The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice: Acquired Tastes

Essays — Aug 30, 2019

In 1933, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations, after being censured for its invasion of Manchuria. Despite this, the majority of Japanese people remained avid consumers of American movies and Western fashion, which exasperated the militarists in power. A 1933 propaganda film shows a “modern girl” and a “modern boy” strolling in Tokyo, with a voice-over from General Sadao Araki castigating “these traitors [who] obsequiously ape Westerners,” and warning that their frivolity could give the erroneous impression that “the Japanese can be easily swayed under external pressures.”

A modern boy himself, director Yasujiro Ozu may have felt irked by General Araki’s antimodern gambit. Shochiku studios, Ozu’s creative home throughout his career, had been instrumental since the early thirties in popular­izing American jazz, dance halls, fast cars, and Hollywood glamour. Ozu himself had demonstrated his proficiency with American-style gangster pictures in Walk Cheerfully (1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933). In 1937, he made What Did the Lady Forget?, a sort of comedy of remarriage that anticipates the director’s better-known postwar social satires and seems to taunt Araki’s jingoistic rhetoric by parading the cultural hybridity of contemporary Japanese life. The story revolves around a middle-aged Tokyo couple whose strained relationship is rejuvenated by their vivacious niece. Heedless of her disciplinarian aunt, Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano) smokes tobacco, drinks whiskey, and comes home late at night. But this modern girl turns out to still value at least some of the old ways, as she sides with the henpecked husband Komiya (Tatsuo Saito) when his pompous, kimono-clad wife, Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima), flouts his patriarchal authority. Cast as the daughter of a well-off family from Osaka, the beauty Kuwano speaks in a Kansai dialect that would have connoted the vitality of the mercantile class to Japanese audiences of the time, giving the character an unusual multidimension­ality. Supported by Kuwano’s outstanding comic performance, Ozu fractures Araki’s characterization of modern girls as ugly, egotistical, and masculinized.

A few months after the release of What Did the Lady Forget?, Ozu was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army for two years of military service in China. In the summer of 1939, he was discharged, and on his return to Tokyo, he and screenwriter Tadao Ikeda, who had been frequent collaborators since the late twenties, began to work on a new script. In a January 1940 interview, the filmmaker said the upcoming project would be a comedy (kigeki) and announced its basic plot and themes:

Three housewives of the leisure class kill their boredom by visiting kabuki plays and hot springs. One of their husbands is embarrassingly uncouth, heedless of his appearance and public reputation; for example, he would pour miso soup over rice at dinner, smoke a cheap cigarette, and ride trains in economy class. Humor erupts each time his rustic behavior is shown to irritate his pompous, Tokyo-bred wife. When the disreputable husband receives his call-up notice, his wife loses her composure; the husband, by contrast, is shown taking a nap on the day before his departure. His self-composure makes her reevaluate his manliness. At midnight on that day, they apologize to each other and savor a humble meal of green tea over rice.

This simple story of conjugal life did not make it to production during World War II, because, the story goes, the Home Ministry insisted that a departure for the battlefield should be a joyful occasion, celebrated with festive red-bean rice rather than humble green tea over rice. Ozu shelved the project in protest.

Given this backdrop, one might expect the version of The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice that Ozu ultimately did make, in 1952, to be a rehashing of wartime ideas. On the contrary, this social comedy is thoroughly contemporary in its outlook, exploring the ideological dilemmas of postwar economic recovery and prosperity. The story had evolved from the 1939 script to share elements with What Did the Lady Forget?, including a modern niece (also named Setsuko) who causes a disruption in the marriage between her bourgeois aunt and uncle but ends up making them more tolerant of each other. But what is at stake here is no longer just the tension between old ways and new, as in What Did the Lady Forget? Instead, what Ozu is satirizing in The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice is something specific to the kind of capitalist society that Japan had just become: the way that upward social mobility in the lower classes can rankle the higher ones.

