Jane Austen once described her writing as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Although she was overly hard on herself (not, one suspects, without irony), it’s true that she rarely strayed far from certain themes and a certain milieu. The same might be said of Yasujirô Ozu’s films. There’s more diversity and experimentation in his silent work — the college comedies, several crime dramas and even a period piece, his now-lost directorial debut The Sword of Penitence — but the vast majority of his sound films revolve around middle-class families and their domestic concerns. Starting with 1949’s Late Spring, one particular issue becomes a sort of idée fixe: marrying off single daughters. (Shades of Mrs. Bennet, or any number of characters in Austen’s oeuvre.) Late Spring, Early Summer (1951), Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) all concern the events leading up to young women’s weddings, but once the weddings have taken place, inevitably off-camera, the remaining minutes of the films are spent observing their parents. The brides’ futures are left to the imagination of the viewer.
As such, 1952’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is something of a rarity, in that it focuses on a childless couple who have already been married for quite a few years. (Other examples include 1937’s What Did the Lady Forget? and 1956’s Early Spring, although the couple in the latter does have a deceased son.) Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi) looks to be forty or so, his wife Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) perhaps a bit younger. If there was ever any passion or excitement in their relationship — and there may not have been, as theirs was an arranged marriage — it’s long since faded away. They coexist under the same roof, but there’s a sense that they don’t really share a life. When Taeko wants to go to a hot springs resort with a group of women, a perfectly innocent trip in and of itself, she tells her husband that she has to visit a sick friend. It’s a pointless lie, all the more so because Mokichi is an easygoing man and unlikely to make a fuss over the truth. “I rarely do this sort of thing,” she says to the other woman as they discuss her act of deception. “I don’t really like it.” The fact that she feels obligated to do it anyway indicates just how great the disconnect is between her and her husband.
Taeko is also troubled by how easily Mokichi accepts her story. She sees it as evidence of slow-wittedness on his part, a trait that irritates her. “He’s obtuse. Mr. Obtuse,” she declares. It’s a playful nickname at first, one that she applies to a large, lumbering carp in the pond outside the women’s room at the resort. “My dear, don’t blame me if you get hungry at work,” she says when the other fish snatch away the food she throws to it. Her friends seize upon this joke (“Oh my. Your necktie is crooked.” “Get a haircut on the way home.”), but Taeko tires of it almost immediately. She’s genuinely frustrated by Mokichi’s shortcomings and the dullness of their marriage, and she longs for a major change. “Maybe my husband will go away. Somewhere far away,” she says. “I don’t care where. Anywhere I can’t see him.”
One of Taeko’s companions at the resort is her niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who describes herself as “officially twenty-one, but actually twenty-three.” Because the girl’s parents intend to arrange a marriage for her, they set up a meeting with a potential husband, but she refuses to take part. Modern young woman that she is, she considers arranged marriages downright primitive; moreover, she’s seen enough of her aunt and uncle’s relationship to understand how badly things can turn out when two people aren’t compatible. “You’re not happy,” she says to Taeko. “It’s so easy to tell.” Her aunt denies it, but Setsuko points out the way she lied to Mokichi about the trip to the resort, how she compared him to the carp. “Even if I were married, I’d never say such things about my husband. I’d never marry someone I didn’t like.”
Although Taeko and Mokichi have no children of their own, Setsuko’s presence creates the kind of intergenerational conflict ubiquitous in Ozu’s movies. Older and more traditional than she, they insist that she attend the marriage meeting in spite of her desire to choose her husband herself; similar circumstances arise in Early Summer and Equinox Flower, the latter of which stars Shin Saburi as a father who’s open-minded toward every young woman except his daughter. Setsuko also bears a striking resemblance to a character of the same name in What Did the Lady Forget? Both Setsukos are independent, modern, Westernized. (Taeko, in contrast to her niece, almost always wears a kimono.) Moreover, the Setsuko of What Did the Lady Forget? has her own unhappily married aunt and uncle, a more stereotypical bossy wife and henpecked husband, and she’s highly critical of their relationship.
