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The flavour is that of ochazuke, green tea poured over rice: it’s a classic, simple, unassuming taste that, for the married couple in Yasujiro Ozu’s drama, is to be a happy-sad epiphany. This is the taste of marriage itself, a taste of sublime humility and simplicity, which wise souls will prefer to flashier dishes – and also to the husband’s more sloppy bachelor-like taste for soup poured over rice, which he has been indulging when his wife isn’t around. Yet she concedes her angry scolding of him for this is wrong, too, and the green tea over rice is their gentle compromise. It’s a savour of mystery and melancholy.
If Ozu, like Shakespeare, has a “problem” genre, then his 1952 film (rereleased as part of the BFI’s Japan 2020 season) falls into it. This is a sentimental comedy of married middle age with dashes of sadness and anger, and, as so often in Ozu, heartbreakingly reticent hints that the people involved have not got over the second world war. There are intriguingly odd plot contortions and grave symbolic gestures: some scenes take place in a pachinko parlour called the Bittersweet School of Life. The principals’ apparently placid resolution can’t be understood without digesting the enigmatic final scene, in which the young couple, apparently having found love, nonetheless appear to be bound to the same quarrelsome behaviour.
Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) is a woman in early middle age, dissatisfied with her dull salaryman husband, Mokichi (Shin Saburi). They are childless, and now Taeko has a close relationship with her niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima). She even persuades Setsuko to fake illness so that, under the guise of going to visit her, they can all take off on a girls’ spa weekend without her dope of a husband.
It’s a silly deceit, easily seen through (Taeko finally has to pretend it’s someone else who’s ill), but Mokichi buys it and Setsuko is secretly upset and shocked at Taeko’s cynical contempt for her husband. Meanwhile, Mokichi is spending time with young family friend Non-chan (Kōji Tsuruta) who is soon going to be working at his engineering company.
The men drink together and hang out at the pachinko parlour run by Mokichi’s morose old army pal, Sadao, played by the veteran Ozu stalwart, Chishū Ryū. But Setsuko astonishes both Mokichi and Taeko by confiding in them that she is furious about being chivvied into an arranged marriage – and hurts their feelings by revealing that she doesn’t want to be trapped into a life of unhappiness like theirs. Meanwhile the good-natured if slightly bumptious Non-chan is the obvious “romcom” candidate to be Setsuko’s soulmate.
As always with Ozu, there is his stylised mannerism of direct sightlines into camera, often from someone smilingly looking to the side in semi-profile, as if posing for a portrait. It creates a hypnotically formal, faintly unreal effect that flavours the entire drama. And it’s difficult sometimes to judge the playfully comic tone. When Taeko, her friend, Aya (Chikage Awashima), and sister-in-law, Chizu (Kuniko Miyake), attend a baseball match – a marvellous set-piece scene – Aya notices her husband at the game as well, with a woman from his office!
In another type of movie, that would be the cue for broad comedy, or deeply serious embarrassment and shock. Here, Aya responds only with a kind of bemused exasperation, shrugging off his behaviour. This extraordinary scene is indicative of how deeply denial runs in Japanese marriage. Aya will later tell Taeko that telling or acknowledging the truth is not consistent with married love; she talks of “couples who’ve given up on each other, and can’t even be bothered to lie”.
When Taeko and Mokichi have their argument and Taeko confesses that he likes smoking cheap cigarettes and travelling third-class, his wife is finding out things about her husband for the first time, as if on some fraught first date, and later reveal that they don’t actually know where things are kept in their kitchen without the maid there to help. It’s such a strange, sad, sweet film.
• The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is available on digital platforms.
Source: The Guardian
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