Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Art Of Tea. The Art of Film.

DVD Available from

Years ago, I learned that the measure of true Art of anything -- from dance to ritual, from cooking to writing -- is whether there has been a transformative experience on the part of creator and (if any) "audience". One might even say that when there is a merging of the witnesses (including the artist as participant observer) with that which is created, then Creativity is underway. 

Is it possible to have that experience by witnessing the creative process virtually, i.e. once removed by the mediating veil of recording or once-again-telling? Of course! The "entertainment" industry is built upon this "reality".

Thus, I am applauding (with a silent bow) the recent film Sen Shin An: The Other World of Tea for leaving me not only refreshed as if I just had a bowl of tea, but also for moving me so far as to leave the comfort of the viewer's chair and set out my dogu to enact a temae to create that bowl of tea.

Mitigating the suspension of tealeaf particles in hot water within a set time period is the mark of a successful temae. Likewise, an artfully made film distributes the ideas and images of its essence throughout the period of time during which you engage the audience. Sen Shin An does this very well.

Produced by Inspirita in 2011 in a gorgeous Kyoto autumn, its sections run from the didactic principles, such as wa, kei, sei, jaku, into a chaji hosted by Bruce Hamana, sensei. Bruce has been employed by the Kokusaibu (foreign division) of the Urasenke Foundation for several decades and is usually seen surrounded by Midorikai (foreign school) students at a formal outing or at his busy desk. I admit that I didn't recognize him as the kimono-clad teishu of the scenes of the chaji, being prompted only at the end in the credits. Seeing him at peace (even filmed!) pouring water is lovely.

People new to chanoyu always ask me if there is a special occasion during which tea is presented formally in Japan. Of course, the answer is "ichi go ichi e", i.e. Only THIS Moment ... every day is a good day!

The film’s artistry is that it sets up the final, seemingly austere, segment in the tearoom by inviting the viewer to witness the every day busy-ness of Japan in the same mind-set. The mise-en-scene removes the expectation that something very complex -- dare I say, important, mysterious, etc.? --  is happening, something that many other films do in an attempt to echo the power of chanoyu in Japanese cultural history.

In fact, nothing more than just simply making tea is occurring. The complexity, if well inculcated on the part of the host, is nowhere to be “seen” by the guest. 

The value of this short (67:39) film is that it captures the spirit of tea and shares it “just” so. Whatever history or cultural nuance are behind the experience, it has been whisked into a lovely frothy (Urasenke style!) bowl of usucha.

Stewart Wills, the film’s director, notes, “Although there may be various technical points of interest to followers of Tea, the film did not set out to be an instruction manual. Rather it strove to convey the inner spirit of Tea.” I wonder why the point was made about “instruction manual”.

When I began my chado study, I was admonished not to take any video of the okeiko, the class. One learns by observing, a fellow student pointed out. For one not able to understand Japanese, and thus (still) having little reference support than the now defunct Chanoyu Journal, I settled into the reality that I needed to improve my observation skills and to be careful not to practice only what my memory allowed, which was often incorrect. Later, Urasenke produced an expensive set of videos (still not in English) of the basic procedures and others that augment the famed “green books” (Japanese only) that showed step-by-step how-tos for the temaes. So, I can see why students may lament the lack of such a didactic film. (Urasenke’s Tankosha Publishing arm now produces a few more English-language books of the basics of the practice.)

On the other-hand, today YouTube and so many other sources of moving media are full of “Japanese tea ceremony” pieces. With the significantly more widespread availability of matcha (although, aside from specific well-crafted brands, usually not very good) and a mail-order chasen (the whisk), anyone can make a bowl of tea with a few trials.

Enough writing ... I must not keep the hot water waiting ...