Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Life and Death of a Tea Master

Earlier this month, American Mishima reviewed the NHK Taiga Drama Gou: Himetachi no Sengoku -aka Princess Go. In that historically based drama we were introduced to the character of the real life 16th Century Tea Master Rikyu who served Oda Nobunaga and later Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the Warring States Era of Japan. Intrigued by the fascinating tale of the many famous people in Gohime's life, we looked to see who else had a movies based on these figures to gather further insights. One such character, Rikyu had been the subject of such a film and through our man over at we were able to view it and share with you our findings.
The real Rikyu was known by the Buddhist name Sen no Rikyu who lived between 1522 to April 21st 1591. Having come into the service of Lord Oda Nobunaga as his Tea Master he later became Tea Master to his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi who would bring him into his inner circle and have the unique privilege to influence policy something history says he refused to do. None the less, in the unstable temper of Hideyoshi, the founder of the Chanoyu (Way of Tea) or Tea Ceremony would suffer his fate. This part of the tale was featured in Princess Go and became the subject for the 1989 film Rikyu directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi.
As we had seen before, Rikyu (Mikuni Rentaro) was a favorite of Oda Nobunaga (Matsumoto Koshiro) and other powerful warlords of the Warring States Era. The film briefly introduces us to their relationship before fast forwarding to the swift succession of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Yamazaki Tsutomu). In this film we are introduced to his wife Rikki (Mita Yoshiko) who also teaches high ranking Samurai women tea ceremony most particularly Toyotomi Hideyoshi's wife and favorite concubine Cha-cha (Yamaguchi Sayoko) who was heavily featured in Princess Go and is the subject of the 2007 Toei film Chacha Tengai no Onna.
 As Toyotomi Hideyoshi ascends to Regent his moods and erratic behavior become more unpredictable. He confides in Tea Master Rikyu and is shown how to make tea and has him attend Noh plays in which Hideyoshi himself stars in commemorating his attack on the Akechi. Hideyoshi further has Rikyu assist him at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto so Hideyoshi can make tea for the Emperor. 
While still in his favor Rikyu is given enough gold to make a golden tea room but on a whim reacts angrily over the color of tea wear. So much so he banishes Rikyu's most trusted disciple Soji to the Hojo Clan who Hideyoshi declares war on. With no hope for the Hojo's survival, Soji returns to see his master Rikyu who hopes he can restore him good favor with the Regent. 
At first the Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi is happy to see Soji return and offers him his old job back. So far so good right? But Wait for it....and watch what not to say to an erratic War Lord with a bad temper....
Soji begs to decline out of obligation to Lord Hojo. Bad move! Hideyoshi instantly flies into a violent rage and kicks Soji before ordering his immediate beheading. Nice Warlord! Not.
Soji's death made Rikyu's position more delicate. Tragically, this is only the beginning of Rikyu's troubles. 
In his solace Rikyu spends time at a local temple where is has donated considerable funds. As tradition, donors are commissioned a statue to be placed over a gate. 
The ever conniving Toyotomi Vassal we learned to hate on Princess Go Ishida Mitsunari(Bando Yasosuke) uses this otherwise non-issue to plot against Rikyu who he suspects is using his position as Tea Master to influence Hideyoshi. He conjures a convoluted a plot by Rikyu to have the statue placed above the gate so that he is always standing over Hideyoshi. 
Worse he gets word acquired by eavesdropping of his opposition to the invasion of Korea noting that it would not be as easy as avenging the Akechi who assassinated his lordship Oda Nobunaga. Ishida Mitsunari fans the flames of distrust and sets Rikyu up for a major fall.
There is more colder was to destroy a man than to meet him first as your friend. Rikyu being aware of his precarious position prepared tea for the Regent who came to see him and confide in confidence when out of nowhere the subject of the statues placement is brought up. Hideyoshi backed Rikyu into a corner as he tried to insist that he had no part in the statues commissioning or placement and denied any offense or such intent. But no doing! Hideyoshi's agenda becomes quite clear as he next confronts the tea master in the tiny tea room with the Rikyu's statement regarding the planned invasion of Korea. Not seeking to deny or admit to any wrong doing Rikyu tries to reason with the Regent stating that China is a vast foreign country and will not be as easy to defeat as the Akechi. Instantly the mere suggestion that the Akechi vengeance was by any means easy sends Hideyoshi into another rage and orders his banishment.
A simple Buddhist Disciple and master of the Tea Ceremony has just been accused of treason for having his own honest opinion. Ishida Mitsunari ensures that Rikyu's statue is confiscated and disfigured before publicly hung like a common criminal. Under confinement, Rikyu knows the end is near yet his wife Rikki appeals to Hideyoshi's wife and concubine turned wife Chacha historically known as Lady Yodo who is now the mother of the Toyotomi heir Hideyori. Her letters reach Chacha but is also read by Hideyoshi who rejects her appeals to save the humble tea master accused of arrogance and treasonous corruption. 
History is not clear why Hideyoshi did this but while Chacha watched the Regent play with his son & heir Rikyu was led away to be forced to commit Hari-Kari. It is said that a year after Rikyu's death that Hideyoshi regretted his treatment of Rikyu. Toyotomi Hideyoshi would be dead five years later. A dark and tragic end to a simple tea master. When writing about such historically based films there should be no surprises to any student of Japanese history. As said in Rikyu by Hideyoshi as is said so coldly in many films of that era: This is the Warring States Era. Actions tragic as they may and difficult for us to understand in the Heisei Era, these were the lives of such people where only the powerful survived. We at American Mishima recommend Rikyu in large part because it offers a different window into the life of this remarkable man and added facets of his life who is still honored today.

We hope you enjoyed this article. It has been our pleasure at American Mishima to continue to write this blog. We hope to offer you many more articles and possible publications in the coming Year of the Snake. Please continue to support American Mishima. ども ありがとうございます!

To get a copy of RIKYU-REMASTERED with English Subtitles please visit

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