The Taste of Tea – Katsuhito Ishii (2004)

http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/2011/10/underrated-the-taste-of-tea-katsuhito-ishii-2004/

One could attempt to describe Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea, but one would fail at doing so. Modest and understated, yet with much depth of spirit, it’s the kind of live action film that only an animator could direct, and, really, only a Japanese animator could direct.

It is the story of a family, but not of their hardships or burdens, dark secrets, infidelities. We see them move through their daily lives, making incremental progress (or not), much like ourselves.

Point a gun at my head and I suppose I’d have to call it a slice of life, but it is one of the most delicious, charming slices I’ve ever encountered, a joyful experience that isn’t cynically engineered to be joyful. Ishii doesn’t bother with manipulations to squeeze the joy out of us. Instead, the characters are left alone and observed, and it is fully an extension of the clear, straightforward humanity they possess that makes this such an exciting film to lie back and disappear into.

As the film opens, we find young Hajime (Takahiro Sato) running after a train to try and scream a last goodbye to his crush as she exits his life. Hajime has never talked to this girl, afraid of what might or might not happen if he did. Not able to outrun the train to get a word in, he watches the train speed away from him. A shape starts to form on his forehead, and, slowly, the train he was chasing down emerges from his head, floating away into the clouds, the girl waving goodbye to him.

On first viewing, it’s a shocking departure from reality that takes a while to come to terms with. But it’s the perfect way to set the film up, because this is the sort of thing that you need to expect from it. Anything can happen at any time. The film is not grounded in any kind of Earth-based reality, but is all the better for it.

The Taste of Tea takes place in the sprawling countryside just outside of Tokyo, where much of the family commutes to by train to the city for school or work. The small, typical Japanese-style house serves as a central checkpoint for each family member along the way, but aside from Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka), the mother, who spends all of her free time at her kitchen table animating, trying to get back into the game now that she has time again, most of the film takes place in school rooms, offices and recording studios, on trains and casual strolls, where a gust of wind is as important as a gunshot in the scheme of things.

Strange things are occurring to Hajime’s younger sister, Sachiko (Maya Banno), too. Apparently suffering from an early onset existential crisis, she is being shadowed throughout the day by a big version of herself. It sits and watches her at home and at school, curious and half bored like staring into a fish tank for too long. Sachiko is bothered at her core about this, but keeps it to herself.

Ishii is possibly more well known for his “wacky-Japan” type films, like Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip GirlParty 7 and Funky Forrest, all starring the somewhat enigmatic Tadanobu Asano, but he finds his real calling here, I feel. It’s an incredible accomplishment to direct something so subtle, especially when your instinct seems to tell you to go big to get the laugh. But there are just as many laughs here in the quiet movements of The Taste of Tea, which features Asano as well, but in the smaller role of Uncle Ayano, a sound mixer from Tokyo whose existential crisis takes on a different shape than Sachiko’s.

Like I said in the open, one could try and explain this film and easily fail at doing so. And I have, I know. It’s almost pointless to keep trying, because I keep getting further from the point the more I write. There is no explaining Grandpa (Tatsuya Gashuin), who is the force behind the film in many ways, for instance, nor the path Hajime decides on taking when he falls in love with Aoi, played by the lovely half-Japanese, half-Russian Anna Tsuchiya. It’s an elusive film that exists entirely in its sense and feel. To put it in sports terms, The Taste of Tea is all intangibles, delivering exactly what is needed when the time comes. Absurd and lovely in equal lengths, beautifully photographed and acted (and animated at times), there is a great and gentle beauty to it, a drifting, gauzy summer lushness that will take you away from yourself for a little while if only you’ll let it. A little bit of faith in the film brings with it a deep reward. It might not help you shake any demons off of your back permanently, but it might put a smile on your face and scare them away for a while.

Hana & Alice – Shunji Iwai (2004)

http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/2011/09/underrated-hana-and-alice-shunji-iwai-2004/

In the normal run of things, there are very few love triangle films you would ever find me enjoying on the sly, let alone openly praising and defending, but Shunji Iwai’s Hana & Alice is one of them.

A beautiful, deceptively complex film, one that is as touching as it is funny, and one that works just fine on its surface but that gets better and better as you peel back the layers, Hana & Aliceconcerns the lives of two teenage girls living in the suburbs of Tokyo as they are about the graduate junior high and move on to high school.

Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) have been joined at the hip for years, best friends that are so similar and used to each other that they move in unison, something helped along by their ballet classes. When we first meet them, Alice has fallen deeply in love with a boy she sees on the train platform every day, a Japanese-American mix who Hana isn’t interested in. As an aside, mostly joking, Alice says she can have his little brother, Miya (Tomohiro Kaku). Hana’s nose immediately crinkles at the idea, but its posturing to hide the embarrassment from Alice. Her eyes tell the real story: something in her brain makes her want him.

