As weird as things got in Funky Forest, the comic sensibility tended always to gravitate toward the humor inherent in the hopelessly mundane. So a scene in which an alien clad in a furry costume and his partner entreat a school girl to power their arcane device with her belly button is derailed when one of them inadvertently gets elbowed in the face. The ensuing attempts to calm him down as he testily complains that his companion should watch what he’s doing is hilarious, especially considering everything up to that point had been unpredictably bizarre.
Katsuhito Ishii shared in the direction and writing of Funky Forest with two other filmmakers (former school friends). His earlier film Taste of Tea is a less outré outing. Slightly. Although it chronicles a more down to earth tale of a family living in the rural Tochigi prefecture of Tokyo, there are plenty of odd things afoot, something the film announces right off the bat when a miniature train comes streaming out of a young teen’s head. The difference is that Ishii is able to account for all the surreal goings-on. The boy, in love with a fellow schoolmate, had been chasing after her train because her family had decided to move. He literally had trains on the brain.
It’s this kind of dream logic that powers and enlivens the film, and it’s an astute way of exploring the large role that imagination plays in our lives. The mother Yoshiko is working from home on an anime, taking cues from the grandfather about gestures and poses. Her brother, a sound mixer, is back for a visit, one that you get the feeling was prompted by some kind of life crisis. The son (seen earlier chasing the train) quickly falls for a new girl at school. The youngest, displaying those childhood fears we’ve long forgotten of monsters in the closet, believes she is followed by a giant doppleganger. She convinces herself that if she can execute a perfect backflip, it will dispel her double for good.
All of these facts are revealed slowly. They are inaugurated first by, for example, the grandfather striking some bizarre posture apropos of nothing and then repeating it incessantly. In another scene the uncle Ayano comes across a white haired man performing a strange dance alone on a beach. It is only later that you get the gist of what’s going on, so those early moments are filled with unbearable comic brilliance.
Sprinkled throughout the film are little set pieces that remind one of the episodic nature of Funky Forest, but ultimately are explained within the context of the whole. Two teens dressed in ridiculous outfits on the train are soon identified as cosplayers, who bust out into a rendition of Meteor Power Force seemingly unaware of how embarrassed everyone is for them. In effect, it’s almost the inverse of the formula that shows up in Funky Forest. The bizarre is revealed later to have been the mundane all along.
Although he mostly plays things straight, Ishii can’t resist the occasional over the top joke too good to leave out. Sometimes it’s subtle. As the boy, Hajime, daydreams while staring at his crush across the school room, the teacher propounds on a particularly bizarre theory of evolution concerning an elephant. Probably what he would have been hearing anyway considering his divided attention. Then again, there is no justification given for a TV story about a girl, rescued from the jungle where she was living like an animal, who becomes part of a stand-up comedy team. “I used to be like a saber-tooth tiger,” she explains. Then she mauls her partner.
What is amazing about Taste of Tea is that it succeeds as a comedy and yet still manages to be a thoughtful meditation of everyday life, not in spite of the humor but because of it. It certainly has one of the sweeter endings to a film that I can remember. Perhaps it’s an idea that is only becoming possible because of filmmakers who are bold enough to explore its potential: in the West, filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers come to mind. Previously, there was comedy, and there was drama, and never the twain shall meet. Asian filmmakers seem especially comfortable with the mingling of the two, whereas mainstream Hollywood seems mostly mired in deadly serious apprehension of even the most cartoonish of subject matter, punctuated briefly with terrible one-liners. Even the ever-present sound of the cicadas in the background of Taste of Tea seem like a laugh track provided by the insect kingdom on a constant loop as they observe our stumbles and awkwardness.