The Haruno family live in rural Tochigi Prefecture, the countryside of northern Tokyo. Father Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura) is a hypnotherapist while mom Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is an aspiring animator. Refusing to be an average housewife she labours on an anime film project aided by crazy old grandpa Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), himself a former animator and model, who can't help bursting into the occasional song-and-dance number. Meanwhile Nobuo's visiting brother Ayano (Tadanobu Asano) provides a sympathetic ear for son Hajime (Takahiro Sato) whose adolescent awkwardness around girls is really put to the test when he falls hopelessly in love with beautiful new classmate Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). And then there is eight-year-old Sachiko Haruno (Maya Banno) who has a most unusual problem. Wherever Sachiko goes she is followed by her giant-sized identical double.
Katsuhito Ishii's early oddball crime thrillers Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1999) and Party 7 (2000) had him dismissed by critics as a Quentin Tarantino wannabe. It did not help matters when Ishii contributed to the animated sequences featured in Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). Yet over time Ishii matured, developing his own distinctively quirky voice. The Taste of Tea marked a significant turning point in his evolution as a filmmaker. Despite featuring Ishii's by now trademark genre-bending surrealism and cast of lovably wacky oddballs, this is a charming and lyrical comedy more heartfelt and humane than anything yet attempted by his spiritual mentor Tarantino. In stark contrast to the critical bemusement that greeted his early work a 2012 poll in Sight & Sound ranked The Taste of Tea among the greatest movies ever made. That might be over-selling it but the film is undeniably a charmer.
While some critics describe it as a surrealistic version of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1984) aspects of the film also evoke Amarcord (1974), an equally warm-hearted, strange and high-spirited ode to small town eccentricity by Italian maestro Federico Fellini. Indeed The Taste of Tea blends fantasy with reality in a very Fellini-esque although its soul remains deeply Japanese. Ishii structures the film as a string of storybook vignettes, adopting multiple cinematic forms, blending the magical with the mundane as we follow various characters throughout their daily lives, punctuated by cartoonish daydreams. At times it feels like Ishii took an otherwise realistic portrait of country life a la Yasujiro Ozu and covered it in crazy manga doodles. Each strange flight of fancy provides a window into the characters hopes and anxieties. Art also plays a significant role throughout several interwoven stories. The Japanese are famously reticent about expressing their feelings openly. In The Taste of Tea Ishii addresses this with some frequently laugh out loud funny though also tender and bittersweet observations including Ayano's awkward encounter with an old girlfriend who has since married.
Especially engaging is Hajime's fumbling long-distance attempted romance with Aoi which unfolds in a way that is heartrending, funny and all too real. He is so wrapped up in the romantic fantasy of adoring Aoi from afar he struggles to make a move in real life. While sultry-voiced Japanese-American pop star Anna Tsuchiya won all the awards the performances by young actors Maya Banno and Takahiro Sato are equally outstanding, wholly naturalistic and engaging even when the film veers into Twilight Zone territory. Interwoven with the dreamlike misadventures of the Haruno clan are subplots concerning a couple of anime otaku cosplaying as their favourite characters, some baseball-loving yakuza thugs stalking the man who embezzled their boss' money and a dorky manga artist (Ikki Todoroki) whose prank calls to his female assistant's husband backfire in hilarious fashion. Other bizarre tangents include a feral jungle girl whose debut as a stand-up comedian goes awry on live TV, an absurdist musical sequence celebrating the beauty of nature, a cameo from renowned anime director Hideaki Anno and a nutty two-minute anime sequence drawn by Yoshiko. Far from random however, the sprawling plot is beautifully drawn together by Ishii for a moving finale that expands little Sachiko's subplot in an unexpected cosmic direction contemplating the wonder of the universe. Beautifully shot in warm wistful hues by D.P. Kosuke Matsushima with an eclectic score by Little Tempo including unorthodox but strangely effective use of the Christmas hymn 'Good King Wenceslas'!