Famously, many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films end with a young woman getting married and the emotional desolation that it provokes in those left behind. Ozu, unlike some of his contemporaries, generally comes down on the side of marriage. His heroines always succumb, rarely finding independence or resignation and settling for a second choice even if their first proved unavailable. The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Ochazuke no Aji), however, takes him in a slightly different direction in asking what, if anything, is to blame when a marriage is unhappy, repurposing the arranged married debate to perhaps imply that wedded bliss is less about romance than it is about endurance and mutual understanding.
Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), a middle-aged woman, consented to an arranged marriage to Mokichi (Shin Saburi) at the usual age but seems to feel little more than contempt for him. A friend from school, Aya (Chikage Awashima), invites her on an impromptu trip to an onsen and for reasons not entirely clear, Taeko feels she has to lie rather than simply telling Mokichi that she would like to go away with a friend for a couple of days. Aya encourages her to spin a tale that her niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who often stays with them in the city, has been taken ill and is in need of urgent care, but the plan is foiled when she swans into their home right as rain before Aya could give her instructions. Caught on the hoof, Taeko is forced to improvise that a different friend is ill, the four women eventually heading off on a girls’ trip leaving Mokichi at home alone and apparently none the wiser.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mokichi turns out to be a kind and considerate, if perhaps dull, kind of man. We later discover that he knew all along that Taeko was lying but thought it wasn’t worth making a fuss over. He makes a point of chatting with the maid, asking after her family and is apparently well acquainted with her circumstances. Unlike other men, he doesn’t spend his time out drinking or gambling or even overworking, coming home to read instead, but still Taeko is put out when she phones him at work to kickstart the onsen plan and discovers his desk to be empty. It turns out that he met up with the younger brother of an old friend killed in the war who had asked for his help with a recruitment exam. Non-chan (Koji Tsuruta), as everyone calls him, is a cheerful sort guy who openly admits he wears army surplus suits and likes to eat in restaurants which are “good and cheap”, all of which suits Mokichi much better than his wife’s rather more sophisticated tastes. The younger man is quick to introduce him to the pleasures of the age including bicycle racing and pachinko parlours which is where he runs into an old army buddy, Hirayama.
While Taeko and her old friends break into a rendition of a song from their student days with Setsuko looking on in minor confusion, Mokichi sits around a small table with Hirayama and an equally out of place Non-chan recalling his glory days in Singapore and singing old army songs. They are each, in their own and infinitely parallel ways, mourning the promise of their youth. Taeko’s friends, Aya and Takako, have an equally cynical view of marriage. Takako’s husband has gone to Paris and she, it seems, couldn’t be happier with her newfound freedom, while Aya runs a small boutique and regards hers as little more than a necessary inconvenience. When the ladies take in a baseball game, Aya is surprised to spot her sports-hating husband on the bleachers apparently escorting a woman she recognises from a nearby bar, but she isn’t in any way jealous or angry merely amused and planning to use it as extra leverage to persuade him to buy her a new kimono despite the fact that we later see him asking her for money (which she snatches back as punishment).
Despite all of that however Taeko’s tragedy maybe that somewhere deep down she wanted her marriage to work. Her open contempt for Mokichi, likening him to a big fat carp and referring to him as “Mr. Bonehead” in assuming he is stupid enough to believe all her lies, annoys the otherwise modern Setsuko who sees their unhappy union as definitive proof that arranged marriages do not work. Interrogated by her exasperated niece who was sure her aunt would support her in her resistance to her parents’ matchmaking, Taeko claims that she is happy and perhaps she is even if in her unhappiness, but Setsuko’s unexpected seizure of her agency though rudely walking out on the omiai brings her own marriage to a crisis point. Mokichi cannot quite say so but tacitly supports Setsuko’s desire to decide her own romantic future even if he disapproves of her irresponsible rudeness to her prospective suitor. “Forcing her to marry against her will would just create another couple like us” he eventually explains to Taeko in boldly saying that which should not be said.
It would be easy to think that the problem is Taeko and Mokichi simply aren’t suited. There is an obvious class difference that seems to be a continuing problem for the snooty Taeko. It annoys her that he insists on pouring his miso soup into his rice bowl which she feels is common, like his cheap cigarettes and preference for third class rail travel. He explains that it’s not that he’s cheap, simply that these are the things he likes, that he’s familiar with, that make him feel relaxed. Their upbringings are different. Taeko feels relaxed in first class because that’s how she’s always travelled and she likes the finer things because they reassure her in her status. That might be one reason they occupy different areas of a shared home, he with a traditional futon in a tatami mat room, she in a well appointed Western-style boudoir even as she exclusively wears kimono.
Yet the problem isn’t that they like different things so much as an essential misconnection. Without perhaps knowing, Taeko is so filled with resentment over her lack of control of her romantic destiny that she’s never warmed to her husband or felt secure in her marital home. It’s a cliche to say she doesn’t understand him, but perhaps she wanted something different to what she eventually got. A sudden crisis after the Setsuko episode sees Taeko make a temporary retreat only for Mokichi to be abruptly sent abroad. Sharing the homely comfort food of green tea poured over rice, she finally begins to understand that what she took for indifference was perhaps merely a different way of showing love. Mokichi really is a man who likes the simple things, affection without ceremony, like the flavour of green tea over rice. She knows that unlike Aya’s husband Mokichi will never betray or hurt her. He is infinitely “reliable” which might not sound romantic, but is perhaps the only solid basis for a successful marriage.
That’s the advice she eventually offers to Setsuko, walking back on her commitment to arranged marriage, a “feudal” tradition she and all the other women had been determined to force onto her despite the fear and pain it caused them in their own youth and beyond, to remind her that marriage is for life. Find someone “reliable”. A flashy suit and a handsome face might look good now, but they might not in 20 years’ time. Setsuko has taken a liking to Non-chan who claims to be “reliable” but his taste for pachinko and bicycle races might suggest otherwise. In any case, after a heartwarming resolution that repairs the fractured marriage of Mokichi and Taeko, Ozu ends on a moment of cheeky ambivalence in which Non-chan says the wrong thing, upsetting Setsuko who retreats into a small hut. Non-chan repeatedly apologises and tries to enter, while she pushes him back out, neatly symbolising the arc of a marriage as an accidental battleground of intimacy though in this case one with a playful resolution.
The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th May courtesy of BFI in a set which also includes an audio commentary by Tony Rayns. The first press edition also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Milne.
Short clip (English subtitles)