Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu, Japan’s two greatest film directors, divide their contradictory country between them. In belligerent epics like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, Kurosawa deals with Japan’s history of ritualised violence; the domestic dramas of Ozu examine the intimate stresses of modernity. Kurosawa’s sense of cosmic disruption led him to adapt Shakespeare, transforming Macbeth and Lear into feudal chieftains in Throne of Blood and Ran. Ozu’s tragedies are quieter and perhaps more painful: a husband in Tokyo Story wanly smiles at the prospect of solitude after his wife’s funeral, and his widowed daughter-in-law murmurs ‘Yes, life is disappointing’. In contrast to Kurosawa and his gore-soaked battlefields, Ozu in Late Spring or An Autumn Afternoon confines himself to bourgeois living rooms, where the combatants skirmish while sedately kneeling on tatami mats. As the titles of those films suggest, their conflicts are ultimately absorbed by nature and its reliable recurrences.
Ozu’s The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice, made in 1952, is a comedy of manners with a specific and sardonic emphasis on table manners. But it also looks outside Ozu’s usual homely interiors to register divisions within a country that was then being forcibly remade by its American conquerors. Here we begin inside a taxi, whose passengers represent two opposed generations. A snobbish kimono-clad matron is accompanied by her niece, a Westernised bobby soxer who finds kabuki tiresome and is currently on her way to a cinema called the Piccadilly to see a film starring Jean Marais; even worse, as her shocked mother subsequently reveals, this modish young woman reads translated books.
Outside the car we notice a corner of the moated imperial palace – Tokyo’s empty centre, housing an emperor who has been made to disavow his own divinity. Ahead is a skyscraper identified as the PX, an emporium of American consumerist plenty. Later, a Pan Am clipper takes a corporate employee abroad and, when he returns to enjoy a healing meal of rice drenched in miso soup, Ozu sneakily sets a can of Wesson cooking oil, imported from Mississippi, on the floor in the foreground. These are not product placements; instead they testify to the way that American business has taken shrewd advantage of a literally captive market.
Nostalgia for ancestral glory is evoked in a walk-on by Chishū Ryū. Ozu’s favourite actor, a wry, reticent equivalent to Kurosawa’s volcanically irate Toshiro Mifune, Ryū was cast a year after the release of this film as the bereft father in Tokyo Story. Here he plays the manager of a pachinko parlour, afflicted by qualms about the immoral business he runs but happy to reminisce about his heyday in the imperial army after it overran Singapore. Such are the queasy convolutions of a society that has lost its way.
The film tracks a dispute about arranged marriages that turns out to be trivial and inconclusive: the point of it all, for Ozu, is to show people going about their daily business as they oscillate between the discomforts of cohabitation and the misery of life alone. The snobbish aunt is at her most moving when she sits still to think. During these vigils, she is observed by a static camera that is positioned just a few feet above the floor, an angle of vantage that illustrates the importance, as another character puts it, of being ‘down to earth’.
The tiffs that propel the drama are brief flurries. The camera takes care to establish the tranquil tidiness of rooms before people enter; when they leave, having ventilated their grievances, we watch as the ruffled air settles. At a spa, carp in a pond fight for food. After the greedy fish retreat, Ozu goes back to the pool and shows its surface becalmed, shivering in a breeze rather than angrily frothing. The entire cast convenes at the airport to say farewell to an acquaintance; they continue forlornly waving after the plane has taxied away, and when it takes off we spend an interval contemplating the now empty sky.
The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice has been immaculately restored for this edition, newly remastered as part of the BFI’s Japanese season, but I’m puzzled by the presence on the DVD of two bizarre fillers. One is a Ministry of Food lecturette from 1949 about kitchen hygiene, perhaps included for no better reason than that the fractious married couple in Ozu’s film resolve their differences during a home-made supper. The other supplement is an anthropological whimsy from 1932 entitled The Mystery of Marriage, which connects human courtship with the reproductive habits of ‘lower forms of life’, including a species of slimy mould, an amorous earwig and a vainglorious praying mantis described as a ‘gay bachelor’. So should we view the Japanese as an exotic subset of homo sapiens? The accompanying booklet is equally scatty: it retrieves an essay on Ozu from an ancient issue of Sight and Sound, useless here because the writer fails to mention The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice at all. It looks as if the BFI has cleared out some bottom drawers and dumped the contents in the nearest receptacle. That’s not good housekeeping, and the scrupulously economical Ozu deserves better.