The life and death of Sen no Rikyu, the famous master of the tea ceremony, brought out two very different movies almost simultaneously in 1989. I have already posted about Kei Kumai’s Death of a Tea Master, but in Rikyu the subject is taken on by Teshigahara, who came out of an almost two decade retirement spent teaching ikebana to make this and a sequel Princess Goh before returning to ikebana.
As might be expected from a man devoting his life to flower arrangement, the photography is beautifully composed but rather surprisingly is not as visually spare as Kumei’s film.
While Rikyu (Rentaro Mikuni) and his wife always dress and live simply, the daimyo Hideyoshi and his court are sumptuous, even at times gaudy (Hideyoshi’s kimono sometimes reminds us of Harlequin’s patchwork). Nor does it contain Teshigahara’s previous predilection for cryptic confusion in his storytelling. It is told straightforwardly, beginning with Hideyoshi Toyotomi coming for a tea ceremony at Rikyu’s house and continuing through the death of Nobunaga Oda, the building of the golden tea house, the exile and later execution of Rikyu’s disciple Soji, the making of a statue of Rikyu for a famous temple, Hideyoshi’s war on the Hojo clan, his growing distrust of Ieyasu Tokugawa and Masamune Date, and his plans to invade Korea and China. This provides rather a lot of political intrigue that requires some background in the history of the period to keep the names straight, but it does not significantly interfere with the ability to follow the story of Rikyu himself. Battles are mentioned but not shown.
The film adds that Hideyoshi had “suggested” that Rikyu poison Tokugawa during their private tea ceremony, which Rikyu does not do, leaving the poison vial elegantly displayed while the two men talk and drink tea, possibly as a subtle warning to Tokugawa. It also makes very clear that Rikyu is ordered to commit seppuku because he had dared to suggest that Hideyoshi’s planned invasion might not turn out well (which in fact it did not). Rikyu’s wife begs him to simply apologize, which Hideyoshi’s wife has signaled would be accepted. Rikyu refuses to do so because he would then be a coward, reminding us that for all his quiet, almost monk-like simplicity, he was still a samurai. Many of the samurai complain that his wife is teaching tea ceremony to the ladies of the court, and that they have heard that even merchants are now trying to learn it.
Rikyu’s quest for purity is given to us in the very first scene, as he searches his garden for the perfect flower to display in his ceremony with Hideyoshi, then after it is chosen orders his servant to cut and dispose of all the other flowers. When he is questioned by an acolyte about his participation in the excessive golden tea room, Rikyu claims to have felt something unique and eternal while officiating inside it. We see an enormous number of ceremonies, though to these untrained eyes Mifune in Kumei’s film rather surprisingly seems more elegant in his service than does Mikuni. A number of subtle messages are passed from one to another by the arrangement of flowers to accompany the ceremony or the placement of other items on display.
The two men are extreme contrasts in temperament. Mikuni is as restrained as we could possibly expect a famous tea master to be, while Tsutomu Yamazaki as Hideyoshi is emotional and unpredictable.
At times imposing, at others almost childlike, it is a mercurial characterization. He has big plans and can be imperious when crossed. Yet he is also deeply interested in the arts of the day, which includes the tea ceremony and ikebana and pottery. He is enthusiastic about everything and addicted to performing. As the great lord, he seems to have borrowed Donald Trump’s make-up and wears a false mustache and beard for his public appearances. We even see one of his Noh performances,* as the historical Hideyoshi is reported to have done. He jumps with childish glee after he is allowed to serve the Emperor with tea. He all but worships the belly of his pregnant concubine but otherwise pays no attention to her (nor does she pay any attention to his Noh performance). Nevertheless, when he wants to completely relax, he goes to his wife, listening to her advice while in a most domestic situation, chatting together while she cuts his toenails.
Unlike in Kumai’s version, Hideyoshi makes no attempt to claim it was all a joke. In fact, he sends a troop of soldiers to escort Rikyu and make sure he commits suicide as ordered, though we only see Mikuni walk into the mists of the morning, not the seppuku itself.
As we might expect, Teshigahara takes his time telling the story, but it flows as simply as Woman in the Dunes. As the captures show, the color of the available version is a bit saturated, so we don’t get the full effect of Teshigahara’s plan or Fujio Moritsu’s photography. However, part of that colorful density is intentional, as a contrast between the court life and Rikyu’s search for perfection in simplicity. Rather surprisingly, since the director is the same Teshigahara as Man Without a Map or Pitfall, it is the version of Rikyu’s story that is most clear about the political reason for Rikyu’s death.
* He and his partner perform without masks. I don’t know if this is because the masks had not been settled by this date or is intended to show his ego by performing without a mask.