Though the businessman Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi) hails from the socially peripheral Nagano, he has climbed up postwar ladders in Tokyo and wed Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), the modish daughter of a wealthy man, bred in the capital. Despite Mokichi’s career success, the class differences between husband and wife cause strife at home, such as squabbles over his table manners. When Taeko objects to Mokichi’s homely habit of pouring miso soup over rice, he apologizes for his careless mistake but keeps on making noise as he slurps. Disgusted by his boorishness, Taeko leaves the room without a word. Mokichi asks their housemaid, Fumi (Yoko Kosono), who is from the agricultural outskirts of Tokyo, whether people in her hometown don’t eat as he does. She says, “We do.” “In Saitama, right?” “Yes.” He replies, “We do in Nagano, too,” and drops his punch line: “I guess they don’t in Tokyo.”

Class identities are reasserted throughout The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, through speech, activities, and tastes in clothing, food, and cigarettes. Mokichi enjoys smoking “cheap and tasty” Asahi tobacco, though Taeko disapproves of it. For his part, Mokichi’s young colleague Noboru (Koji Tsuruta)—another member of the emergent white-collar class, not someone who was born with money and status—instructs Taeko’s niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) that, when it comes to restaurant food, it “should be both good and cheap.” When Mokichi compliments Noboru on his suit, Noboru blithely replies that it is “army surplus. Secondhand.” Depression-era American society had welcomed a subgenre of screwball comedy featuring interclass romances between a hardworking hero and a headstrong heroine with family money as a way of reconciling the socioeconomic disparities threatening national unity. The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice does something similar in its interweaving of the stories of two couples of different social backgrounds: the middle-aged Taeko and Mokichi and the young Setsuko and Noboru, between whom a tender romance is budding.

There is a scene in the film in which Setsuko and Noboru have ended up alone together at a ramen shop and Noboru invites Setsuko to go out another time for yakitori but immediately demurs, saying, “Your aunt might get mad.” Setsuko’s quick response—“I don’t care”—affirms that she is a modern woman who is quite willing to cross social boundaries. When the two animatedly discuss whether arranged marriage (which Setsuko is expected to participate in) is “barbaric,” their eventual marriage for love is practically assured. Though Noboru balks at Setsuko’s categorical rejection of the custom—still quite common at the time among the upper and middle classes—he is far from a pigheaded traditionalist. Such bigotry is reserved for Taeko and her elder sister, Setsuko’s mother, Chizuru (Kuniko Miyake). In a sense, what Ozu is doing is infusing the basic narrative patterns of a Hollywood romantic comedy with the complex social realities of postwar Japan. Read in this way, Noboru’s courtship of Setsuko affirms the possibility of mutual attraction and compatibility as the basis for marriage

But Setsuko is not a Hollywood screwball dame, and much of our laughter in The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice is elicited by Ozu’s visual gags and playful framing. In interior shots, many of which take place in Taeko and Mokichi’s stylish home, the filmmaker often uses 360-degree space for shooting or covers a third of the image vertically with sliding doors, creating pockets of offscreen space within the frame that contribute to bursts of comedy. In one sequence, Mokichi and Noboru are spending a day making cheerful excursions to a cycle-race track and a pachinko parlor. Setsuko sneaks out of her formal marriage interview (omiai) and joins them, refusing to budge when her uncle tells her to go back. Eventually, early in the evening, Mokichi leaves the young pair and goes home. As he ensconces himself in his den, the camera shows him from the side, in a medium shot. Then Ozu cuts across at 180 degrees to shoot the same room from the opposite end, now keeping Mokichi offscreen. It is into this long shot of remarkable repose that Setsuko skulks, from behind the edge of a sliding door. Although she is in plain sight for us, Mokichi, absorbed in his reading, remains oblivious to her presence. Her greeting catches him off guard. Ozu is playing a game of hide-and-seek to amuse the viewer. 

As soon as Setsuko whispers, “Don’t tell her I’m here,” Taeko shows up from behind the edge of a sliding door and starts berating Setsuko for her blatant disrespect to her suitor. Weary of his temperamental wife, Mokichi playacts joining her censure of Setsuko. Even after Taeko leaves the room, Mokichi keeps on reprimanding her niece verbally while humorously stretching his neck like a sea turtle in order to track his wife’s whereabouts with his eyes. If Mokichi’s puerile gesture of duplicity endears him to us, a sulky Taeko becomes unsympathetic. Once Mokichi ascertains that she is at a safe distance, his avuncular smile returns, and Setsuko begins to lecture him on the finer points of pachinko. Taeko shows up once again from the same edge of a sliding door. Having caught her husband being friendly with Setsuko, she interrogates him about why he “lied.” Mokichi falteringly opines: “Forcing her to marry against her will would just create another couple like us.”

