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)

Makuko (まく子, Keiko Tsuruoka, 2019)

“In this world nothing lasts forever” the conflicted hero of Keiko Tsuruoka’s Makuko (まく子) is tearfully told, though it’s a lesson he struggles to learn as he battles the anxiety of leaving the certainties of childhood behind. Adapted from Kanako Nishi’s 2016 novel, Makuko is unafraid of the fantastical but resolutely rooted in the everyday as “aliens” make their descent into regular small-town life to learn what it is to die, or so they say, while the hero discovers what it is to live through the beauty of transience. 

11-year-old Satoshi (Hikaru Yamazaki) is coming to the realisation that he is growing up. Things around him, or more precisely his perception of them, are changing in small but obvious ways and he’s not OK with it. Like the other children he used to enjoy being read manga by Dono (Jun Murakami), a middle-aged man with learning difficulties who hangs around with the local children, but has for some reason begun to find it embarrassing. Meanwhile, he’s also battling a degree of resentment towards his distant father (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) in becoming aware of his parents’ complicated relationship after spotting him with another woman and hearing constant references to his philandering which his mother (Risa Sudou) seems to have accepted. Satoshi doesn’t know much, but he knows he doesn’t want to be like his dad or any of the other duplicitous adults he sees around the town which is one of many reasons that he fears growing up and being forced to enter the world of adult hypocrisy against his will. 

All of these fears are challenged by the unexpected appearance of intergalactic transfer student Kozue (Ninon) who tells him that she and her equally odd mother (Miho Tsumiki) are actually from a distant planet somewhere near Saturn where nothing ever changes and no one gets old. This is, she explains, because their bodies are made of particles which are eternal and unchanging, unlike those of Satoshi’s body which are constantly in flux which is why humans grown old and die. When a meteorite carrying different particles hit the planet’s surface, it caused a population explosion leaving her people with the unprecedented choice to die only no one really knows what “death” means which is why she’s come to Earth. Satoshi is envious of an unchanging world, seeing only futility in his equation of change with death which is what it is that he’s really afraid of. Why grow up only to die? he asks, only for Kozue to point out that like the leaves she’s fond of throwing in the air, if they didn’t fall they wouldn’t be so pretty. 

Satoshi isn’t really sure he believes Kozue’s strange story, only that he’s certain he doesn’t want her to die. It seems he fell out with a friend who stopped coming to school because of stories the other kids thought he was making up about UFOs and ladders in the sky, but if what Kozue says is true then perhaps he owes him an apology. Dono, whom he’d previously looked down on as “the town’s second biggest loser” offers him some valuable advice that perhaps it’s better to believe the things that people tell you and if you find out later that they lied, well you can deal with that then. 

Whether Kozue’s an alien or not, Satoshi is fairly certain he’s falling in love with her which is a whole other set of problems which brings him back to his problematic dad and the awkwardness of puberty. He doesn’t want to be an adult, but his body is changing all on its own and there’s nothing he can do about it. The local festival is all about “rebirth” through creation and destruction, but Satoshi still struggles to accept the necessity of change in order to grow, wishing things could simply remain as they are. What he learns is that we’re all “aliens” in one sense or another, everyone is lost and afraid and different but also the same, keepers of a hundred “tiny eternities” equating to one vast whole.  

“Everything disappears in the end” Satoshi is told during an intense encounter with his father’s mistress, but then again perhaps it doesn’t only remaining in a different form. A cosmic event brings the townspeople together in banal awe that quickly passes into a collective memory, and while some depart others arrive in their place bringing with them their own near identical anxieties and, like meteorites striking home, new opportunities for growth. 


Makuko is available to stream in Germany until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2012)

ninkyo helperIn old yakuza lore, the “ninkyo” way, the outlaw stands as guardian to the people. Defend the weak, crush the strong. Of course, these are just words and in truth most yakuza’s aims are focussed in quite a different direction and no longer extend to protecting the peasantry from bandits or overbearing feudal lords (quite the reverse, in fact). However, some idealistic young men nevertheless end up joining the yakuza ranks in the mistaken belief that they’re somehow going to be able to help people, however wrongheaded and naive that might be.

