What a weekend it was, a little more than 8 years ago. Probably my favorite film-related weekend ever, with Vital, Cha No Aji and Survive Style 5+ on the menu. All three films ended up in my personal top 100 and while Cha No Aji is ranked the lowest of the three, Katsuhito Ishii (My Darling Of The Mountains) his film remains one of the absolute highlights of the Japanese comedy. A true delight that elevates feel-good cinema to a whole new level and charms from start to finish.
Cha No Aji was somewhat of a surprise. I was already familiar with Ishii's work, having watched Party 7 and Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl prior to this one. On top of that, I was well aware of Ishii's involvement in Trava Fist Planet, so I figured it was fair to expect a weird, zany and high-octane comedy. Cha No Aji is almost the complete opposite though. It's not that Ishii shied away from his extravagant antics, but the dosage here is completely different. Cha No Aji is a chill, relaxing film that only serves smalls chunks of weird and awkward for greater effect.
Like Ishii's other films Cha No Aji is an ensemble film, this time focusing on the members of a common, everyday family. Each of them have their own quirks and troubles, which are amply examined during the course of the film. Ishii keeps a very light-hearted tone, never letting the minor dramatic touches influence the laid-back and feel-good atmosphere of the film. There is room for a little drama once in a while, but it never becomes too sentimental or too intrusive.
The family is a varied, slightly weird yet very lovable bunch. There's Sachiko, the youngest of the family who's constantly being watched by a giant version of herself. Then there's Hajime, a young boy who has a crush on the new girl in school. Both parents are pretty normal, though mom turns out to be a pretty rad animator. Ayano is the laid-back uncle living in and Akira is the bonkers grandfather, definitely the star of the film.
Ishii toned down his trademark visual style for this film, but that doesn't mean Cha No Aji isn't a pretty film to look at. Set in rural Japan, various shades of deep, lively greens dominate this film. Add some blue skies and pretty sunsets and you get an idea of the visual vibe. The scenes outside are truly magnificent, emitting a sense of calm that is seemingly inherent to this type of Japanese film. There is some CG from time to time, mostly functional (and fun), though the quality varies. Luckily it never intrudes or takes away from the experience. The short animation sequence on the other hand is a true bliss for animation fans and clearly demonstrates that Ishii feels just at easy in the world of experimental animation.
The soundtrack is subtle and sweet. A cute collection of laid-back, easy-going tracks that enhance the atmosphere. It's not so much the music as the ambient sound effects that leave a lasting impression though. Simple sounds that are used to great effect throughout the film, like the slamming of a small shed window (during one of the first scenes). On top of that, Cha No Aji features some absolutely brilliant songs, mostly performed by grandpa Akira. Not really sure why, but from time to time the Mountain Song just slips into my mind and takes it hostage for a short while, always bringing an unmistakable smile to my face.
The acting is top notch too. Maya Banno shines as the young Sachiko, yet her performance is completely eclipsed by the presence of Tatsuya Gashuin. He already left a lasting impression in Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl, with Cha No Aji he made himself truly immortal. Grandpa Akira is without a doubt one of the funniest, craziest and most lovable characters that ever graced the world of film. If that wasn't enough, secondary roles are handled by the likes of Susumu Terajima and Tadanobu Asano (still my number one favorite actor out there). With a cast like that, it's pretty difficult to make a bad film.
Cha No Aji lacks coherency, which could be fatal for a film that lasts 143 minutes. But the sketches and plot-evasive scenes are so much fun that it hardly seems to matter. As we drift from character to character the film keeps fortifying its feel-good atmosphere, to the point where I stopped caring for a plot line or dramatic arc, instead relishing the warm blanket of loveliness that Ishii spread for all the enjoy.
Cha No Aji is a lovingly executed ode to laziness, boredom and feeling at ease. Sometimes its characters do little else but loitering on the porch, enjoying the fact that they have nothing else to do but sit and enjoy the moment. Ishii livens things up with some absurd events, but never to the extent of his previous films. Cha No Aji is without a doubt Ishii's best film so far, a true masterpiece and a joy to watch again from time to time. A film that knows no weak points, which is quite amazing for a film that lasts more than two hours.