Who would've thought? After directing a now very passé looking self-consciously post-Tarantino crime comedy and a enormously annoying film about people screaming at each other, I wasn't particularly eager to see what Katsuhito Ishii would be taking on next. His self-chosen exile in animation already seemed to have become semi-permanent, particularly when he also contributed to the animation sequences of pal Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1.
But here he is, back again with a feature film that is a radical change from the throwaway superficiality of his earlier work. The Taste of Tea is a rather delightful look at the eccentricities hiding just beneath the calm surface of ordinary life, touching, funny, imaginative and pleasantly low-key. Even if it is a bit long.
Working from his own original screenplay for the first time, Ishii shows us the everyday goings-on of the Haruno family, a quintet (mom, dad, teenage son, little daughter and grandpa) living in a small countryside town north of Tokyo, expanded to a six-piece during the stay of their city slicker uncle Ayano (Asano). The eccentric grandpa (an artificially aged Gashuin, the pipsqueak hitman of Ishii's debut film Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl) is only the tip of the iceberg of the quirks that run in the family. Mother Yoshiko (Tezuka) is attempting to return to her old job as a cartoon animator by making a hand-drawn short at the dinner table, father Nobuo (Miura from A Tender Place) is a hypnosis therapist who occasionally practices on his own family, son Hajime (Sato) is a vat of raging hormones after the arrival of a pretty new classmate (half-American Tsuchiya, also seen in Kamikaze Girls), and daughter Sachiko is bothered at inopportune moments by her own giant-sized double, who hangs around sitting on buildings and staring at her.
Presenting a colourful collection of oddballs for main characters is a habit Ishii hasn't quite shaken off, but thankfully their foibles here are handled in a refreshingly offhand manner. In a languid, episodic story (there is little or nothing in the way of a plot) that works surprisingly well for most of the running time, we get to spend time with each member of this little contemporary tribe and how they go about achieving their personal goals, as well as take a few sidesteps to spotlight the activities of a number of peripheral characters.
It's this attention to individuals that mostly effectively marks out Ishii's third feature from his earlier work. The script of The Taste of Tea takes a magnifying glass-like approach, enlarging and ever so slightly distorting moments from everyday life that would normally pass unnoticed in the daily grind. The playful use of CGI complements this approach very well, with images like a commuter train emerging from Hajime's forehead, Sachiko's gargantuan double, and a planet-sized sunflower providing striking visual manifestations of the characters' inner worlds.
Not everything Ishii puts on screen works as well. The animation sequence is a bit too otaku-like to be credible as Yoshiko's creation, as well as coming off as indulgence on the director's part, and there are perhaps a few sidesteps too many, resulting in the aforementioned overlength. Although the proceedings are never less than pleasant, you do get the urge to tune out around the two-hour mark. Perhaps Ishii was trying to pull an Ozu with his 143-minute family chronicle - the title certainly tries to evoke the ambience - but he's not there quite yet.
A final nod must go to the fine performances (Asano just keeps getting better and better), not only in the lead roles but also in the numerous supporting parts, which are populated with cameos by famous faces, including the great Susumu Terajima, Gohatto's Shinji Takeda, SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, rising star Ryo Kase, sultry Party 7 and Antenna starlet Akemi Kobayashi, and Evangelion director Hideaki Anno.
The Taste of Tea certainly sheds new light and new promise on its director. In retrospect, perhaps Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Party 7 were necessary hurdles on the road to finding his own voice. If that's the case, then if Ishii can curb just those few remaining indulgences there should be some delightful works just beyond the horizon.