What exactly that is is hard to say. Thinking back on some of my high school crushes, I can’t explain the attraction either. It was just a fact. Like the sun rising every morning and setting every evening, there was a crushing weight on my shoulders.

I’m somewhat hesitant to provide a synopsis because the film defies explanation, really. It is the sort of silly-serious material that needs the right hands to works, and in Iwai, it does have the right hands. Iwai is a master filmmaker, and material that would be weak and frivolous in anothers hands are spun into lace by his. We are meant to laugh a little at the girls, at the lengths they go to for such a fleeting end, but we are meant to empathize with them as well, to see the silliness through their eyes, to see that it’s not silly at all, it’s just one of those things that slowly gathers an unstoppable momentum.

The film actually began life as a series of internet shorts commissioned by Kit Kat Japan for their 50th anniversary. Its popularity quickly sent it into a feature production, but the film still has a vignette feeling to it, weaving together several concurrent stories rather than relying on a heavy plot. At it’s core, the film is essentially a gentle stalker comedy, but it is so intensely self-aware of what its comedy is, where it is and how to mine it, that it somehow manages to escape creepiness. Any hint of creepiness is immediately defused by subtle absurdities, well timed self-deprecating jokes and ultimately by the lively charm of characters themselves, even though the spin out of control into a jealous rage over Miya by the end.

Love triangles are one of the worst inventions of life, never mind the movies. Guys fight over girls, girls fight over guys. It’s usually for shallow, petty reasons, where the girl or guy in question has been stripped of their flesh and humanity, transformed into a golden statute, a trophy to win. Positive traits are hyper-focused on and the openly visible negative traits are handily ignored. In the end, they are hardly ever worth all of the anguish and bickering they cause. Most love triangles, though, are a natural outcropping of competitive relationships, where you want to possess the things your friend wants or already has because of our stupid lizard brain remnants. It comes in quite a different flavor in Hana & Alice. There is no machismo or cattiness to contend with here. In fact Alice is only spending time with Miya as a favor to Hana to deepen the “truth” of the game she is playing with him. In Alice’s desire to please her friend, she builds an even more elaborate game with Miya, one that they both have trouble easily dismissing.

Whenever I show this film to someone, or make them watch it against their will, they always turn it into a contest of which girl they like better. The answer is always – always – Alice. Even the girls pick Alice. It’s not hard to see why people would immediately pick her. She is adorable, sweet, intelligent and quick witted. Her ballet makes her graceful, and we see all of that right out in front.

I’ve never personally made a decision between the two. I like Hana as much as I like Alice, though for conversation’s sake I usually side with Hana because no one else does. You have to work for her, take time to consider what makes her tick. On the surface she appears to be the more mature one, more eager to be an adult and quickly grow up than Alice. But inside she still retains the romantic notions and emotions of childhood, though they manifest in decidedly mature ways. Whatever her deceits, they are very adult in nature, even if the intent behind them is juvenile. Much of the material added to make it feature length focused on Alice’s family, so Hana lacks a certain depth of story development, but there is enough visible to make small leaps of faith about her character and background. In that way, she is a little bit more rewarding a character to spend time with.

There is a hazy quality to the cinematography, something like a shadowy, overcast day that follows the film around, even in the bright sunshine of the spring scenes. It works like magic to the film, making it feel more like the fairy tale, and even though I know in my head that it’s just a problem inherent in old digital cameras (Iwai has shot much of his work on video instead of film), and I know how much I hated digital cinema until very recently, I can’t help but give it a pass in this film for the magic airy feeling it inspires in the film. I say airy, but really it’s more about a heft. These problems in these years of a persons life are heavy stuff. There is a reason why everyone can identify with Charlie Brown and the rain cloud above his head, and that’s exactly the feeling that is evoked here.

The film was shot by Noboru Shinoda, and was one of the last films he worked on before his sadly premature death in 2004. Shinoda, who appears in a cameo role as a commercial director, and Iwai had a working relationship that went back to 1994 when they made the short film Undotogether.

Over 10 years they worked together often, building a truly unique visual style together. He was the cinematographer for  every feature length film Iwai had made up until his recent film,Vampire, Iwai’s first feature length English film, which failed to secure North American distribution after mixed reviews at Sundance. Between 2004 and 2009, Iwai only has a documentary on Kon Ichikawa to his credit, and I don’t believe it an accident, I believe it to be a period of mourning for his friend, who was such an important part of his films, and who might have gone on to direct his own as Iwai moved into more of a mogul role, giving directing opportunities to others he’s worked with over the years on films like Rainbow SongHalfway and Bandage.