The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Melancholic (メランコリック, Seiji Tanaka, 2018)

Melancholic posterJust because you’re smart and graduated from a top university, does that necessarily mean you have to put on the salaryman straitjacket in order to become “a success”? The dejected hero of Seiji Tanaka’s Melancholic (メランコリック) isn’t quite so sure, but then he’s always been the type to amble through life going wherever the wind blows him. The time is about to come, however, when decisions must be made and priorities decided lest someone else decide them for you.

Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) graduated from Tokyo University but he’s never been in full time employment and has no definite career plans. Still living at home with his parents, he floats between part-time jobs with little sense of forward motion while his mum and dad are content to let him find his way, if a little exasperated. On a rare visit to a public bathhouse he ends up running into an old high school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who half-jokingly advises he apply for the open job at the baths seeing as it’s bound to be less stressful than your average salaryman gig. Smitten but too awkward to do much about it, Kazuhiko applies for the job and consents to go to a school reunion as a means of seeing Yuri again. Much to his surprise, however, the bathhouse has a second life as a yakuza kill room with on site body disposal facilities.

Asking questions about what goes on at the bathhouse after dark, Kazuhiko’s boss Azuma (Makoto Hada) tells him that it’s dangerous to know things you aren’t supposed to know, but Kazuhiko is not good with hints and his natural curiosity won’t it let it rest. After he finds out about the secret yakuza backroom deal, Kazuhiko has a “difficult” choice to make – elect to help out with the “night shift”, or die. Kazuhiko chooses to help out (he likes being helpful) and discovers that he actually doesn’t mind it all that much, especially considering the “bonus” package Azuma gave him for being a good boy.

The extra money made Kazuhiko feel as if he could grasp that swanky salaryman life without having to submit himself to the rat race. He uses the money to take Yuri to a fancy French restaurant where he’s flummoxed by the wine list and she’s uncomfortable, but still it goes well even if they both resolve to go somewhere more casual next time. Kazuhiko’s inferiority complex is only enflamed by the lingering presence of Tamura (Yuta Okubo), another old classmate made good, who is also interested in Yuri and is everything Kazuhiko feels himself not to be – handsome, successful, filthy rich, cultured, and confident.

Being allowed in on the after hours business made Kazuhiko feel as if he’d been promoted, that Azuma obviously trusted him and that there might be more overtime coming if he played his cards right. His confidence receives a further knock, however, when he realises that a punkish colleague who joined at the same time as him, Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki), is technically in a more senior position despite being a barely literate drop out with bleach blond hair. In way over his head, Kazuhiko still desperately wants to regain some of that status and approval he felt was his when the cleanup business was their little secret.

An awkward, naive, but sincere man, Kazuhiko marvels on realising how many yakuza seem to be “around” before Azuma and Matsumoto remind him that not everyone involved with crime is a bona fide yakuza. The bathhouse outfit is, more or less, run by freelancers but still at the mercy of mob boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yada) who has an iron hold over Azuma because of outstanding debts. Azuma would like to put a stop to the night shift, but can’t – or so he claims. As is later pointed out, for those getting on in years an unsatisfying status quo is often preferable to a turbulent new. Though Kazuhiko has no real objection to working the night shift as far as the clean up goes, he is not completely comfortable with its wider implications, often asking why it was someone had to die only for Matsumoto and Azuma to shrug and say it doesn’t matter. They had orders and carried them out, anything else is an irrelevance they don’t need to worry about.

Kazuhiko, however, does worry if in a fairly minor way until his gradual descent into the world of crime drags him into a vicious quagmire in which he must accept the seriousness of his situation along with its potential costs. Despite the original animosity and natural sense of distrust, what wins out is a sense of fellow feeling between unlikely allies Matsumoto and Kazuhiko who begin to see a way out of their mutual malaise through seizing their own futures and daring to pin their hopes on things they assumed unattainable, like love and friendship. Rather than chasing the salaryman dream, or climbing to the top of the yakuza tree, they pick an ordinary kind of “good enough” success in which moments of warmth and togetherness become the only things which give life meaning. A surreal ode to just muddling through and learning to be happy in the moment, Melancholic more than lives up to its name but despite all the darkness eventually finds real joy in the easy pleasures of mediocrity and mutual acceptance.


Melancholic was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival where director Seiji Tanaka and actor Yoshitomo Isozaki will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)