Written by Max King, Edited by Issy Smith
In 1933, when Yasujiro Ozu was beginning his career, the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki diverted from the typical novel form which had made his name. Seeing the arrival of a modern way of life which threatened the traditional cultures he held dear, Tanizaki wrote In Praise of Shadows: a short essay without a particularly rigid structure, detailing a sadness for the passing of specific aesthetic choices. Claims abound, like the ancient writing brush and ink having a “vast, almost boundless” influence on wider culture—or, without a hint of irony, that “anyone with a taste for a traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection”. The author may try and distance himself from the grumblings of an aging, cynical man; even if you see it as nothing more, it remains a fascinating argument.
Since first reading this essay, its resonances with the work of Ozu have grown in my mind. And not just because of the quotidian life which the director so often was drawn to depicting; both Tanizaki and Ozu show off their traditional worlds desperately, clinging to the middle of a constantly changing culture. Those ‘shadows’ that the former praised are everywhere in Ozu – lurking between the paper screens that frame every interior, or hanging over the delicately woven mats. His architectural focus is just as pronounced. It goes without saying that Ozu’s fiction films give an entirely different outlet for such subjects. Tanizaki may well have made it a theme of his novels – that would be the subject for an entirely different article (and an entirely different writer, given I haven’t read them yet). Without the space of an essay for a meaty anthropological examination using specific examples, the filmmaker instead argues with a visual stillness: as if beauty becomes a rhetorical tool. Over a decades-long career going from black-and-white to ravishing colour, through silent films and talkies, the emotional register and stylistic tics are consistent. His camera sits as another person; addressing characters as a member of conversations, observing life as an inactive participant.
There are arguments to be had over the most typical of Ozu’s films as a display of these features. Some may back Tokyo Story, the most acclaimed, or possibly Late Spring. But I hope to dodge any of these questions in my selection of The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice: a slightly more hidden film from his fruitful 1950s period. Admittedly, there are sentimental reasons for this one standing out in my mind. As my second Ozu film, it made a huge impression on my mind in 2020, watching it with the family in an enforced lockdown. Suddenly, that static eye and domestic calmness came into its own. Rather than studying meticulous pandemic walkthroughs like Contagion, I became set on reframing the view of my own four walls, and Ozu’s home-set dramas were the best places for inspiration. And the particular tone of the home stands out in this film. As is typical, the spaces are divided between modern leisure and traditional home life; the pachinko parlour, the sports grounds and theatres – the entertainment is vibrant and bustling, and this is what makes the contrast stand out.
In the characters, Ozu finds his gaze drawn once more to this contrast. At the film’s heart is a group of middle-aged women; they gossip and lie to their husbands for a spa trip, while mocking the stupidity of these men for believing them. These early scenes are lightly comedic and wry, but avoid any sense of moralising. A tension is created by the presence of Setsuko, the niece of one of the women, who refuses the marriage which the women are arranging for her. She sees their lying and lack of loyalty as a reason why the marriage would be futile; but why shouldn’t the elders put her through it, if it’s “tradition”? Ozu’s light comic touch floats these tensions out for observation. Meanwhile, Mokichi – husband of Taeko, and Setsuko’s uncle – has his own dealings with different generations. He spends evenings with a younger colleague, chatting over dinner and pachinko: the flipside of the maternal advice given by the women to Setsuko, and her implicit fear of turning into someone as unhappy as Taeko.
If there is a primary emotional conflict in the web of characters across the film, it centres around the marriage of Taeko and Mokichi. This appeared to be the seed of the film for Ozu too: in a 1940 interview, before a twelve-year period of wrangling that led up to eventual release, he cited how “humour erupts each time [Mokichi’s] rustic behaviour is shown to irritate his pompous, Tokyo-bred wife”. She sees him as stuck in the ways he learnt as a youth, growing up away from the city, despite the respectable executive position he holds at work. In comparison, she has seemingly accepted the adaptation to the particular social class of their pairing, and is resentful – or even jealous – of his lax attitude. The topic of food will be returned to later, but one key scene examines all of this in the act of eating rice. Mokichi is caught pouring soup over his rice and wolfing it down hungrily, in a manner that Taeko sees as slovenly—Ozu makes a delicate implication when their maid points out it’s how she grew up eating too. He objects to the “ceremony and affectation” of elevated Tokyo, with the wrangle of unresolved class tensions, but it is so distinctive in the film’s refusal to make this an issue. It is the quietude of keeping up appearances that comes to define the couple in these confrontations.
