Still Life in Movement
Cha no Aji
Volume 9, Issue 3 (Film review 2 in 2009). First published in ejcjs on 15 October 2009.
Cha no Aji (Dir: Katsuhito ISHII, 2004)
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Takahiro Sato, Maya Banno
Runtime: 143 minutes
The word which comes most insistently to mind at the conclusion of this charming, meandering film from Ishii Katsuhito is luminous―as if the light which emanates from the screen is cleaner, brighter, or sharper than it needs to be, and carries with it an extra dimension of warmth and beauty. And yet somehow it is difficult to account for this. Certainly the sunset which shimmers across the final few scenes is itself beautiful, as are the scenery and cinematography throughout. These, however, are not enough in and of themselves to explain the feeling of radiance which permeates this film. The performances, too, while sincere, and the characters, while eccentric and engaging, are simple components of a project which manages to transcend its pieces. The sum of Cha no aji is indeed much, much greater than the total of its parts; and that sum is, in a word, 'luminous'.
The story is simple, wandering, almost formless―but this of course is not to imply that little happens. Much does to the Haruno family, around whom the story revolves: the father (Miura Tomokazu) is supportive as his wife (Tezuka Satomi) returns to her careeer as an animator; the son (Sato Takahiro) experiences a blossoming young love; the grandfather (Gashuin Tatsuya) passes away, after completing a series of watercolour paintings for each member of the family; and the young daughter, Sachiko (Banno Maya), encounters, is haunted by, and finally overcomes an enormous, silent version of herself which follows her wherever she goes. As the film unfolds, the uncle (Asano Tadanobu) rekindles an old love affair, and the manga-artist brother-in-law (Todoroki Ikki) produces a music video as a birthday present to himself. As ordinary as these episodes may sound, the charm of this film comes more directly from its way of presenting its content than from the various byways and backwaters into which its story diverts itself. After all, though, it is to some degree the seeming triviality of those byways themselves which provides their attraction, capturing, as they do, the daily reality of family life in a rural community. And yet this film is not by any means a documentary-styled exploration of daily life, reality, or rural Japan―on the contrary, it is a lyrical, pastoral fantasy as humorous as it is touching, as compelling as it is slow, but first and foremost a beautiful and poetic opportunity to savour a particular, visual aesthetic that comes close to presenting a truly 'Japanese' cinema.
The aesthetic is informed by a rich colour palette which captures the look of rural Japan―greens, pinks, blues abound, with tremendous depth in the cinematic composition. The cinematography by Matsumoto Kosuke deserves special mention here, for the masterful way the film presents its range of light and locations. The camera work is mature, fluid, and calm―in some ways it calls to mind aspects of classic films, such as Ichikawa Kon's Sasame yuki (The Makioka Sisters, 1983) or Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1976), filmed so remarkably well by Hasegawa Kiyoshi. This is especially true in the opening sequence, as the son, Haruno Hajime (literally, 'The Start of Spring'), walks through a grove of cherry trees, their petals cascading around him in an evocation of Japan that is somehow fresh despite its perfectly stereotypical obviousness. The combination of mise en scene, light, acting that permits us to identify with the emotional mood of the character, and the lushness of the musical score (by Tempo Little) works to bring us into the very middle of this rural space. This is a space with which the film feels most comfortable, and with good reason. As the film presents it here, rural Japan is safe, welcoming, supportive, and tolerant of individual quirks. Fortunate for the characters, for they are thoroughly replete with quirks―entertaining, odd, but distinctly endearing.
And yet the film doesn't dwell on these. Rather, it allows the characters a remarkable amount of dignity as we move ever closer to knowing them. But to use the word 'dignity' risks characterising the film as dramatic or distant―far from it, it is humorous, gentle, and warm. Its method of delineating its characters is relaxed, but also natural. We gain a familiarity that comes from watching this family, collectively and individually, live, rather than from conversing with them or debating with them. This is both peaceful and informative. We know the grandfather's playfulness as he 'spies' on his granddaughter, slamming closed the window through which he watches her every time she turns her head toward him, only to open it again moments later―a game the two play at for a long time in the sleepy light of midday. In fact it is this game which brings true pathos to the film, as later it becomes the vehicle by which Sachiko discovers her grandfather's passing. We feel we know this grandfather more thoroughly by our watching, and feel his death more deeply, than if we had had him 'explained' to us by direct dialogue. From this comes the power of the film―its ability to bring us into the lives of its characters is subtle but undeniable.
By virtue of this aspect, Ishii, who wrote as well as directed and edited, has crafted a film in some respects capable of rivalling the domestic dramas of Ozu Yasujirō. The title, of course is reminiscent of two of Ozu's films, Ochazuke no aji (Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice,1952), and his final, Sanma no aji (Flavour of Mackerel, 1962). This is not simply coincidental. While Cha no aji is a lighter, more colourful, and far more dynamic offering than those in Ozu's oeuvre, in emotion and characterisation it stands as both a witty parody and respectful homage to that earlier master. Cha no aji continues Ozu's fascination with the family while tempering some of his pessimism; it accepts his pastoral view of rural Japan, while avoiding the elegiac air with which he presented non-urban space. Perhaps most of all, it has learned from Ozu the value and validity of allowing characters simply 'to be' on screen, unencumbered by the need to explain, explain, and explain again what they are thinking, feeling, or doing. Silence, Cha no aji has learned, has an eloquence that can occasionally transcend that of words.
But still, we have one word for this film which its silences cannot best, and that word after all is 'luminous'. Luminous cinematography, luminous scenery, luminous warmth and beauty―a truly beautiful film that, at 143 minutes, is far too brief.
Article copyright Timothy Iles.