Toyotomi Hideyoshi is one of The major figures in the history of Japan, being one of the great unifiers along with Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu. In the last decades of the 16th century he took over Nobunaga’s legacy and continued striving towards unifying Japan, which had been completely divided and in a state of chaos and turmoil for over a hundred years during the Warring States era. He managed to create political stability and introduced many sociopolitical reforms that would help define Japan as it grew into a modern nation in the subsequent centuries. When the main island of Japan was just starting to stabilize, Hideyoshi felt he was on a roll and announced his ambitions to conquer the Chinese mainland by way of Korea. An overly ambitious plan that would indirectly lead to his downfall.
Hideyoshi is clearly a very interesting figure and has inspired a number of films and especially television series. This particular film, however, is not about Hideyoshi himself, but about a monk who served him. The monk’s name was Rikyu and he was one of the most revered masters of the tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arrangement). Furthermore, he was one of Hideyoshi’s most trusted confidants. In this film we follow the relationship between Rikyu and Hideyoshi, and how it changes when Hideyoshi finds out that Rikyu appears to be quite skeptical concerning his military ambitions.
After nearly 18 years of absence from film-making director Hiroshi Teshigahara returned to the big screen with this modest film which is not at all to be compared with his amazing surrealist masterpieces from the 1960s (Pitfall, Woman of the Dunes, Face of Another). Rikyu is essentially a historical drama, but what makes this film so special is the attention given to the aforementioned traditional Japanese arts of tea and flower arrangement. After seeing this film it might not come as a surprise that Teshigahara himself is a master of ikebana, and highly interested in many fields of art. Truthfully, when watching Rikyu, it starts to feel like the entire relationship with Hideyoshi is merely a side-story. Instead, Rikyu is purposely trying to steer clear of political intrigue and simply wants to focus on practicing and spreading his Arts, especially that of Tea.
Unfortunately the rambunctious spirit of the times have their way of dragging innocent people in, and that’s what happens to Rikyu. He ends up forced to express his opinion concerning his liege’s plans and cannot avoid answering truthfully. Despite Hideyoshi’s personal attachment to Rikyu, this cannot be tolerated, and Rikyu faces a tragic fate. The soundtrack is provided by Toru Takemitsu, the man responsible for scoring nearly all true Japanese masterpieces (Harakiri, Woman in the Dunes, Double Suicide, Ran, etc.) and as always manages to create the perfect ambience to fit the film. Teshigahara’s shooting style is, as mentioned before, different from his older films, and has almost an Ozu-like feel to it, again fitting the themes of tranquility and traditionalism. Teshigahara has created this serene film about Japanese traditional arts with the utmost care and respect, while at the same time delving into famous and interesting historical characters. This is a must-see for anyone even slightly interested in Japanese culture.