Whether filtered into comedy or tragedy, it is exactly this kind of conflict which sets Ozu apart as the poet of manners. He never married himself; but perhaps it is this that makes the bond such a perennially returning and evolving feature of his films. For example, a comparison could be made between Setsuko and Late Spring’s Noriko. Both are women of a similar age, and refuse (initially, at least) the tradition of arranged marriage. For Setsuko it’s a matter of modernity and independence, while Noriko’s decision is based entirely on the dedication to her ailing father instead; yet both leave me watching their endings through a wobbly haze of tears. Noriko’s father persuades her that, through whatever conditions, “he’ll manage” in his life—and while it lacks the tang of sacrifice, The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice offers a similar final note of selflessness. Mokichi returns after being sent away for business, and he cuts off Taeko’s apology for her harsh words before he left: “it’s okay”, he chides, “it’s just like you”. It is this manner of arguments dissolving rather than erupting that sets these films apart, with the characters consistently being allowed to succumb to decency.
It may be that the descriptions of these family members have had me tying myself in knots: perhaps, but the important idea of generations provides another lens through which Ozu’s domestic aesthetic can be viewed. Not only do the characters differ based on their age, the settings find a similar movement and shift. Dislocation was an idea to which Ozu often returned; it is arguably the entire source of drama in his masterwork Tokyo Story, where an old couple visiting their children in the city find themselves incompatible to the modern bustle. A similar idea is subtly at work in The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, which pits busy city locations against a quiet home life. The pachinko parlour is always a bustle of energy. The crowd is young and energetic, acting as a “microcosm of life” for one wistful observer, while the machines keep jamming: the attendant’s head popping over the top to see to each customer in turn becomes a source of physical comedy. Meanwhile, the same framed shot of the interior of Taeko and Mokichi’s house returns often, subtly shifting as the film goes on. Details are placed in the mise-en-scene without comment—compare the lengths of Tanizaki’s agonising over materials for his shoji dividers and eventually opting for a “far from pleasing” paper-backed glass, exactly as they appear in Mokichi’s residence. But the combined effect is not a limiting of characters to places they feel at home. Rather, these spaces – like the traditions of old – are allowed to gradually warp under the gentle guidance of other character’s perspectives.
I mentioned earlier the importance of food as a metaphor and a ritual in The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, and I wish to return to it for a study of the film’s final scene. The importance of food in the film cannot be overstated, as it isn’t merely sustenance—meals become an event, to which the haiku-like rhythm of that title (which I would be sad to abbreviate in this article) owes a huge debt. Returning to Tanizaki, he wrote of Japanese cuisine that it is “to be looked at [and] meditated upon” more than eaten, with a kind of “silent music”. But it isn’t the ascetic dedication of the chef – as seen in that wonderful doc Jiro Dreams of Sushi – that inspires Ozu; it is more the habit of attaching memories to food. Without the close-up descriptions of “each and every [rice grain] gleaming like a pearl”, his long shots fill the gaps with personal feeling.
In the established tradition of her uncaring manner, Taeko ignores Mokichi’s calls for her to see him—he has been unexpectedly called away to South America for a business trip, and must leave that night. Though there is trouble with the trip and he isn’t away for long, Taeko’s refusal to wave her husband off at the airport as the rest of his family do is lingered on. Tired from the upheaval, or emotionally drained from this absence, Mokichi returns and demands they eat ochazuke: a simple dish of tea poured over already cooked rice. Dutifully, achingly, the couple potter in the kitchen, finding some leftover rice and the servants’ crock of pickled vegetables. And of course, it is more than the sum of its parts; the meal takes on a meaning which belies its thrown-together nature. It is just the kind of humble fare that Taeko has previously mocked her husband for enjoying. But he is happy and content, and it gives them both pause for recollection; this is what they ate at an early stage in their marriage, and the fact they have grown up shouldn’t deny them the pleasure. This acts as a revelation for Taeko, who has arguably been restricting herself ever since the presumed arranged marriage that set them up in the first place. Tanizaki finished his essay with food too: a lengthy description of a regionally specific kind of sushi, chosen to “be palatable to an old person”. Through his description, detailed in every regard, the author preserves the tradition of his subject, turning food into a ritual that depends on life as much as the sushi sustains it. It’s a testament to the film that Tanizaki’s final claim that people must retire to the country as they grow old seems churlish: in the power of the bowls of ochazuke, we believe – or rather, we hope – that these small islands of contentment can be sustaining for the rest of Taeko and Mokichi’s marriage.
And this is how Ozu pushes my buttons, in a way that the enforced domesticity of the last couple of years has only amplified. There are modern filmmakers that approach something similar; I have taken equal comfort in the cosmic romance of many Paul Thomas Anderson films, and the clear-eyed spirituality of Tropical Malady or Uncle Boonmee. (Incidentally, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s typical mode – ghosts and memories projected hauntingly against the febrile neon of cities – throws Tanizaki’s essay into sharper relief.) But it was Ozu who got there first, and who has never lost his power to bring me back down to earth.
Junichiro Tanizaki translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, In Praise of Shadows (Leete’s Island Books, 1977).
Ozu interview quoted by Junji Yoshida, ‘The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice: Acquired Tastes’, Criterion, 2019, <https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6562-the-flavor-of-green-tea-over-rice-acquired-tastes>, accessed 14th June 2022.