The Taste of Tea is refreshingly unreserved. This is the film I wanted Me and You and Everyone We Know to be—a messy, heartfelt entanglement of tangential indulgences into the wild eccentricities of human behavior. Unfolding like a series of rough sketches, the film—through its observation of a small multitude of characters, young and old, at various points of intersection in their lives—suggests that the experience of growing up is not unlike constantly traveling from one point to the next, and life itself is a constantly evolving act of creation. Too many films falsely pretend that people aren’t inherently weird; here, that quality is the one most celebrated.
Set in the Japanese countryside, the film’s intertwined characters and their relationships to one another take on a rhythmic ebb and flow, suggesting an inherently natural cycle of the world. Unlike Babel or Crash, The Taste of Tea doesn’t bend over backward connecting dots as a means of legitimating its intended profundity; instead, it allows its various components to stand on their own, loosely connected within the larger tapestry, just waiting to be felt out. Contrary to those Oscar-heralded pieces of garbage, this tilt-a-whirl of a movie doesn’t structure its characters into the confines of a narrative pie chart—it understands that, like a plate full of noodles, the magic of these countless actions and reactions, causes and effects, would be lost if they were spread out into a dull schematic line. Often deviating from one pseudo-storyline to another with little indication, the film forgoes a traditional narrative structure so as to better obey its inner emotional impulses.
Throughout, adults are regularly seen gazing at the antics of the young—boys talking about sex at a local restaurant, a little girl attempting a back flip for the first time at a secluded playground. The Taste of Tea understands the impulsive irrationality of childhood, from the escape provided by an imaginative mind to the first flutter of the heartstrings to the ways in which the most seemingly trivial of moments greatly impact the people we become later on. Likewise, it accesses with ease the longing for youth that sets in once we come to understand how much we’ve really lost. The pain, the embarrassment, and the utter absurdity that accompanies the process of growing up are offered up here in the fashion of a living photo album. Unlike Running with Scissors, The Taste of Tea doesn’t treat these individual experiences as manipulated moments for the audience to laugh at, but as a collective recollection we can all fondly recall as at least partially our own. My personal favorite: the painfully hilarious “Convenience Store Incident,” in which the young Hajime’s (Takahiro Sato) dwindling attraction to the opposite sex finds itself in the absolute wrong place at the absolute wrong time as regards an unfortunate example of spousal abuse.
Writer-director Katsuhito Ishii embellishes the film with a grab bag of fanciful CGI flourishes that obtusely render the thoughts and feelings of his characters, appropriately complementing their already joyously extroverted natures. Ever-so-slightly schizo, its lack of restraint only proves problematic when it is finally required to bring everything together for the inevitable close; otherwise, its popping aesthetic is a small wonder to behold. A character remarks (in regard to what will hopefully amount to a classic musical sequence): “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.” Perhaps unintentionally, The Taste of Tea encapsulates its own kinky allure in this line of dialogue. As sweet as the lives it celebrates, it is something to savor time and time anew.