With my interest in things Japanese , it will come as no surprise that I am constantly on the lookout for Japanese movies to watch . Unfortunately , those available on Netflix seem to be old classics ( by Kurosawa , Ozu et al) , samurai films or yakuza gore-fests. They are all well enough but I really prefer to see something set in contemporary times which gives me an idea about contemporary Japanese life. Recently , I watched on two movies that fit the bill.
Tokyo Sonata (2008), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa , tells the tale of a middle-aged salariman , Ryuhei Sasaki , whose job is outsourced to a Chinese firm . Unable to come to terms with the loss of his job , he hides his true situation from his family. He pretends that all is normal , leaving home each morning at the usual time and returning in the evening after having spent the day in the library , on a park bench or just wandering around. His wife suspects something is fishy but can’t bring herself to question her husband.After fruitless attempts to get another job commensurate with his status , Ryuhei accepts a job as a cleaner / maintenance man at a mall.
Tensions in the home escalate as, first the older son, and then the younger one, rebel against their father’s authority. The older son leaves the home and joins the American forces in Iraq and the younger one uses his school lunch money to pay for the piano lessons he craves. Matters come to a head when Ryuhei attempts to assert himself and the younger son falls down the stairs and sustains a concussion. Then , in one momentous evening , the family’s lives are turned upside down . Ryuhei finds an envelope full of cash as he is cleaning toilets at the mall . Undecided what to do , he emerges from the toilet clad in his maintenance man’s uniform and runs into his wife . Her worst fears confirmed , she rushes home only to be overpowered and kidnapped by a knife-weilding burglar . Meanwhile the son is picked up on suspicion of shoplifting and thrown into a jail cell by the police. The rest of the film is about how these events cause the family to come to terms with their situation .
The story , as I’ve outlined it above , seems grim and depressing but it is not entirely so. Sasaki’s efforts to find another job are painful to watch but they are leavened by moments of humor. For instance , while he is out on the street one day , Sasaki meets a similarly unemployed friend . To hide his jobless status , the friend has programmed his cell phone to ring automatically , five times an hour . When the phone rings , he cuts short his conversation and pretends that he has received an important, job-related, phone call ! Later , he invites Sasaki to his house for dinner and introduces him as a wife as a colleague. Interrupted at dinner by another of his pre-set phone calls , he takes the call in another room , then comes back and tells off Sasaki for screwing up at work !
What I felt was even grimmer than Sasaki ‘s joblessness was the atmosphere in the Sasaki household , with family members wrapped up in their own thoughts, barely speaking to each other. In one telling scene , the family sits to dinner and proceeds to wolf down their food in silence , reaching across each other with their chopsticks to pick up food. Are Japanese families really so alienated from each other ?, I wonder.
The director , Kiyoshi Kurasawa, is no relation to his famous namesake , (Akira Kurosawa ), but he is a good director in his own right. Tokyo Sonata is two hours long but , at no point , does it seem slow. The pacing is fine and the film offers a searching look at modern Japanese society , the dynamics of family relationships and the effect of sudden joblessness. All throughout, there are deft directorial touches that viewers will delight in . The actors are uniformly good and the ones who play Sasaki and his wife are outstanding . My one criticism is that the resolution of these problems is a little difficult to swallow. Still Tokyo Sonata is a worthwhile film .I rate it at a solid 3-1/2 stars (out of 5).
The Taste of Tea ( Cha no Aji , 2004) is a very different film . It depicts one summer in the lives of the quirky Haruno family . Boy , are they strange ! Dad is a hypnotherapist who practices on his family ; Mom is forever drawing at the kitchen table though we are not sure what it is that she does. The adolescent son, Hajime, is suffering from the pangs of unrequited love and the six-year-old daughter, Sachiko, is followed around by a giant version of herself that only she can see. Strangest of all is the grandfather who appears to be senile and who strikes the oddest poses ; he is not only not reprimanded but even encouraged in his eccentricities by his daughter-in-law There is also Uncle Ayano who relates how, as a boy , he found a giant egg in the haunted forest and deposited a giant turd on it ! For a while , I felt like the middle school kid who wanders into a high school calculus class and is mystified by what is being discussed.
Then , slowly , things began to clear up and turned out to have perfectly logical , even mundane , explanations . Towards the end of the movie , I realised that I’d been looking at it in a wrong way. The Taste of Tea is not meant as a story ( with a beginning , middle and end ) in which everything has to have a resolution . Indeed , even at movie’s end , there are some unresolved plot lines. Rather the movie is about one summer in the life of the Haruno family and it depicts the workings of their minds , their inner lives. Once I understood that, everything made more sense. It is a wonderful concept and it has been picturised sensitively.
I liked all the characters though , at first and for a while , I found the Grandpa merely annoying . After I found out what he was actually doing with his poses, I changed my mind. In retrospect , his character is admirable . Here is an elderly man, struggling with senility, who yet wants to be of use and continues to pursue his artistic imaginings . By the way , though the video that he participates in is ridiculous and the song lyrics laughable , I found the tune kinda catchy , as the DOL remarks in the film. After Grandpa , I like Hajime and Sachiko best . All the actors have done a great job but I found these two the most appealing . Director Ishii has perfectly captured the pangs of adolescent love and I loved the sequence where Hajime escorts Aoi to the bus , tosses her the umbrella as the doors close and then runs after the bus joyously in the rain. Beautiful.
The pace of the movie was slow but I didn’t mind since I was completely absorbed in what was happening on-screen . Some nice touches of humor were seamlessly integrated with the story. I was, however, a little dissatisfied with was the closing sequence after Sachiko finally performs her backflip and rids herself of her giant self. What was the meaning of the giant sunflower which expands to fill the universe ? Also , why the title ? Is it because many of the Haruno’s “thinking” moments are spent on the porch drinking tea ?
Still , The taste of Tea is an enjoyable film . 4 stars ( out of five ).