Don't expect conventional filmmaking from "The Taste of Tea," playing Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, this charming, beautifully photographed movie about a Japanese family defies ordinary expectations.
The subjects of the film, the Haruno family, live outside Tokyo in a lushly green, rural community. In the opening scene, adolescent son Hajime chases a departing train that is carrying away a girl he has had a crush on. Eventually, the train appears to emerge out of his head.
Soon the screen is filled with the pink blossoms of a cherry tree in full bloom. Then Hajime's little sister Sachiko appears, sitting on the porch of the family's house and staring at a little yellow flower, while nearby a giant facsimile of Sachiko's face rises up to stare back. These fanciful images may delight or irritate the viewer.
In either case, it takes time to get used to director Katsuhito Ishii's imaginative approach to filmmaking. Ishii created the animated sequence in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill." He also has made two other popular Japanese movies, "Sharkskin Man & Peach Hip Girl" and "Party 7."
Like the legendary filmmaker of Japanese middle-class family life, Yasujiro Ozu, Ishii rarely moves the camera. It watches passively, while the Haruno family's lives unfold, as if onstage. The unfolding happens - not along formulaic, Hollywood-manufactured plot lines - but the way real life happens. Small vignettes of activity that may or may not add up to something larger follow one another until the viewer acquires a very rich and pleasurable sense of the Haruno family's daily life.
Grandpa is perhaps the most eccentric member of an admittedly quirky family. With his spiky gray hair, penchant for tuning forks and karate poses, he looks and acts like an imp. He likes to slide the window in his room open and shut while peeking at Sachiko. His daughter-in-law Yoshiko is busy developing an animation project that she hopes will revive a career on hold while she has tended to her family.
Information like that about the family's activities doesn't arrive up front the way it does in conventional movies. As if dropped into the Harunos' world without context, the viewer is left wondering at first what Yoshiko is doing while she sits at a desk in the main room of the house. Clues appear, though, until the viewer figures it out.
The father, Nobuo, often encounters his son on the train while on his way back from work, supposedly in the city, which is likely where Hajime goes to school. The viewer deduces that Nobuo is a hypnotist, since he practices his art on the family. Later the viewer can confirm this impression when the film shows him at work on patients.
Uncle Ayano is taking a break from his work in Tokyo as a sound mixer by visiting his brother and family. He regales the two children with an odd story about collecting eggs in the woods as a child. Uncle Ayano takes walks to a bridge over a nearby river. Sachiko wanders down a path to an abandoned playground and tries to do back flips.
Character development reigns rather than narrative in "The Taste of Tea." Instead of engaging the viewer through a traditional series of narrative links, the movie uses one apparently unrelated vignette after another that serve to illuminate the personalities of the characters. These vignettes are unusual enough that they carry along the viewer until the connections appear.
In some cases, as when Uncle Ayano throws a rock at a baseball player who then is dragged away by a man dressed in white, or Hajime's school class watches motorcyclists doing stunts, there doesn't seem to be any ultimate point. Life, indeed, is full of random, inconsequential acts. But many times, the connection arrives.
Yoshiko does finish her animated short and shows it to her former colleagues. Hajime develops a crush on Aoi, another schoolgirl, and joins a Go club so he can play that board game with her. Sachiko learns how to do a backflip that banishes her specter. Uncle Ayano helps Grandpa produce a CD, and Grandpa performs a dance number to it.
Periodically the film switches from the family members to shots of the countryside's natural beauty--the moon, the mountains, the nearby river, fields and woods. Like a kaleidoscope that takes the same small geometric shapes and continually rearranges them, the Haruno's world is of a piece - magical, mysterious, but continually in flux.
Even when an unexpected and sad event occurs at the end of the movie, Ishii celebrates the small happenings and oddities of ordinary life. "The Taste of Tea" makes a nice tonic for the winter doldrums.
"The Taste of Tea," Saturday, Jan. 26, 7:30 pm, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society. Tickets $8, $5 for members. Doors open at 7 pm, 774-392-2972.