There’s no question that Hyouge Mono is a fictionalized and somewhat fanciful reimagining of history, not an attempt at a true depiction of events. But to those of us in the 21st Century, especially outside Japan, I suspect this series appears to be much more far-fetched than it actually is. As hard as it is to imagine now, aesthetics and specifically the tea ceremony was a huge component of political intrigue in the late 16th Century. Men died over it, and careers were made and lost over it. That part, at least, is very much true-to-life.
As Hyouge Mono would have us imagine it, the shadow of the Grand Kitano reached all the way to Sendai – not surprising since Hideyoshi invited the great northern warlord, Date Masamune. For whatever reason he’s depicted here as a kabuki figure (hilariously, I might add). The invitation carries the weight of expectation – if Date honors it he’ll be acknowledging Hideyoshi’s place at the rightful ruler of Japan, whose place it is to put other daimyou on beck and call. Nothing was straightforward in these circles at this time.
The major historical thread playing out here is the growing rift between Hideyoshi and Sen no Rikyu, and this is an attempt to explain what in real life remains a somewhat mysterious schism. Sen is openly expressing his displeasure with the Chief Advisor now – behind closed doors anyway. Make no mistake, he knows exactly what he’s doing. By bringing these men in on his dissatisfaction he’s trying to force a confrontation with Hideyoshi – more or less daring Hideyoshi to move against him. In fact the Hideyoshi we see here is staging this entire massive ceremony in part to try and facilitate another tea master suppressing Rikyu in popularity.
For Sasuke, the Grand Kitano represents an opportunity to cement his own rise to the top of the aesthetic hierarchy. In order to do that he needs to take those he sees as his chief rivals down – first among them Rikyu himself. That number also included Hechikan, who Hideyoshi invites to the ceremony but initially refuses to attend. Ishida is about to strike him down for this refusal when Sasuke intervenes – and then kneels before Hechikan to implore him to attend, dirtying his pants in the process. As ever there are multiple layers to this. Sasuke genuinely doesn’t want to see Hechikan killed, but he also needs him to attend the ceremony in order to demonstrate his superiority over him – and he knows his gesture will be effective.
As for how Sasauke intends to triumph over his rivals (neither of whom acknowledge him as such, surely) he decides he must draw more guests than they. And his means of doing so is a patently absurd and as far as I know completely invented one – he builds a treehouse teahouse. The novelty of it has an undeniable pull, and it seems to be working – until a furious Ishida comes along to excoriate him for daring to put himself above the Chief Advisor (literally). Disastrous results follow.
The last one to play his card here is old Hechikan, who strolls in late and sets up the most spartan tea ceremony of all. He doesn’t even bother with a tea room – he just sets out his tatami on the grass of Kitano Tenmangu and starts preparing tea. In this world of pretension and fakery, Hechikan’s dedication to imperfection and simplicity seems by far the most genuine and unaffected. And by by dint of the nature of the ongoing power struggle at court, that somewhat perversely makes him a great perceived danger to some very powerful men.