Brimming with whacky invention and seemingly inspired by the stranger manga, Katsuhito Ishii’s “Samahada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (Sharkshin Man and Peachhip Girl)” (1999) and “Party 7” (2000) were hits at home and also found admirers abroad, including Quentin Tarantino. Now, after a four-year break, Ishii is back with “Cha no Aji (A Taste of Tea),” which was the opening film in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
My first thought on hearing about this film a leisurely paced family drama shot in an idyllic corner of Tochigi Prefecture was that Ishii had gone from the Tarantino-esque to the Ozu-esque. But it’s not quite that. Ishii is still Ishii less a Tarantino or Ozu disciple than a talent with his own comically bent take on reality (or rather surreality).
Nonetheless, “Cha no Aji” marks a departure. In place of the alternate universes of his previous films, Ishii’s latest unfolds in a world much like our own, though located in a rural cultural bubble from which cell phones and convenience stores have been excluded. Also, though his family Mom (Satomi Tezuka), Dad (Tomokazu Miura), Gramps (Tetsuya Gashuin), 6-year-old Sachiko (Maya Banno) and 16-year-old Hajime (Takahiro Sato) may have an average-enough makeup, its members are distinctively, if loveably, quirky.
Mom is an animator, working on a project that requires her to try out superhero poses, which she does with diligence and abandon. Gramps is going senile, but has enough of his wits about him to help Mom with said poses, as well as periodically hold a tuning fork to his head, as though to make sure his brains are still on key. Though a nice, fresh-faced kid, Hajime verges on the gormless as he races awkwardly through the countryside on a comically tiny bike, his mouth flapping with exertion. Little Sachiko doesn’t say much, but is constantly seeing a giant doppelganger and wondering if she can ever make it disappear. Dad, ostensibly the most rational of the bunch, works as a hypnotic therapist, ushering his clients into soothing dream worlds.
In the course of the film, the Haruno clan encounter various other strange characters; have small, but significant, adventures; and achieve what is now called closure, but might be more accurately described as moments of pure joy. This is not always joy of the ever-after sort, but it is good enough for them and us. “Cha no Aji” lives up to its title it leaves the audience with a clean taste and a warm glow.
Though all the Harunos, together with various friends, relations and strangers, get screen time, the two main protagonists are Hajime and Sachiko. A serious, dreamy girl, Sachiko decides that the solution to her doppelganger problem is to do a back flip on the monkey bars and change her relationship to the world. She finds a set in an abandoned playground in the middle of a forest and practices until huge blisters appear on her hands. Meanwhile, Gramps, like a guardian angel, watches from afar.
Hajime’s story is the usual adolescent one of unrequited (or rather unspoken) love. A new girl at school, the big-eyed, sardonically grinning Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya), makes his heart do flip-flops, but he can’t imagine speaking to her. Then she joins the school igo club, and he is recruited by two male members who find him to be a whiz at this complex boardgame. Happiness beckons if he can work up the courage to ask her for a game.
Ishii, who also wrote the script for “Cha no Aji,” works in various subplots, including the awkward reunion of Mom’s soft-spoken-but-totally-cool brother (Tadanobu Asano) and an old flame (Tomoko Nakajima) and the quest of Dad’s fey-but-loud-mouthed brother (Ikki Todoriki) to record a song he has composed for his birthday. (Called “Yama Yo,” the lyrics are little more than a repetition of the title, sung to a catchy tune and accompanied by hand gestures.)
Ishii films this mix of the odd and the ordinary in an appropriately semirealistic, semisurrealistic style. Much of the dialogue and action, particularly of the minor characters, resembles the riffing and clowning of manzai comics (or the kids in the playgrounds and coffee shops across the land who try to imitate them). It can grate depending on your tolerance for TV variety shows. Meanwhile, Ishii interpolates CG imagery, such as of that doppelganger, that transports the film into a realm of the imagination far removed from the annoying static of the everyday.
Like Ishii’s other work, “Cha no Aji” is very much an exercise in style, but one less frantic and eager to impress. Instead, its world is mostly a pleasant, if flaky, place, in which even the odd man (or girl) out can feel at home. It’s a fantasy, this world, in a way that Ozu’s wasn’t but it also holds out reasonable hope. Happiness is not always up in the clouds, it says. Sometimes, like a set of monkey bars, it’s in your hands, in front of your face. But to put yourself over, you’ve got to practice that kick.