For that couple, the moment of crisis occurs when the husband slaps the wife; in The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, Ozu takes a less overtly dramatic route, but that doesn’t mean the situation isn’t serious. It happens after Setsuko skips out on her marriage meeting and follows Mokichi to a bicycle race and a pachinko parlor, even though he goes so far as to drop her off at the theater where the meeting is to take place. (This sequence has much in common with What Did the Lady Forget?, in which Setsuko goes to a geisha house with her uncle and gets drunk, to her aunt’s great displeasure.) “Don’t tell anyone you were out with me,” he advises her. Again, a lie is necessary despite a lack of real wrongdoing on his part. As it turns out, Taeko learns the truth anyway and chastises both her niece and her husband. Mokichi contends that there was nothing else he could do. He’s reluctant to explain himself more clearly, but at last he says, “Forcing her to marry against her will would just mean another couple like you and I.” To all appearances, it’s the first time either one of them has openly acknowledged the failure of their marriage, at least to each other, though their discontentment has been building for years. Faced with these stinging words, Taeko can no longer pretend that everything is fine, that this is simply the way of things between husbands and wives. “Is that right? I understand. I understand clearly,” she replies, then storms out of the room.
It’s easy enough to blame Taeko, which is what Setsuko does. She tends to be hard on her husband, turning up her nose at his unrefined eating habits, the cheap cigarettes he likes to smoke, his habit of riding in third class on trains. This is a matter of upbringing — he’s from Nagano, she’s from Tokyo — as well as personality. “Everyone’s got things that suit them,” he tells Taeko in an effort to make peace. “In my case — how can I put it? — what I like are more intimate or primitive feelings where I don’t feel like I have to keep up appearances.” Mokichi is a simple man, but that doesn’t mean he’s Mr. Obtuse, as he demonstrates when he asks the couple’s maid, Fumi (Yôko Kosono), how her brother’s reserve corps exam went. (He may also know more than he lets on about his wife’s trip…)
All in all, Taeko’s attitude toward her husband seems quite unfair, yet the reasons behind it are easy enough to grasp. While at the resort, she and her friends sing a fondly remembered and telling song from their schooldays:
From the first time I saw you
I think of you day and night
From that day of anguish
When the white lilacs bloom again
My heart still trembles now
If she once imagined that her marriage would be anything like that, it’s no wonder that she finds life with the prosaic Mokichi so disappointing. In her younger years, she may, in her way, have been as idealistic as Setsuko is — just not enough to go against tradition. She recalls that she was reluctant to go to her own marriage meeting, but crying was the extent of her rebellion.
Notably, there’s a scene later on involving Mokichi that parallels the scene at the resort. He runs into an old comrade from his army days, Sadao Hirayama (Chishû Ryû), who mentions how much he enjoyed his time in Singapore during World War II. Although Mokichi is quick to point out that the war was awful, he joins the other man in reminiscing about the beauties of the area: the palm trees, the clear skies, the sunsets. Hirayama then proceeds to sing a song, one that mixes patriotism with admiration for the natural world. Mokichi listens with a pensive expression on his face. Perhaps his life didn’t turn out exactly as he planned either. Perhaps it’s a universal problem; it might explain why so many people around him get their thrills from gambling, whether by betting on bicycle races or playing pachinko. New to pachinko himself, Mokichi sees it as an escape: “You can leave the troubles of the world behind. You’re the ball. The ball is you. It’s pure solitude. That’s the appeal of it. A happy sense of solitude.” Hirayama, despite owning a pachinko parlor, disapproves of the pastime. “It doesn’t bode well that this is all the rage,” he says.
At any rate — because of their backgrounds, because of their personalities, because of society, because of a thousand other issues and influences — Taeko and Mokichi are unable to connect with each other. It’s significant that, in Fumi’s absence, the two aren’t even sure where to find the food in their own house; they’re lost there, just as they’re lost in their marriage. The film’s camerawork also serves a symbolic purpose. Unusually for Ozu, at least at this point in his career, the camera zooms in or out on numerous occasions throughout The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice. This seems a bit gratuitous at times (no doubt the director had his reasons), but more than once, it happens during a shot of a vacant room in the Satakes’ house, emphasizing the emptiness therein.
And yet, fundamentally different though Taeko and Mokichi are, their situation is not a hopeless one. Taeko’s friend Aya (Chikage Awashima) is cynical about marriage — she’s willing to overlook her husband’s cheating if it means he’ll buy her a present, despite the fact that she appears to be the breadwinner in their relationship — but even she thinks the Satakes still have a future together. “You complain and all, but you’re still in love with your husband,” she tells Taeko, who disagrees. “You are,” Aya shoots back. “If you weren’t, you would have split up a long time ago.” She thinks Taeko is too particular, and indeed, it seems that an accumulation of little things has driven the couple apart. How fitting, then, that when they finally get their chance to reconcile, it centers on a little thing, a simple thing, a mundane thing: a meal. “It’s tea over rice. The flavor of tea over rice,” Mokichi says. “Being married is like savoring the flavor of tea over rice.”