The hero of Hiroshi Nishitani’s Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Ninkyo Helper) is just one of these world weary idealists turned cynics. We find him working a low rent convenience store job where he fills the shop with the kind of intensity that only a disappointed former yakuza can generate. Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) was trying to make a go of things in the regular world, but when a sad little old man comes in with armed robbery on his to do list, Hikoichi shows his yakuza stripes by easily beating him down in front of his stunned colleague.

This might have earned him some brownie points at work, but overcome by pity for this pathetic old man reduced to robbing corner shops for petty change, he gives him the cash and tells him to run. The police soon turn up and arrest them both – during the robbery Hikochi’s colourful tattoos were caught on security camera and no one wants a yakuza working here, even if he did volunteer to pay back the tiny sum of money the old guy got from his own wages.

Meeting up in prison, Hikoichi and the armed robber eventually become friends and after his release, Hikoichi ends up in the old guy’s home town where he joins his former clan as an enforcer. Extremely bitter by this point, Hikoichi has decided to play the modern yakuza game to the max so when he finds out his assignment is running a dodgy “care” home which gets its residents by extorting old people through outrageous loans which send them bankrupt, he only briefly pauses.

The idea of a yakuza running a care home is a strange one. The Uminoneko residential care facility is far from what one would want from a old people’s home – there are no doctors, or even carers, the entire home is run by one nurse, herself an elderly woman who got her nurse’s certification and eldercare qualifications back in 1943!

With a rapidly ageing population, eldercare is a big topic in Japan as the birth rate has progressively fallen while lifespans have increased leaving many older people without family to look after them. With the nature of the family unit also changing, it’s become much harder to care for elderly relatives at home especially if they need around the clock attention. There are simply not enough facilities available to cope with the increasing needs of the older generation leaving families struggling to cope and social services overwhelmed. It’s not surprising that the yakuza have picked up on this as a growth area.

When Hikoichi arrives at the Uminoneko facility, which is just really a prefab shed with some futons in it, he finds a hellish place filled with unstimulated old people left on their beds to die. The place is filthy, and about the only attention the guests receive is the occasional offering of food to keep them alive so that the clan can keep claiming their pensions and welfare payments. Though Hikoichi goes along with this to begin with, it’s not long before his idealism rears its ugly head and he hits on the idea of reforming Uminoneko by turning it into a kind of old person’s commune in which the residents themselves will help out with the running of the place. What was a sad and gloomy prison of exploitation suddenly transforms as the older generation rediscover a place that they can belong, working together to build their own community. However, this of course means less money for the clan and more trouble for Hikoichi.

The clan aren’t his only problems as the town also has a progressive mayor who made a commitment to wipe out organised crime and turn the area into a tourist hotspot with a special focus on caring for the older generation. Teruo (Teruyuki Kagawa) has is own stuff going on which again causes a problem for Hikioichi as he also has a long standing crush on the older yakuza’s daughter, now a single mother with two young children and a mother of her own with senile dementia who needs expensive medical care. Yoko (Narumi Yasuda) has a grudge against yakuza after enduring decades of stigma and eventual abandonment by her father but is willing to deal with them if it will enable her to help her mother. Predictably she begins to develop a better understanding of her father as she bonds with Hikochi and warms to his noble tough guy ways.

Directed by Hiroshi Nishitani and inspired by a TV show (though functioning as a standalone movie), Beautiful World is a finely plotted drama which explores both the roles of the ageing population and eldercare explosion in Japan, and the conflicting role of the yakuza who seek to exploit those who are arguably the weakest in society. Hikoichi makes for a very Takakura-like, brooding presence as his innate idealism and desire to help those around him conflict with his experiences as a yakuza which teach him to distrust everyone and expect betrayal and exploitation at every turn. Resolving in an unconventional and unexpected way, this otherwise mainstream, if  beautifully photographed, drama develops into one of the more interesting character driven pieces of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: