Blues Groove Film Reviews

a solitary perspective of independent and world cinema

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Ask This of Rikyu - Mitsutoshi Tanaka - 2013
Japan Film Festival of San Francisco 2014
San Francisco Premiere

Directed by Mitsutoshi Tanaka
Starring Ebizo Ichikawa, Miki Nakatani, Nao Omori

Director Mitsutoshi Tanaka had everything he could possibly want in making ASK THIS OF RIKYU: famous actors, skilled extras, fan support, chef with two Michelin stars, national treasures worth up to three million dollars, and a story adored by many in Japan. The film is based on the award-winning novel by Kenichi Yamamoto, but his main character, Rikyu, has been a nationally recognized historical hero for hundreds of years.

A 16th century tea master, Rikyu held the respect of many during his time, including warlords and the notorious Chancellor Hideyoshi. Emphasizing simplicity and honesty, he had significant clout in the implementation of “Way of Tea” (Chanoyu), the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. For Rikyu, beauty lies in the very basic and the imperfect. Still highly influential in the Japanese customs of today, Rikyu’s approach to the art of tea making is less about skill and more about situating oneself in a philosophically sound environment.

Takana begins the film on the day of Rikyu’s suicide, a mandate by the jealous Hideyoshi (Nao Omori) who feels that the tea master has gained too much power. Then, we are reeled back 15 years before he does the deed. In a series of flashbacks segmented by year, the film details Rikyu’s rise in popularity and his evolving relationship with Hideyoshi, who actually greatly admired the philosophical tea master before falling down a path of greed. Yet, the real story, which slowly reveals itself under all the politics of the Momoyama period, resides in the secret love affair that Rikyu has kept hidden from everyone. We are given glimpses of this hidden story through objects before it is finally revealed.

The story itself is nothing that epic despite the prominence of Rikyu’s name. In fact, there are a few overly dramatic scenes that made me wince. Playing the revered tea master, Ebizo Ichikawa is as dominant on screen as he was in Takashi Miike’s HARA-KIRI. However, it is the tea making at transports us into godly realms. The ritual plays a major role in setting the mood of each scene. The activities of folding cloth, scooping tea, pouring water, and whisking the ingredients together enhance the relationships between the master himself and the subsidiary characters: Hideyoshi, Rikyu’s wife, and Rikyu’s previous lover. Every movement is carefully captured and elevated to importance, for it is the “ordinary” that Rikyu cherished more than anything.

Whether it was due to luck or just part of destiny, Tanaka was able to use many of the actual bowls and the very tools that Rikyu used hundreds of years ago. The most expensive bowl was worth three million dollars. Japan’s most celebrated Kabuki actors were also part of the film, performing particular ceremonial movements that only trained professionals can accurately portray. As if that wasn’t sufficient, the celebrated chef of Maruyama restaurant prepared all of the food seen on screen. And to top it off, many of Rikyu’s current followers did whatever was necessary to make sure the film was made. According to the director, without them, the film would not have succeeded. For Tanaka, preciseness was crucial and what we see on screen can only be described as poetic. There is nothing I can write that can capture this beauty. I can only imagine the ecstasy of experiencing Rikyu’s art in person.

I will end with Rikyu’s seven rules of tea making since it says so much about the man and his work:

“First you must make a delicious bowl of tea
lay the charcoal so the water boils
arrange the flowers as they are in the field
in the summer suggest coolness, in the winter, warmth
do everything ahead of time, prepare for rain
and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.”


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