Chikamatsu Monzaemon Essay - Critical Essays

Sugimori Nobumori


Although Western writers tend to use the world “play” or “drama” in describing the work of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, some explanation of the word jruri will be helpful in understanding Chikamatsu’s accomplishments, as well as his inevitable limitations. When Chikamatsu began his career, there were no troupes of live actors performing any kind of real dramatic spectacle. Rather, chanters of various sorts of stories, usually historical accounts of the Japanese medieval wars, considerably embellished, began to use musical accompaniment, simple puppets (worked by multiple handlers from below), and scenery to illustrate their accounts. The very name jruri, which defines the genre, is taken from the name of one of those historical embellishments, a fictional princess who supposedly fell in love with Yoshitsune, the celebrated general who died during the civil wars in 1185 and who remained one of the great cultural heroes of the Japanese tradition. During the period prior to Chikamatsu’s ascendancy, various chanters (all of whom wrote their own texts) tried adapting certain features from the elegant medieval N theater in order to give their popular stories more shape and substance. When Takemoto Giday himself decided to commission the young Chikamatsu to compose a text for him to perform, a new tradition was begun, for up until that time, no “playwright” as such had ever been used. This new division of labor helped increase enormously the potential for literary expression.

Reading a translation of a Chikamatsu play, Westerners will find the structure of dialogue plus narrator relatively familiar, yet it must be remembered that in Chikamatsu’s time, one performer chanted all the roles and created all the voices. This bravura aspect of the performance was an important consideration in the planning and organization of the texts and gives jruri a resemblance to Western opera, where certain conventions are also embedded in the text. This is one limitation placed on Chikamatsu’s art, and yet, on the whole, it was one with which he could live comfortably as he was in control of the script. Chikamatsu also experimented at various points in his career with writing for Kabuki actors, theatrical groups that had begun to perform dramas in the large cities. The actors had a tendency to change Chikamatsu’s lines, however, and so he returned to writing for the puppet theater and continued to do so for most of his career. The Kabuki theater , indeed, grew up in the shadow of the jruri puppet theater and imitated its style in many important respects, including the stylization of physical movement. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Kabuki had become more popular than the jruri; efforts were made in the early nineteenth century to win back audiences to the puppet theater (by then called Bunraku), but the actor’s theater continued in its ascendancy. By that time, the actors often performed Chikamatsu’s dramas as though they had been written for them, but, in fact, virtually all of Chikamatsu’s great works were composed for the puppet stage.

During the early years of his career, Chikamatsu tended to write dramas on historical themes, adapted from various chronicles or from medieval N dramas. In 1703, he wrote a play about contemporary life, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, and after the success of that experiment, his writings began to encompass both styles.

Chikamatsu’s audiences in his mature years were almost completely made up of the merchant class in Osaka, the center of protobourgeois culture in Japan during that period. Because of strict social class barriers imposed by the Tokugawa shoguns since shortly after 1600, the merchants were cut off from higher forms of culture, yet came to have the money, the leisure, and, eventually, the cultivation to pursue artistic interests and pastimes. Therefore, both types of plays written by Chikamatsu appealed greatly to them: The history plays (jidaimono ) served as a means to teach them about the glories and complexities of the Japanese past, both in the court and in military circles, and the domestic dramas (sewamono ) provided them with a powerful glimpse into the intimacies of the world that they themselves inhabited. For modern audiences, these domestic dramas, which deal with the vicissitudes of the personal lives of the townspeople, still possess an emotional reality that is compelling. For all the differences between the urban society at the time of Chikamatsu and now, there are certain powerful similarities, which make the domestic dramas both appealing and poignant even today. In fact, Chikamatsu may have been the first major dramatist to make ordinary men and women, with all their foibles and weaknesses, the protagonists of tragic drama. A dramatist such as George Lillo in eighteenth century England attempted to do the same sort of thing in his play The London Merchant: Or, The History of George Barnwell (pr., pb. 1731), but it was not until much later that such characters were regularly portrayed in a sympathetic fashion on the European stage. For a modern reader, Chikamatsu may often seem closer to an Arthur Miller than to a Shakespeare.

As the historical dramas of Chikamatsu were always drawn from actual events in the past, so the domestic dramas, too, were taken from real events in Japanese society, often dramatized as soon after the fact as possible. In a special way, these domestic plays served as living newspapers, which presented accounts of lurid or sensational events adapted for their theatrical effectiveness. The attraction for the audience of such plays thus lay far less in the “plot” of the events portrayed, which they knew at least in outline, than in experiencing the art with which Chikamatsu reworked his material. Much ink has been spilled over the question as to whether Chikamatsu was a “realist,” in a contemporary sense of the world. The playwright himself put these questions to rest in an eloquent statement he made during the course of an interview that was published after his death. When asked about the need to create an art that would resemble reality closely, he replied that art and reality were not the same. Pure realism “does not take into account the real methods of art. Art is something which lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal . . . and entertainment lies between the two.” To a modern reader, it is clear that both the artifice of the puppets and the beauty of Chikamatsu’s language (and here he most resembles Shakespeare) could lift the most banal, even sordid, “reality” to great heights of genuine pathos.

The Battles of Coxinga

Of the history plays, the only drama available in full translation is Chikamatsu’s most successful effort, The Battles of Coxinga, first performed in 1715 and undoubtedly his most popular work. The play concerns the exploits of Coxinga, a famous hero in Japanese history who was involved in the battles surrounding the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China, about a century or so before the composition of the play. His exploits had become legendary, and the play contains a number of incidents from his complex career juxtaposed and embellished to make as brilliant a series of effects as possible. Read on the page, the text seems full of bombast and arbitrary confrontations, but seen in performance, The Battles of Coxinga provides a series of striking vignettes that exploit the possibilities of the puppet stage to their fullest. It has often been said that audiences were particularly excited by The Battles of Coxinga because it dealt with the exotic Chinese scenes at a time when, because of the policies of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Japanese themselves were no longer allowed to travel abroad. Whatever the reason, the scenes of China and Chinese life presented make up in color and fantasy what they may lack in historical veracity.

The play opens at the court of the Ming emperor in Nanking. He is portrayed as a weak man,...

(The entire section is 3292 words.)