While many cinema lovers are familiar with Yasujiro Ozu’s oeuvre, it is not uncommon that certain films of such oeuvre remain under the radar, that the shadow of the so-called masterpieces hides the lesser-known works. Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice or Ochazuke (General-note 1) is such a ‘forgotten’ narrative.
The blu-ray/dvd of this film is available from Criterion: https://www.criterion.com/films/28229-the-flavor-of-green-tea-over-rice]
While the marriage of Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi), an executive at an engineering company, seems a decent marriage at first glance, the relationship between her and her husband is, due to the dullness of her husband, quite unsatisfactory for Taeko.
One day, Taeko’s friend Aya (Chikage Awashima) persuades her to claim to her husband that her niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) has fallen ill at Shuzenji so that she is able to go with Aya to an Onsen in Shuzenji. Setsuko’s sudden visit to her house almost derails the plan, but Taeko, after calling with Aya, succeeds in rescuing the plan by telling her husband that she made a mistake and that it was Takako (-) that fell ill.
With Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, Ozu offers, like in so many of his narratives, a slice-of-life-like exploration of what could realistically happen in any kind of mundane middle-class/wealthy Japanese family. The context of Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is not that different from Ozu’s other narratives either, as Ozu’s familial drama plays out in function of the societal divide between modernity – the Japan of Ginza, baseball, pachinko, …etc. – and tradition (e.g. arranged marriages).
While we are given a visual contrast between western clothes and traditional Japanese clothes (i.e. Kimono) and between Japanese rooms and western rooms within a house, the contrast that truly matters and forms the motor of the narrative is nothing other than the contrast between the traditional confines of an arranged marriage and the modern ‘freedom’ of indulging in fun and choosing, as female subject, who to marry (Narra-note 1).
The difficulties of being in an arranged marriage are explored in Taeko and Mokichi’s relational trajectory. The most revelatory event in their narrative is the very moment Taeko decides to lie to her husband so she can go to an Onsen with her friend Aya. The conversation between Taeko Satako and Aya and, in this respect, many other vignette-like sequences touch upon an important but often hidden truth of traditional hierarchical structured (arranged) marriages, i.e. that the female subject, to momentarily escape the imposed confines of such marriage and the socially installed authority of the husband, always has the power to dupe her husband. One could even argue that modernity’s promise of pleasure, the virtue of pleasuring oneself, urges the female subject, more than before, to try and dupe this patriarchal Other as to bend the strictness she, as woman, is subjected to (Psycho-note 1).
In more general terms, we can state that Ozu, in a very slow-moving but rather lighthearted manner, explores the divide between the function the female subject has in supporting the Wa of marriage and the traditional Other that forms its fundament and the birth of a desire in the female subject to conquer a certain place for her own subjectivity and pleasure. The lie, like a psychoanalytic symptom, is a compromise that aims to please this traditional Other as well as satisfy this desire for a certain independence.
But Taeko’s lie also serves another function – the lie’s true function. Beyond being an attempt to secure a place for her subject, this lie is also an attempt to force her husband to take her, as subject, serious. It is, in truth, not the lie as such that has this secondary function, but the way she delivers the lie as well as the Freudian mishap that happens afterwards (e.g. forgetting to stop the incoming call from her husband) (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3). The main question that propels this narrative forward is as follow: can Taeko succeed in giving her marriage something of a fresh start or will she, as subject, remain trapped within her position of unhappy wife (Narra-note 4 (spoiler))?
The promise of modernity is explored through Tetsuko’s trajectory. That Tetsuko refuses to attend the omiai (matchmaking parties) her parents arranged for her has everything to do with Taeko’s marital unhappiness. She refuses the partake in the tradition of having an arranged marriage to escape the very possibility of being trapped in, what we could call, a patriarchal orchestrated state of unhappiness. In other words, she wants nothing other than to escape the position of exchange object she is under the patriarchal Other and assume, as subject, her right to choose her own marital future of (un)happiness. One can only wonder – and this is the question that underpins Setsuko’s narrative – if she will succumb to the weight of tradition, a tradition supported by the others around her, or if she will, against all odds, secure a certain trajectory driven by her own subjective decisions.
The composition of Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice provides almost all the cinematographical elements that makes Ozu’s visual style so distinctive and instantly recognizable. The entire narrative is almost entirely composed with static shots – nevertheless, in some rare instances, slow spatial moving moment is applied as well. The composition of Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is rich in so-called tatami-shots, called such because the low angle resembles the point of view of someone sitting on a tatami-mat, for traditional Japanese interiors as well as for western interiors.
Ozu’s tendency to “cross the line” is also apparent in Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice. This ‘crossing the line” is most evident in Ozu’s use of frontal shots. Ozu, as in many other of his narratives, has the tendency to compose parts of conversations between his characters with a concatenation of frontal shots of these characters speaking and gazing slightly to the side of the screen/frame. These portrait-like compositions, by putting the spectator almost in the middle of the conversation, generates a subtle sensation of immediacy and intimacy. True pillow-shots are surprisingly absent from the composition of Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice. Nevertheless, there are some still-life painting-like shots that can be interpreted as visually emphasizing the lack of change within Taeko and Mokichi’s relationship.
With Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, Ozu delivers an enjoyable exploration of the slow changing marriage-culture in Taishō and Showa Japan. While Ozu’s narrative might be too slow for some spectators, those who can adjust to its slow unfolding will find a heartwarming and lighthearted narrative that shows how women, within the societal device of arranged marriage as well as within the modern device of marriages out of love, can find subjective happiness. Furthermore, by exploring the trajectory of Taeko and Setsuko, Ozu underlines in a subtle educative but touching way the importance of understanding each other’s Otherness within a marriage as well as the importance for female subjects, who follow the modern discourse of love and marriage, to choose their future husband wisely.
General-note 1: Ochazuke a simple Japanese dish made by pouring green tea over cooked rice. Common toppings include Japanese pickles, umeboshi, mentaiko, nori, shiokara… etc.
Narra-Note 1: The most contradictory position is the position of the pachinko parlor’s owner, an old army buddy from Mokichi, who laments the fact that society will not get better while such game is popular. This man, who embraced by way of his occupation the ‘fun’ of modernity, rejects, on certain traditional grounds, the very promise of enjoyment that marks American capitalist modernity.
Psycho-note 1: The female subject, by merely having the ability to dupe this patriarchal Other, reveals that this Other, in the end, does not amount to anything more than a socially imposed fiction. In this respect, one could say that those female subjects that do not strictly believe in this Other and thus do not identify completely with the traditional image of a wife are, in fact, just playing along.
Narra-note 2: Ozu’s narrative also subtly explores the fact that male subjects, because the traditional Other ensures their position of authority, can freely enjoy the joys of modernity, while female subjects, due to their traditional position, can only partake in the joys of modernity before marriage or, in a severely restricted manner, after marriage.
Narra-note 3: In Taeko’s friend’s case – the scene where her husband comes to ask for money, we see another truth of relationships appear. While the Other ensures the male subject’s position of authority in the social field, the one with authority in the space of a marriage is quite often the female subject.
Narra-note 4: While we argued that Taeko wants a husband that is more attentive to her subjective needs, this is not her true desire. What she truly desires is that her husband fully identifies himself with her way of life. Taeko is, in other words, unable to accept the Otherness of her husband, unable to accept his unique subjective position.
The cause of Taeko and Mokichi’s unhappy marriage is not the difference in norms and values as such, but Taeko’s inability to accept her husband for who he is and understand his position. If Taeko can come to understand some of Mokichi’s Otherness, their marriage might very well change for the better.