Director Yasujiro Ozu’s collaboration with screenwriter Kogo Noda resulted in several classics, including Tokyo Story (1953), considered one of the greatest films ever made. But looking between the titles familiar to cinephiles all over the world reveals some fascinating efforts. One of those is The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, made the year before Tokyo Story and released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in August.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice touches on many of the themes familiar to Ozu’s work. Mokichi (Shin Saburi) and Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) are a childless couple in Tokyo. Their marriage was arranged, and it is clear that they have two wildly different personalities. Mokichi is from a more rural, working-class background, and his small-town habits are hard to lose, even after getting a white collar desk job. Taeko was born in Tokyo, and sees her husband as a boring man who has to behave differently around her friends.
Their difficult relationship is contrasted by the budding romance between Taeko’s niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) and Noboru (Koji Tsuruta), one of Mokichi’s younger co-workers. Setsuko is staying with Mokichi and Taeko, and her presence makes gives the older couple a look at what life is like before cynicism creeps in.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is nowhere near as good as the monumental films Tokyo Story or Late Spring (1949), but it does not have to be to reach the same themes as those highly esteemed films. The relationships between the characters take center stage here, more so than Ozu’s satire of Japanese post-war society. We’re rooting for the best to come from these two relationships. For all their faults, these characters feel like real people we know. The ending does not feel preposterous, or like something that could only happen in movies. An Ozu family comedy does not bring humor from outrageous situations, but snapshots of every day life.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice looks quite good for a Japanese film from 1952. The Blu-ray transfer comes from a new 4K restoration by Shockiku, and paired with a mono soundtrack. It is not perfect, and looks a little softer at some points, possibly thanks to some extra manipulation by the Japanese studio.
Criterion does include a slim selection of extras, but all are quite good and informative.
- What Did The Lady Forget? – Following in the footsteps of their excellent Good Morning Blu-ray, Criterion has included an earlier Ozu film that pairs well with the main feature. This 1937 feature, running just 71 minutes, also features a couple whose lives are upended by a niece. It is far more screwball than what viewers of Ozu’s later masterpieces know, but it is a great inclusion. Sadly, it is in really rough shape, although presented in 1080p.
- David Bordwell – Film scholar David Bordwell once again provides an engaging essay on the film, Ozu’s style and where the two films on this Blu-ray sit in the director’s filmography. This piece runs about 26 minutes.
- Ozu & Noda – Although only running 17 minutes, this is a fascinating piece put together by Daniel Raim and featuring an interview with film professor Daisuke Miyao. Raim covers a lot of ground in the brief documentary, stretching from the origins to the Ozu-Noda partnership, to how they worked together and finishing with how their final film (An Autumn Afternoon) came together. This has to be one of the best features Criterion has included in a release this year.
- “Acquired Tastes” – The leaflet includes an essay by Junji Yoshida that provides a nice companion to Bordwell’s piece.
This is not the title newcomers should start with when it comes to Ozu. The filmmaker could do comedy (as seen in Good Morning), but some of it here feels a bit forced in this film about class and generation gaps. The film is at its best when Ozu just lets things play out, making the moment the older couple comes together to make the titular dish one of Ozu’s most remarkable scenes. Still, the collection of extras on The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice make this Blu-ray a must-have for Ozu fans.