Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Fancy a Brew?

I recently watched two films made in the same year (1989) which told the story of the same historical Japanese figure (and many thanks to Helene for lending these to me). Sen no Rikyu was a tea master in the late 16th century and was a key figure in the development of this highly aestheticised ritual. He enjoyed the patronage of the shogun Hideyoshi, but became embroiled in the politics of the court and was obliged (or ordered) to commit seppuku. The two films, Rikyu and Sen-no Rikyu, can be seen to fit in with the widespread ascendance of the ‘heritage’ film in the 80s, a return to historical subjects with much attention to period detail. The retreat from the modernist experimentation and generic exploration prevalent in the 60s and 70s is particularly marked in Rikyu, given that it’s director is Hiroshi Teshigahara, who produced some of the most remarkable examples of this type of cinema; films such as Woman of the Dunes, Pitfall and Face of Another. He had taken over his father’s position as head of an ikebana, or flower arranging, school in 1980 and had thus reconnected with the traditional arts of his country. Many of these are showcased in Rikyu.

Sen-no Rikyu is another version of the story from the same year (the films were made to mark Rikyu’s quatecentenary). This features a late performance from Toshiro Mifune, star of many of Akira Kurosawa’s finest films, in the title role. The copy which I saw was dubbed into Italian, which made it a surreal and strangely enjoyable experience, perhaps enhanced by the fact that I don’t speak a word of the language and didn’t have the benefit of subtitles. With a knowledge of the general outline of the story gleaned from seeing Teshigahara’s Rikyu first (both are based on a novel by Yaeko Nagami and so share basic plot details) I was able to let the visuals carry the narrative. Seeing the still bodies of Japanese men in traditional costume soberly enacting measured ceremonies whilst speaking in Italian, a language normally associated with effusive gesticulation, was odd to say the least. Mifune, in his younger years a very physical actor, is here seen in repose, playing the ‘maestro di the’ with a stiff formality. His Rikyu has a much more severe bearing than the more humane and approachable figure portrayed by Rentaro Mikuni in Teshigahara’s film. He seems to be loftily disapproving of what goes on around him and more directly at odds with Lord Hideyoshi, who is here depicted as straightforwardly brutish. This is a very male-centred film, too, in contrast with Teshigahara’s version. Women play a very subsidiary role, generally as motivation for male action.

Sen-no Rikyu has a Citizen-Kane-like structure, with a young pupil of Rikyu trying to find out what led to his master’s seppuku (ritual suicide) by visiting various people involved in his life. There are many picturesque exterior scenes which note the passing of the seasons and various historical sites in Kyoto are used as backdrops. Battle scenes here are staged (as opposed to ‘Rikyu’, where they are merely reported) in a style reminiscent of Kurosawa’s films of this period such as Ran and Kagemusha, although much less expansively. It is notable that Mifune’s Rikyu is present at these battles to provide the necessary rituals to the soldiery, and shows little unease about this duty. This is a rather martial tea master. Scenes of seppuku are also more graphically presented (although they are not dwelt upon) and the film as a whole is a lot more corporeal than Teshigahara’s.

Teshigahara’s Rikyu is much more a film of interiors and of the domestic detail which fills them. Rentaro Mikuni plays the titular character as a gentle man, wholly absorbed in his aesthetically ordered existence, in which the tea ceremony represents a balanced and contemplative approach to life as a whole. He becomes embroiled in politics and the intrigues of court entirely against his will and despite his best efforts to remain apart. Any efforts to influence Lord Hideyoshi are made indirectly through the example of his art, which encourages its participants to cultivate values of restraint and simplicity. Hideyoshi and Rikyu here have a rather touching odd couple relationship. The scene in which a petrified Hideyoshi applies Rikyu’s lessons to serve tea to the Emperor demonstrates their closeness. When the ceremony has been successfully concluded, Hideyoshi comes out to relate his triumph to Rikyu and almost does a little dance of glee, such is his relief. Here they are simply pupil and teacher. He is like an excitable child, in this scene and others. As such, he elicits our sympathy, whilst remaining unpredictable and easily influenced by flattery and the manipulation of his everpresent insecurity. Hideyoshi tries his best to absorb the lessons of Rikyu’s ceremonies, but his worldview remains fundamentally opposed. This is evident from the moment he enters the tea house in his gold slippers. He has come from a peasant background which he feels the need to disguise, chiding his unimpressed mother for failing to observe the necessary airs and graces. He marks his victory over a recalcitrant warlord by building a golden tea room in his palace, demonstrating his failure to grasp the most basic tenets of the way of tea. It is a gesture which Rikyu accepts, but with a look of disappointment at the evident lack of understanding of his teachings. Hideyoshi is presumably someone who has experienced genuine poverty and is as a result too dazzled by the gaudy appurtenances of wealth to be able to accept a philosophy based on ascetic simplicity.

