Yasujiro Ozu’s exquisite look at marital strife
My only previous encounter with the work of Yasujiro Ozu came in the form of Criterion’s release of the delightful Good Morning last year. Thankfully they didn’t stop there, now releasing one of the director’s more renowned and revered works in the form of The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, a delightful and delicate look at a marriage in trouble, caught in the clash between tradition and modernity.
One of the ineffably lovely domestic sagas made by Yasujiro Ozu at the height of his mastery, The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice is a sublimely piercing portrait of a marriage coming quietly undone. Secrets and deceptions strain the already tenuous relationship of a childless, middle-aged couple, as the wife’s city-bred sophistication bumps up against the husband’s small-town simplicity, and a generational sea change — in the form of her headstrong, modern niece — sweeps over their household. The director’s abiding concern with family dynamics receives one of its most spirited treatments, with a wry, tender humor and buoyant expansiveness that moves the action from the home into the baseball stadiums, pachinko parlors, and ramen shops of postwar Tokyo.
Like Good Morning, Ozu’s 1952 effort zooms in on the issues of a family unit, with laid over commentary about the onset of modernization in Japan. In this instance, looking at the difficulties being encountered by a middle-aged couple, who after many years of marriage are contemplating their lack of children, societal status, and future together. As so often is the case, it takes a change in circumstance, in this case a visit from a niece, to cause reflection and change for the pair. Mokichi (Shin Saburi) was raised in a simpler region, used to a provincial life, while Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) was born and raised in the city and fancies herself a stylish, sophisticated sort. They have their routines and grievances bubbling under the surface that are drawn out by the arrival of Taeko’s young niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who is determined to reject an arranged marriage, a stance only reinforced upon seeing the state of her Aunt and Uncle’s relationship.
This post-War era marked a shift in the demographics and culture of Japan, a move into a modern era clashing with traditional behaviors and expectations, with generational differences emerging. The niece represents the future standing in judgement over the past. The film exquisitely immerses the viewer in traditional Japanese family life and this perturbation of the status quo. Ozu condenses the problems this culture was facing into one couple, keeping it personal, drawing attention to little moments of habit, things they have grown to love, grown to accept, or grown to resent. There is a precision to the framing, details, camera flow, and movement, often disrupting the stillness and calm, drawing attention to issues of conflict or symbols of modernity encroaching on their lives, or using clothes and decor that contrast, showing how uneasily the pair are within their own relationship and culture. It’s meticulous film-making that never pulls away from the intimate core. You invest in this couple, embarking on this exploration of their own relationship in changing times, an awkward and often comedic story that ends with a release, sharing green tea over rice, and bridging an understanding and acceptance of what is needed to make things work, or at least give them a chance.
Older black and white films usually show up flaws or issues with any new transfer, but as you’d expect Criterion’s 4K digital restoration and release is stunning. Clear and clean images, detail impresses, blacks are deep, and contrast shows fine range. No damage or artifacts are evident. Extra features also impress:
- What Did the Lady Forget?, a 1937 feature by Yasujiro Ozu: Criterion have only gone and thrown another Ozu feature on the release for good measure! Running just over 70 minutes, it’s the second feature directed by Ozu, one that feels a little more quirky and satirical than the main feature. Very much worth a watch.
- New video essay by film scholar David Bordwell: The author who literally wrote the book on Ozu, shares some eloquent commentary on the filmmaker.
- Ozu & Noda, a new documentary by Daniel Raim on Ozu’s longtime collaboration with screenwriter Kogo Noda: Delves into the overall process the two undertake when tacking a project, their personal relationship, and the 27 films they have made together. A very nice addition to the release.
- PLUS — An essay by scholar Junji Yoshida: Housed in the traditional liner booklet which also contains stills and details on the restoration process.
- New cover by Katherine Lam
The Bottom Line
The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice is as simple and yet nuanced as its title suggests. Delving into arranged marriage, the clash of tradition and modernity, and what it takes to make a relationship work, while never losing focus on the pair at the center of it all, it’s an intimate and moving work that leaves a delicate but indelible mark on the viewer.
The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice is available via Criterion from August 27th, 2019.