Death of a Tea Master (Movie Review)

death of a tea master

The name of this movie in Japanese is Sen no Rikyū: Honkakubo’s Literary Remains (千利休 本覺坊遺文), and it was released in 1989.

It is the film adaptation of a novel written by Inoue Yasushi.

I had seen this movie a long time ago, but at the time I didn’t understand it since I wasn’t into tea.

Now that I’m more familiar with Japanese tea history, I can better appreciate it.

The movie is about the famous tea master Rikyū. More precisely, it’s about the reasons that led to his ritual suicide under the orders of the powerful feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Honkakubo, a disciple of Rikyū, attempts to solve this mystery.

As a side note, it’s historically unclear that Honkakubo was actually one of Rikyū’s students. It is likely, but there is no written evidence about it.

Another important character in the movie is Oda Urakusai, the brother of the famous feudal lord Oda Nobunaga.

Urakusai was also a tea master, and had studied under Rikyū.

The movie itself has a gloomy atmosphere, and by modern standards it can be felt as slow paced.

Death is common in this story.

Rikyū holds a tea ceremony for soldiers before a battle so that they get ready for the high probability of dying, for example.

Besides that, his two disciples: Yamanoue Sōji and Furuta Oribe also commit ritual suicide.

This isn’t entirely accurate, however, because in historical records Sōji was decapitated by order of Hideyoshi.

Anyway, the movie has a scene where Rikyū meets with these two disciples at night, and it appears that they make a death pact.

It is my understanding from the movie that Rikyū and his disciples preferred to die a honorable death as many warriors of the time did, than to betray their ideals.

At the end of the movie Urakusai is obsessed with this, and as he is dying from sickness, he hallucinates and believes that he is preparing his last tea and later disemboweling himself with a short sword just like Rikyū.

The scene of the final moments of Rikyū is very beautiful, against a background of cherry blossoms.

This time, I understood the movie and liked it.

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