically than Taeko, as domineering and vain, but it's still a fine Ozu film which provides an early version of some of his better later works. Video quality on this unrestored film is mediocre, but still solid enough.

The disc also includes a short documentary (16 min.) by filmmaker Daniel Raim which focuses on the relationship between Ozu and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Kogo Noda. Ozu and Noda were good friends and blurred the lines between friendship and work by often hashing out ideas while staying up late drinking. Sounds like a good plan.

We also get a video essay by film scholar David Bordwell (25 min.) which touches on various topics, including some of Ozu's early influences (Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch) and some context about post-WW2 Japanese society.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by scholar Junji Yoshida.

Final Thoughts:
Two more Ozu films in the Criterion Collection. Don't they have enough Ozu already? Answer: No, not until they have them all.

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