An early episode in Rikyu shows the ceremonial tea master, Sen-no Rikyu (Rentaro Mikuni) meticulously poring over his modest garden in search of a perfect flower, carefully cutting his selection behind a retaining trellis, before instructing his apprentice to cut all the remaining flowers in the garden that are in full bloom. Moments later, the powerful warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), concernedly looks around the flowerless garden before entering the spartan and intimate tearoom by climbing through the small door opening and into the direct line of sight of the harvested flower that has been arranged on the opposite wall. Instantly, the hurried and distracted Hideyoshi changes his demeanor and pauses in stunned silence, visibly overcome by the thoughtful presence of the solitary white flower in the humble room. It is an understated moment that summarily defines the mutual respect and kinship between the methodical and disciplined Rikyu and the brash and mercurial Hideyoshi’s relationship as well. Once serving as the tea master under Lord Oda Nobunaga (Koshiro Matsumoto), an ambitious warlord who aggressively sought to unite Japan under his rule and opened diplomatic, religious, and trade relations with the Portuguese (who had access to the Asian spice trade route through Goa), Rikyu retained his venerable position under Hideyoshi after the loyal and calculating general avenged his master’s death and wrest control of Lord Oda’s vast feudatory over the traitorous, competing warlords. Using invitations to Rikyu’s formal tea ceremonies as an effective ruse from which to conduct delicate diplomatic negotiations among the unassimilated, rival feudal states, Hideyoshi eventually succeeds in realizing Lord Oda’s ambition to unite Japan through peaceful means. However, when the Hideyoshi declares his intention to invade China as a step towards his overreaching quest to create a Japanese empire in the Pacific, Rikyu’s tempering influence over his impulsive student is tested.
Based on the life of the legendary tea master Sen-no Rikyu (1522-1591), Rikyu is a serenely contemplative and formally exquisite exposition on aesthetic philosophy, refinement, and spiritual unity. Thematically expounding on Rikyu’s spare and minimalist principles of the wabi-cha (literally, ‘desolation-tea’, or the reductive practice of paring the tea ceremony to its humble and meditative essence in order to heighten one’s sense of awareness), Hiroshi Teshigahara incorporates wide spatial framing (often placing characters in medium shot), natural and diffused lighting, and slow, unobtrusive tracking shots that distill the film’s essential visual composition and maintain purity of focus. Teshigahara further reinforces the cultural legacy of Rikyu’s simple, yet elegant integrated life philosophy by dedicating the film to mid-century modern designer Isamu Noguchi and Sofu Teshigahara, the filmmaker’s father and founder of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana that integrated principles of modern art into the traditional art of floral composition. Set against the transience of history as a united, 16th century Japan initiates a campaign for the invasion of China – a devastating imperialist policy that would again resurface during the early 20th century with the Manchurian conflict – the film becomes a subtle, yet provocative testament to civilization’s true enduring legacy, not through militarism and territorial aggression, but through the peaceful cultivation of taste, art, and national culture.
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