The Taste of Tea has the sweetest and weirdest beginning: It opens near a scenic Japanese town called Motegi—lots of fields, mountains, fog—with a teen boy running after a train. His crush, a girl he loves even though he's never spoken to her, is riding on the train. She's leaving the area forever. As he watches the train disappear elsewhere, an animated train bursts through his forehead and jumps into the sky. It leaves an empty hole in his head. We see the rice fields behind him.
This magical realism is typical in director Katsuhito Ishii's celebrated 2004 film The Taste of Tea, which gets a beautiful Blu-ray release from Third Window Films today. It's one of my favorite films, a sprawling ensemble feature that jumps through haunted forests and spooky river valleys but ultimately ends up telling a simple story about a family pursuing projects: a mother works on an anime, an uncle and a grandpa create a surreal song, and a daughter just wants to perfect a simple backflip.
Ishii's described the film's swerving and magical plot as "simple." In the release's bonus commentary, Ishii says it's "easy to understand, and then it's not. It's something you remember, and then you don't." This riddle is characteristic of Ishii's approach, which is more playful than enigmatic.
"This movie isn’t too deep," he says. "Some people might empathize with it. Others may not get it all. Others might really get into it… It could be something or nothing. How can I put it… Refreshing is what I’d call it."
If Ishii's film—which features ghosts and contemporary dance and a bombastic anime sequence—seems meandering, one way to simplify the viewing experience is by focusing on his characters' creative projects.
Take the film's mother, who spends most of the movie trying to create an anime. As she finishes the project, she tells her mentor that "drawing is where the joy is." The mentor, played by Hideaki Anno, the director and creator of the foundational anime series Evangelion, smiles and says, "That's what anime is about." The work is where the joy is.
The film's most memorable sequence is another artistic project: a performance of a surreal song about a mountain, a song that the family's grandpa is determined to create. It's weird, but, as Ishii says, it "isn't too deep." It's just about a mountain.
"Listen to it long enough and your brain will melt," one of the music producer characters says after seeing the song performed for the first time. "They're like perverted aliens from some unknown world."
Still, there's an internal rhythm. A logic that's attractive. "It's platinum disk material," one producer says in earnest. The others think he's nuts.
Later on, the family discusses the grandpa's song over dinner, but the grandpa isn't even there. He's busy drawing in another room. Repeatedly, meditatively, Ishii has his characters continuously return to their work. The work is the pleasure.
This reminds me of one of my favorite takeaways from Chekhov's The Seagull. After the playwright wrestles with the nature of art and performance across four acts, he has Nina, an actress, conclude with this realization: The real point of acting "is not the honour and glory," but "the strength to endure." To just keep doing it.
I like to meditate on that idea when watching The Taste of Tea, which I've watched over and over. It's so delightful and strange. It reminds me that small, personal acts of creation can still be cosmic.