The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952) appears early in the most lauded period of Yasujirō Ozu’s 35-year career. Inevitably overshadowed by the film that followed it, Tokyo Story (1953), The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice nevertheless occupies a key place in Ozu’s filmography. Like the filmmaker’s greatest work, including Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Early Spring (1956), it is a family drama that fuses character action with formal elements to explore the tension between tradition and modernity in postwar Japan.

In The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice, a marriage is in crisis. A childless, middle-aged couple, Mokichi (Shin Saburi) and Taeko Satake (Michiyo Kogure) live together inharmoniously. Early on, Taeko deceives her husband when she wants to visit an onsen (hot spring) for the weekend with her girlfriends. Mokichi is easygoing – or, as Taeko describes him, “Mr Thick-Head” – and doesn’t question the story his wife spins about a friend who has taken ill. Later, Mokichi will also lie. Each has their secrets; husband and wife are divided by their upbringings and tastes. Taeko grew up in Tokyo and believes her palate sophisticated. She’s impatient with her husband’s simplicity. Provincial Mokichi defends his lack of complexity: “I’m comfortable with it. It’s the way I was raised.” Into this discord, Ozu weaves the story of Taeko’s niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), a 21-year-old who is rejecting her family’s wishes for an arranged marriage. Seeing how unhappy her aunt and uncle are, she wants a life that doesn’t mirror theirs: “I’ll find my own husband! Arranged marriages are disgusting!”

The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice is assembled around oppositions: private and public, women and men, the past and the future. Taeko and Setsuko’s relationship magnifies the film’s argument about marriage. The younger woman’s lively presence highlights the problems with Taeko’s arranged union. In turn, Taeko repeatedly rebukes Setsuko for her pursuit of fun, telling her she will soon understand. “Your husband will be bossy. You’ll have no time for play,” she declares, with some pleasure. Despite chastising Setsuko’s rejection of tradition, Taeko has embraced it reluctantly herself, as is visible in the conflict between her body and her material environment. While she wears a traditional kimono, her bedroom, even in black-and-white, is a vivid anomaly – Western in style, and overly floral and fussy in its décor. Yet she frequently retreats to this space as an escape from her marriage. When Setsuko asks, “Are you happy?” Taeko’s insistence, as they sit on chintzy couches, that she and her husband do get along sounds like a blatant lie.

Taeko and Mokichi prepare and share a simple meal of green tea over rice toward the film’s conclusion that seems to resolve this tension between obligation and freedom. Taeko apologises for “What [she’s] been.” She says she understands who her husband is now and finds him, like the simple meal, to be to her liking. Ozu creates balance and harmony between husband and wife, seating them together for the first time and framing them within precise interior compositions, both in the kitchen and at the table. Mokichi, deeply sated by both the meal and his wife’s change of heart, explains: “Married couples should be like tea over rice.” He loves this flavour – “intimate, primitive, familiar, relaxed” – that for him also defines the elements necessary for an agreeable marriage.

But this ‘resolution’ of marital conflict is undermined by the film’s formal elements. In particular, Ozu’s repeated juxtaposition of interior and exterior space elicits a subtle social critique. Throughout The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice, he ruptures the meticulous surface when he takes his camera outside, looking beyond the family unit. Opening the film with a point-of-view shot looking through the windscreen of a car allows Ozu to immediately focus our eyes on movement and exterior space. We see new buildings and powerlines – symbols of modernity, of a Japan undergoing rapid change. In The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice, not everything is seen from the restricted height of a tatami mat; indeed, what is most striking here is just how often Ozu places his camera outdoors – in cars and trains, on city streets, at baseball matches and the theatre, in a ramen bar and even at the airport. If Ozu’s low, still camera creates a sense of calm and containment within the family home, it also frames it as a restrictive space. When the camera moves outside, the effect is quite different – of forward motion, both chaotic and liberating.

A pachinko parlour, called “Bittersweet Lessons in Life”, is a key recurring site. Mokichi’s young friend, Noboru (Kōji Tsuruta), also known as Non-chan, introduces him to the game. Managing the parlour is Sadao (Chishū Ryū), an old comrade of Mokichi’s from the army. He expresses a pessimistic view of modernity, declaring, “This is trash. It degrades the national spirit.” Sadao’s nostalgia emerges when he sings a song about a fallen soldier in Singapore, revealing his strangely poignant memories of the war. But Mokichi says he understands pachinko’s appeal. “You can leave the troubles of the world behind,” he says, concluding that the amusement provides “a happy sense of solitude.” There is a similar affect in watching Taeko on a train alone when she takes off for a few days to do as she pleases. We don’t see where she’s going or what she does when she gets there; it’s the movement, the pleasure to be found in time spent away from obligation, that matters most.

Ozu concludes The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice on a Tokyo street. We follow Setsuko and Non-chan as they walk together and discuss Taeko and Mokichi’s reunion. They seem to be a couple, but Setsuko remains unconvinced that Non-chan is a desirable or even reliable suitor. As Setsuko runs from him and into a sentry box, we are reminded of her earlier escape from the ‘marriage meeting’ at the kabuki theatre. Out in the world, she can’t be controlled or contained. As Ozu captures them in a long shot, his camera sits still. Setsuko and Non-chan become smaller and smaller, disappearing into the landscape. He pursues her; she runs from him towards something else, perhaps solitude. Taeko and Mokichi’s midnight meal suggests the regeneration of marital harmony, but Ozu’s finale reinstates a darker tone, a sense that the understanding Taeko and Mokichi have come to may be difficult to maintain. While Mokichi has assured us that the flavour of green tea over rice is delicious, we can only conclude that it in fact tastes bittersweet.

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The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952 Japan 116 mins)

Prod Co: Shochiku Films Prod: Takeshi Yamamoto Dir: Yasujirō Ozu Scr: Kōgo Noda, Yasujirō Ozu Phot: Yūharu Atsuta Ed: Yoshiyasu Hamamura Art Dir: Tatsuo Hamada Mus: Ichirō Saitō Set Dec: Setsutarō Moriya Cost: Taizō Saitō

Cast: Shin Saburi, Michiyo Kogure, Kōji Tsuruta, Chishū Ryū, Chikage Awashima, Keiko Tsushima

About The Author

Joanna Di Mattia is a writer and film critic. She has a PhD in Women's Studies from Monash University where her research examined anxiety about masculinity in contemporary American cinema. She contributes to a number of publications and her writing reflects her interest in the aesthetics of desire, sexuality, and the pleasure of looking.