The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice review – Ozu's bittersweet triumph

This portrait of married middle age is deliciously flavoured with mystery and melancholy

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.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A Faithful Man review – drearily frothy French romcom
The female objects of desire in this disappointing ménage à trois comedy by Louis Garrel are more fantasies than characters

Cath Clarke

23, Aug, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Benjamin review – Simon Amstell's hilariously bittersweet romance
As a young film-maker’s career teeters on the brink of disaster, a surprise love affair forces him to rethink the path to happiness

Peter Bradshaw

13, Mar, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
First Love review – brilliantly bizarre, ultra-violent yakuza caper
A terminally-ill boxer helps out a troubled sex worker in Takashi Miike’s strange and wildly energetic film – his 103rd

Peter Bradshaw

13, Feb, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
All Hands on Deck review – fresh and funny French holiday romance
A romantic surprise has unexpected consequences in a gentle comedy channelling Éric Rohmer crossed with Carry on Camping

Peter Bradshaw

04, Aug, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Finding Your Feet review – starry cast save creaky golden-years Britcom
Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie play sisters forced to live under the same roof in a feelgood but frustrating comedy

Peter Bradshaw

22, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Family Way review – potent portrait of sex in the swinging 60s
In this rereleased comic drama, Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett play a couple plagued by a wedding-night disaster and the neighbours’ wagging tongues

Peter Bradshaw

30, Apr, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Tehran: City of Love review – the rocky road to romance in Iran
Ali Jabernansari’s engagingly downbeat comedy-drama offers intriguing insights into life into modern Iranian life

Cath Clarke

09, Oct, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
The Lovebirds review – wacky Netflix murder-mystery romance
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani play a couple forced to run for their lives in Michael Showalter’s likably lewd screwball crime caper

Peter Bradshaw

20, May, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Long Shot review – Seth Rogen gets Charlize Theron's vote
Laughs ensue when a presidential hopeful is reunited with the teenager – now a speechwriter – whom she once babysat

Mike McCahill

03, May, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Plus One review – weddings romcom has seen it all before
Two wisecracking single friends attend endless, mortifying nuptials together in a predictable mashup of previous romantic hits

Peter Bradshaw

05, Feb, 2020 @3:00 PM