Boy, this show is rich. Incredibly rich. Hyouge Mono is a 13 episode series being produced by Bee Train – and more importantly, Japan’s public broadcasting station NHK – about a retainer of Oda Nobunaga who is caught between loyalty to his lord and loyalty to the art he is most passionate about – the Japanese tea ceremony. Thanks also to bateszi for alerting me to the fact that we finally do have some translation available.

The series is flying under the radar of most blogs, likely due to both a)it’s relative obscurity, and b)the fact that it draws on a deep reservoir of Japanese culture and history. Hopefully, this blogging series can help ameliorate both of those issues, by providing some historical background commentary and explanation.

The Japanese tea ceremony is a particularly intricate affair, with layers upon layers of ritual – many superb web sources are available documenting the particulars. Tea was first brought to Japan from China in roughly the 9th or 10th century, and quickly became the drink of choice (boiled tea was both more flavourful and safer than drinking water – and provided a guaranteed way to make water sources potable – a big deal in the pre-industrial era before centralized plumbing!). More important to the story at hand in Hyouge Mono is that the tea ceremony served an important social role as well – it allowed nobles of different ranks to meet together as peers; one could consider it a sort of pre-modern cocktail mixer, almost. The long history of tea in Japan meant that the Japanese tea ceremony followed a very different route than the tea traditions in China or India, and it soon evolved it’s own set of aesthetics.

The most influential aesthetic in the Japanese tea ceremony, known as wabi-sabi, focused on embracing the transience and impermanence of life (likely rooted, and heavily influenced by, the importation and development of Zen Buddhism as the dominant religion of the noble class). Tea bowls, pots, cups, and other implements cast in the wabi-sabi style are characterized by flowing, organic shapes that attempt to capture natural forms, such as the imprint of hands on clay, or the pure essence of rustic simplicity. Other examples of wabi-sabi craftsmanship included glazed pots that would change colour with heat as the tea was poured into them. Soon enough, the collection of teaware from specific artists or from specific eras became in itself an integral part of the tea ceremony.

Hyouge Mono‘s historical chops are instantly evident in the first exchange that Sasuke has with his lord, Nobunaga, and the observations he makes about his various retainers. One immediately sees the first traces of westernization – not only in the clothes that he wears, but even the armour of his lords. While the man on the right in the screencap above, whom Sasuke refers to as “oafish” wears the traditional style of samurai o-yoroi, the man on his left, whom Sasuke refers to as wearing an “updated” suit of armour actually wears a set of armour in the nanban-do style (literally, “southern barbarian armour”) – Japanese armour that incorporates steel in it’s construction and that was inspired by the plate cuirasses of Western soldiers.

The agarwood Ranjatai is considered one of the Imperial Family's royal treasures. Agarwood was historically used as a base in many perfumes, and an aged specimen like Ranjatai is an exhorbitant gift.

Immediately too, we get a sense of Sasuke’s divided loyalties, and his highly irregular ambitions; he displays a keen aesthetic and artistic sense. At the same time, he is a nobleman of but moderate means – the other retainers in the court refer to him as newly married, with a stipend of 200 koku – a unit of wealth that indicates how much rice it would take to feed a man for a year. 1 koku = a man’s rice ration for a whole year. In short, while his living is secure and even comfortable, vast treasures such as Ranjatai are far, far beyond his means. His estate is tiny, and unlikely to be able to support much in the way of servants or warriors – likely, he, his armour, and his horse are all he can provide in terms of military service to his lord.

The only fictitious part of this account is Sasuke's involvement - the tea kettle Hiragumo was indeed present at the siege of Shigisan Castle in 1577, and was also personally destroyed by the rebellious Hisahide (although he did so before his suicide, possibly just to spite Nobunaga).

One last piece is rather interesting – the presentation of Hashiba Hideyoshi – otherwise known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who would later betray Nobunaga and found the Tokuwaga Shogunate. In many ways, Hideyoshi is presented as the true villain here, without any regard at all for art and culture and seeing it all as a method of manipulation, evident in his callous disregard for the destruction of Hiragumo and Hisahide’s death. The tension between culture and the forces that seek to co-opt culture seems like they will be a running theme in Hyouge Mono.

Note the ears - Toyotomi Hideyoshi is characterized in most texts as having unusually large ears (or earlobes, depending on the translation)

Overall, I’m very impressed with Hyouge Mono. While the presentation is at times comical, the show is rooted in solid research and really goes for a rather unconventional theme – the intersection of art, culture, and politics. Definitely a keeper.

Art is serious business.

Next episodes hints at, with the inclusion of the black-robed monk, the tea master Sen no Rikyu, tea master to Nobunaga himself, and quite possibly the most influential man in the history of the Japanese tea ceremony.