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Carrying on Rikyu's search for beauty
Publication Date : 03-12-2013
Modern artists discuss new Japanese film exploring origins of master's quest
Sen no Rikyu (1522-91) built the foundation of today’s chanoyu (way of tea) in the late 16th century, making it a grand comprehensive art that many people still admire today. A film to be released on December 7 is based on the bold premise that the source of his aesthetic sensibility was a youthful love, unlike past Rikyu films that usually focus on an old, sophisticated Rikyu.
Titled Rikyu ni Tazuneyo (Ask This of Rikyu), the film, in Japanese, is an adaptation of author Kenichi Yamamoto’s novel of the same title, which won the prestigious Naoki Prize for popular literature. The film won the Best Artistic Contribution award at the Montreal International Film Festival in September.
Recently, popular kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo, who starred in the film, and Sen Soin, grandmaster designate of the Omotesenke school of tea founded by Rikyu, discussed the film and chanoyu’s appeal at the Chounan tearoom in Sakai, which is Rikyu’s hometown.
Sen was born in 1970 in Kyoto as the first son of Sen Sosa XIV. Ebizo was born in 1977 in Tokyo and succeeded to his current name of Ichikawa Ebizo XI in 2004. Below are excerpts of their talk.
The Yomiuri Shimbun: Rikyu was respected even by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, both rulers of his time, and became their tea master. The film’s director, Mitsutoshi Tanaka, persuaded Ebizo to play Rikyu, believing no other actor has your energy.
Ichikawa Ebizo: I declined the offer [to play the role] many times. The impressions left by Rentaro Mikuni and Toshiro Mifune [who starred in past films depicting an old Rikyu] are very strong, and [Rikyu’s tradition] has been carried on by the members of Omotesenke as well as Urasenke and Mushakojisenke to this day. But I finally accepted the offer because the original novel stressed Rikyu’s youthful prime, including his love for a Joseon noblewoman and his relations with Nobunaga and Hideyoshi.
Yomiuri: Rikyu established the tradition of wabi-cha, which went against a longstanding practice of valuing old, precious pieces. He liked tea bowls handmade by his contemporary Chojiro, who founded today’s raku-style pottery.
Sen Soin: One of the attractions of chanoyu is that utensils created years ago and used in each era have been handed down to today and are still in use. So it means a lot of the tea bowls made by Chojiro and used by Rikyu appear in the film. [To Ebizo], you were nervous doing a scene where you prepare tea [for a tea ceremony] in the film, weren’t you?
Ebizo: I began practising in daily life using a Chojiro tea bowl a year before the shooting began, so I was all right. How do you feel about Rikyu, your great ancestor?
Sen: He must have been very creative and good at discovering utensils that suited his aesthetic sensibility. Chojiro’s tea bowls and bamboo flower vases, for example. I think he was energetic enough to pursue beauty and create a new sense of value.
Ebizo: When I held a Chojiro tea bowl in my hands in a tea room, I felt like I held nothing in my hands but instead I was scooping water in the mountains with my own hands to drink. I found myself brought to the space of nothing. I felt at the time I understood what Rikyu had pursued.
Yomiuri: Both of your families are responsible for passing on traditional culture.
Sen: We don’t just copy what Rikyu established—each headmaster of my family has explored his own style to suit the time. So I need to think about my chanoyu in the 21st century. I’ll also inherit the stage Rikyu tried to reach and also his spirit.
Ebizo: I want more people to see kabuki, so I always drive myself with a sense of crisis. I also want to do new things by sacrificing myself. Rikyu took a stand against Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. If he had listened to Hideyoshi, he would have survived, but he didn’t. I even felt his madness. Probably he thought his bitterness, belief and sense of beauty would live forever if he ended his life through harakiri ritual suicide.
Sen: According to documents associated with our fourth head, Koshin Sosa, that have been handed down in my family, [Rikyu’s] creations became less and less accepted by Hideyoshi and their different senses of beauty on chanoyu eventually caused a gap between them that couldn’t be bridged.
Yomiuri: The film was honoured at this year’s Montreal film festival.
Sen: When I studied in Britain after graduating from university, I couldn’t explain chanoyu well in English, as there were no English words that can plainly explain wabi (the beauty to be found in spareness and simplicity) and sabi (elegant simplicity) peculiar to chanoyu. I felt the more I tried to explain their concept, the further away I was from their essence. So I think the award is a sign that chanoyu is acknowledged in the international community. I’m very happy about that.
Rikyu ni Tazuneyo begins with Rikyu about to commit harakiri at the order of his master Hideyoshi (Nao Omori). Rikyu also defiantly told his former master Nobunaga (Yusuke Iseya) that he would decide the standard of beauty himself. Although respecting Rikyu, Hideyoshi was also jealous of him and persistently tried to explore the origin of Rikyu’s aesthetic sensibility. The film traces it back to his youthful love for a Joseon noblewoman (Clara).