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...
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