Film Review: Ask This Of Rikyū (Rikyū ni Tazuneyo)
What was the secret Rikyu took to the grave?
‘Ask This of Rikyu’, a film directed by Mitsutoshi Tanaka and distributed by Toei, had its first World Premiere at the 37th Montreal World Film Festival in September 2013 sharing the Best Artistic Contribution Award with ‘Landes’ by François-Xavier Vives. It was nominated for the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and won the Japan Academy Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction.
The film, based on the novel of the same name by Kenichi Yamamoto which won the Naoki Literary Prize in 2009, stars the renowned Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizō XI as the Master of the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Cha-no-Yu) Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591). It was sadly also one of the last film appearances by Ebizō’s father the acclaimed Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō XII as Rikyū’s teacher Jōō Takeno, before his untimely death in February 2013.
The film begins with Rikyū’s preparation for his seppuku (hara-kiri) which has been ordered by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Nao Omori). As he contemplates his fate his wife Sō-on (Miki Nakatani) speaks to him remarking that ‘there is someone you are always thinking of’ prompting Rikyū to reflect on his most personal memories of his relationships with his wife, the warlord Oda Nobunaga (Yusuke Iseya) and then, after Nobunaga’s death, with his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, on which the first half of the film is based. The second half of the film covers his relationship as the young Rikyū with his deceased first love, a Korean noblewoman called Josen (Clara, aka Lee Seong-Min), the source of his most prized possession.
Rikyū’s wife has a feeling that this most prized possession, which Rikyū has always kept hidden and feels epitomises the essence of beauty, is linked to his first love; an object which Rikyū reveals to the maker of his Raku tea bowls Chōjirō (Akira Emoto). The film charts, in part, the rise of Toyotomi Hideyoshi from peasant to warlord and juxtaposes his buffoonery, and the resulting hidden ridicule of some of his subjects, with his ruthlessness. Ten years prior to the events portrayed at the start of the movie Hideyoshi glimpses Rikyū’s most treasured possession and wants to know what it is. It is from this point onwards that his inability to grasp the essence of what Rikyū is trying to teach him becomes apparent and as the story progresses his desire to appear cultured is increasingly exasperated. As their relationship deteriorates his admiration turns to contempt and his respect to envy. The contrast between Rikyū’s refined sensibility and Hideyoshi’s lack of sophistication is conveyed skilfully in the masterful interaction between the two actors. Hideyoshi’s feelings of resentment, frustration and envy grow after Hideyoshi is none too subtly slighted by the Emperor at a tea ceremony in his Golden Tea Room and are apparent when Hideyoshi confronts Rikyū publicly at his Grand Tea Gathering, sumptuously filmed with the beautiful Jingo-ji on Mt. Takao, north-west of Kyōto, standing in for the original site of the gathering at Kitano Tenman-gū. After the discovery and burning of a statue of Rikyū which had been placed in the upper storey of the Sanmon Gate at Daitoku-ji Temple under which Hideyoshi must pass to access the temple his ruthlessness becomes extreme and, after previously having been complicit in the deaths of some of those who Rikyū loves most, he orders Rikyū’s to commit seppuku.
After Rikyū’s seppuku his wife rescues the one thing that mattered to him most and in the process denies it to Hideyoshi which seems to imply Rikyū’s posthumous desire to prevent Hideyoshi’s possession and understanding of what Rikyū considers is the essence of beauty.
Beautifully shot the film is a tapestry on which Ebizō’s beautifully subtle and understated performance as the older more refined Rikyū is played out. The very different characterisation of the young carefree Rikyū is also very well done though not as much time is given over to the development of the depth of character and feeling that perhaps that of the younger Rikyū and his love for Josen deserved. Miki Nakatani’s portrayal of Rikyū’s long suffering wife Sō-on is beautifully and sensitively portrayed and in an albeit brief appearance Clara admirably conveys the vulnerability of the captive Josen. Though the film does convey Nobunaga’s enthusiasm for the Tea Ceremony it does not, thankfully, portray his death which whilst important historically would have detracted from the main thread of the film, that of the life and death of Rikyū. The film does leave one with a lingering question about the storyline – whether or not later in life Rikyū’s aloof refinement and inscrutability was intended as revenge on Hideyoshi for his cruelty and was intended to deliberately undermine Hideyoshi’s self-confidence?
The film also attempts to put across the sensibility of wabi-sabi (transience and imperfection) and how it relates to the aesthetics of the Japanese Team Ceremony (Cha-no-Yu). According to an interview with Sen Soin, the Grandmaster of Rikyū’s Omotesenke School of Tea, and Ebizō in the Japanese newspaper ‘The Yomiuri Shimbun’ (3rd December 2013), this was a role for which Ebizō undertook a lot of preparation and for a year in the lead up to filming he practised with a Chōjirō tea bowl every day.
It will be interesting to see how Ebizō’s performance is compared with previous players of ‘Sen no Rikyu’; Rentaro Mikuni in ‘Tikyu’ (1989) and Toshiro Mifune in ‘Death of a Tea Master’ (Sen no Rikyu Honakubo ibun – 1989).
‘Ask This of Rikyū’ (Rikyū ni Tazuneyo) is available on DVD and BluRay (in Japanese)
Exhibitions of some of Oda Nobunaga’s tea ceremony utensils can be seen at the Honnōji Takuramonokan (entrance fee ¥500) at Honnō-ji Temple which is located off Teramachi Street in downtown Kyōto near Shiyakushomae Station on the Tozai Line.
Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine is located in west Kyōto. The nearest station is Kitanohakubaicho on the Kitano Line which can be reached from central Kyōto via the interchange at Katabira no Tsuji on the Arashiyama Line from Shijo Omiya.
Jingo-ji Temple is on Mount Takao north-west of Kyōto and can be reached on regular JR Buses which leave from outside the main Kyōto Station and is free for JR Pass holders.
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.