When it comes to the great directors of Japanese cinema, it’s a shame that the great Yasujiro Ozu has never really become a household name, at least not as much as Akira Kurosawa. Mainly known for directing small, “slice-of-life” films, Ozu’s work may not have been the grand pictures that directors like Kurosawa, Inagaki, or Kobayashi worked on, but they still left just as big a mark as the rest. Right before he made what is arguably his most well-known film, the marvelous and heart-breaking “Tokyo Story,” he directed a small domestic drama called “The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice,” which attempts to tackle various issues of marriage. With the film being newly-released on Blu-ray this week from the Criterion Collection, it’s time to look as this lesser-known work of the master to see where it falls in his extensive filmography.
The film follows a couple, Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and Mikichi (Shin Saburi), who have been married for some time, but have never had any children. They are obviously not particularly happy together, for Taeko feels she has to lie to go off and have a good time, while their tastes also heavily clash (he prefers simple and familiar, while she prefers things more refined). Meanwhile, Taeko’s headstrong niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), is told that she has to go to a marriage meeting, but seeing the state that Taeko and Mikichi are in, she runs away from it, which upsets Taeko considerably. These are the difficult issues that our characters are faced with in this satirical drama.
As mentioned, Ozu mainly made slice-of-life films that dealt with marriage, family, and everything in between. Admittedly, some of these turned out better than others, with the best example probably being “Tokyo Story,” which told of elderly parents trying to visit their grown children in the big city, but finding that the children don’t have any time for them. Then, of course, there’s also “Floating Weeds,” which dealt with a man who tries to make up for lost time with a son he had left behind.
When it comes to “The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice,” it’s a little disappointing to find that it falls more towards the category of forgettable Ozu films that, while it does attempt to explore (and satirize) intriguing issues, just doesn’t get very far in the process. There were a few different threads that the film could have picked up on to explore more thoroughly, but by the end, it just kind of glosses over the issues to give us a very generalized view of this marriage and the possibility of the young niece getting set up. In fact, the latter seems to get passed over pretty quickly when the film finally decides to focus on the main issue of Taeko and Mikichi’s marriage.
However, even when it comes to tackling that issue, Ozu didn’t seem particularly interested in delving into it in any significant way. We get their issues, we get why they’re not happy, but it all gets resolved very strangely by the end in what feels like a rather random resolution (Taeko has been badgering her husband for a good part of the film, but finally admits it by the end). If Ozu had explored this further, or gone deeper when it came to Setsuko’s disapproval of arranged marriage (or even into her relationship with a young man she spends time with), he could have made a few poignant points with the material. Instead, we’re left with a film that provides some compelling set-ups, but doesn’t quite get to where it should be to deliver on them.
Now that’s not saying that it’s a bad film (I’ve never come across a “bad” Ozu film), for it’s beautifully made, as all his films are. His trademark static camera is used to great effect as we follow the couple around their home and to other various spots around the city. It really just needed a little more depth in the writing to fully explore the fascinating problems that it attempts to tackle. Marriage does indeed involve many difficult and complex issues, which Ozu has examined marvelously before, but ultimately “The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice” sadly never quite reaches that level.
“The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice” comes to Blu-ray in a phenomenal 4K restoration, presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film simply looks gorgeous, which is to be expected when Criterion is involved. As usual, in their hands, this is probably the best the film has looked since its original release back in 1952. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is equally outstanding, giving you the dialogue and score in remarkable quality. Overall, there’s not a single complaint to be had about the excellent treatment that the film has received.
What Did the Lady Forget? (71 Minutes): Ozu’s second sound film, released in 1937. The quality is noticeably a little scratchy, but the inclusion of this precursor to Ozu’s more-famous works is quite welcome.
Ozu & Noda (17 Minutes): A fascinating 2019 featurette from Daniel Raim that takes a look at the relationship between Ozu and his longtime collaborator Kogo Noda.
The Gift to Be Simple (25 Minutes): A 2019 interview with author David Bordwell (“Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema”) in which he discusses the director’s work.
Despite offering a few interesting set-ups along the way, Yasujiro Ozu’s “The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice” ends up lacking the depth needed to explore these issues of marriage in a significant fashion. In typical Ozu form, it’s still a beautifully-made film, but due to it glossing over the issues, on top of providing a somewhat random conclusion, it ultimately ends up being one of the master’s more forgettable works.
Available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.