Rikyu is always accommodating to his lord, never offering a contradictory opinion and hoping that his example will bear fruit in a wise and considered leadership. Rentaro Mikuni’s performance is one of warm reticence, his expressions subtly evoking the hopes that the approach to life embodied in the way of tea will have some effect and the resigned disappointment when it becomes apparent that this will not be the case. His scenes with his wife Riki have a relaxed domesticity which portray him as a very human character, far from the forbidding figure of reverence represented by Toshiro Mifune in Sen-no Rikyu. Indeed, the active role played by women in Teshigahara’s film counters their almost complete absence in Sen-no Rikyu, which is much more focused on male power play. Rikyu assigns his wife, Riki, to teach Hideyoshi’s wife the way of tea, and this liberal breach of tradition is seen by courtiers absorbed in their own power plays as a potentially threatening act. Rikyu is just carrying out his philosophy in aiming to make the way of tea universal; if it represents a unified vision of life, then it must be open to all. But to some, this is clearly a philosophy with undesirable political ramifications.

The film thus addresses the way in which art, even when it attempts to distance itself from politics, becomes engaged by default. Given that it takes up some kind of aesthetic stance towards the world, suggesting a particular worldview, art becomes open to use and abuse by the powerful (or those who seek power) who would use it to underline (or stand in opposition to) an ideological position. The favour which Rikyu initially finds with Hideyoshi and the influence of his art and philosophy exerts is eventually used against him. In refusing to impose his views on others, he leaves himself open to the imputing of ignoble motives behind the attainment of his unsought-for authority. The tributes of Hideyoshi’s golden tea room and a statue at a local temple which he has accepted as honestly-intended gestures whilst clearly wincing at their ostentation are made to seem like the self-glorifying creation of symbolic edifices of power. When Hideyoshi’s brother Hidenaga, a trusted counsellor and unswerving advocate of Rikyu dies, the tea master becomes prey to the self-aggrandising plots of the courtiers who now manipulate the self-deluded ruler. The increasing imbalance of the world of the court as opposed to that of the tea house causes a rift between the former teacher and pupil and eventually leads to the order for Rikyu’s ritual suicide.

The lovingly recreated backgrounds over which Teshigahara lingers provide a compendium of the cultural details of the time. In addition to the rituals of the tea ceremony, we observe the casting of the ‘wabi’ ceramics used for tea, with their emphasis on rough, natural forms; a Noh drama representing Hideyoshi’s triumphs; and the art of Ikebana, or flower arranging, about which Teshigahara evidently knew so much. Other incidentals include the startling fashion for the cosmetic blackening of teeth.

Of the two films, I definitely preferred Teshigahara’s Rikyu, perhaps aided by its non-Italianate dialogue and helpful subtitling. It has to be said that the American dvd release treats the film in contemptible fashion, shrinking it to a panned and scanned travesty of the director’s original framing and passing us off with a notably faded and low quality print. There’s really no excuse for such shoddy treatment these days, other than inherent cheapness and lack of regard for both artist and viewer. Poor bloody show.

We leave Rikyu in both films wandering off into the beyond. Mifune passes into the world of the clouds, the cries of his disciple dwindling into the distance, whilst Mikuni walks purposefully through a bamboo grove, it’s boles seemingly floating in mid-air. Just passing through.

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