This amicable alliance between a hen-pecked husband and his wife’s niece recalls What Did the Lady Forget? But Saburi’s Mokichi is more plebeian and zanier than Saito’s affluent Professor Komiya in the earlier film, and more likely to woo female fans after the war (a demographic that Shochiku vice president Shiro Kido was famously interested in bringing in) with his defense of Setsuko’s freedom, which speaks unmistakably to the popular notion of shutaisei (“autonomy” or “moral integrity”). Since Japan’s defeat, the public had increasingly cherished the notion of a freethinking individual unfettered by shared beliefs and conventions as the antidote to fascism.

The way The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice depicts leisure activities is another reflection of the postwar Japanese zeitgeist. The cycle-race track, pachinko parlor, and ramen shop that Mokichi, Noboru, and Setsuko visit have already been mentioned. Near the beginning of the film, Taeko, Setsuko, and two of Taeko’s socialite friends go to a famous hot-spring resort in Shuzenji. Over drinks, Aya (played by Chikage Awashima, a former star of the all-female Takarazuka Opera) nostalgically sings “Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht.” This German hit of the twenties had been translated into Japanese by the director of Takarazuka, and it has become an iconic number for the theater. Ozu playfully blends the traditional space of the Japanese-style inn with the grandeur of Takarazuka. Later, these same upper-class women will go to a stadium to watch baseball, a longtime popular pastime of Japanese people of all walks of life. By chance, Aya spots her husband there with his mistress. Instead of getting upset, Aya speculates that she may get a new kimono as an apology. Her friends joke that the “poor fellow” has no idea how much his tickets will actually cost him. Here, Ozu both satirizes bourgeois values and gives a comic twist to the recent empowerment of Japanese women by the 1947 constitution.

This comedy’s simultaneous fascination with class and avoidance of representing any serious tensions related to it reflect the new capitalist values that Japan was beginning to accept, as well as the way these values overlay older structures of social stratification based on skin tone, class, gender, and regional origin. Taeko and Mokichi’s marital discord cannot be understood without scrutinizing the snobbery of a hegemonic culture that Taeko takes for granted. Spotting a large, dark-skinned carp swimming unhurriedly in a pond at Shuzenji, for example, Taeko repeatedly calls it Mr. McBonehead, the contemptuous sobriquet she and her friends use for the olive-skinned Mokichi. The habitual shopping and travel of women like Taeko are made possible not only by their white-collar husbands’ salaries but also by the domestic labor of female workers like Fumi.

As so much of the tension between Taeko and Mokichi has been at mealtimes, it is fitting that their eventual reconciliation also happens around food, this time in the kitchen, which we have barely seen in the film until this point. As Fumi is sleeping, they must figure out how to prepare a snack for themselves. Taeko, transported from the realm of privileged recreation (boutique, hot-spring resort, theater) to the realm of labor (kitchen), is as comically disoriented as Mokichi is in this feminized space. Every detail of the couple’s facial expressions is brightly visible here, and our attention is drawn to Ozu’s meticulous editing of sound and images. He alternates Mokichi’s point of view with Taeko’s. As Mokichi wolfs down the humble meal of green tea over rice (ochazuke) that they’ve cobbled together, Ozu cuts from a medium shot of Mokichi to a bust shot of Taeko; here, the sound of her husband’s gobbling spills across the cut to a neat image of Taeko, as if the genteel wife were eating ochazuke like a peasant woman. In this moment, we are briefly led to believe in an impossible ending: Has Taeko adopted the very demeanor she abhorred? That suspicion—or desire, perhaps—is overturned in the following shot, where Taeko is shown to be eating her ochazuke without any noise.

In this denouement of sublime beauty and sweetness, we are given hope that two different ways of being can coexist in peace, without tension, animosity, or hierarchy. The film concludes when Taeko learns to love her rustic husband precisely because of the way he was raised, while also remaining true to herself. Earlier in the film, Mokichi said he liked “things to be cozy, down-to-earth, without ceremony and affectation”; by the end, that sentiment reverberates like the dream of an egalitarian society to come.

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