Chikamatsu Monzaemon 1653-1725
Chikamatsu Monzaemon has been called the Japanese Shakespeare, an allusion to his status as the Japanese national playwright and a reflection of his success in the popular theater. The comparison is misleading, however, and detracts from Chikamatsu's real achievements: over 100 plays, a career spanning 40 years, and several innovations in both the art of the stage and the style of the drama. Although he wrote in other modes, Chikamatsu's name is most strongly associated with the puppet plays popular in his time. Whether histories or tragedies, Chikamatsu's plays brought to the stage a quality of writing and an attention to characterization unheard of in earlier puppet plays, and brought about a renaissance in the genre. That some of Chikamatsu's masterpieces for the puppet theater are still performed using live actors is a testament to the realism and sensitivity of the plays, and of Chikamatsu's enduring reputation as one of Japan's greatest playwrights.
Chikamatsu was born as Sugimori Nobumori in the province of Echizen (which is now in the Fukui prefecture) in 1653, the son of a samurai. His father apparently gave up his samurai status when he moved his family to Kyoto while Chikamatsu was a teenager, probably between 1664 and 1670. While there, Chikamatsu was a page for an aristocratic family, that of Ichijo Zenko Ekan, which may have provided his introduction to the theater. When his patron died, he left household service and went to Omi Province, where he stayed briefly at the Chikamatsu Temple—or so earlier biographers believed. He may also have worked as a stagehand at the Miyako Mandayu Theatre. His first composition, a short haiku dating from 1671, was published in a volume of family poems. The date of his first play is unknown. Some early scholars attributed the 1673 play The Quarrel of the Consorts of Kazanin to Chikamatsu, along with as many as fourteen other unsigned plays. Yotsugi Soga (The Soga Successor), a bunraku (puppet) play he wrote for the chanter Uji Kaga-no-jo in 1683, is the earliest play that is clearly Chikamatsu's, and recent scholars tend to count it as his first. The play was a critical success and was picked up by the bunraku chanter Takemoto Gidayu to open his Osaka theater in 1684, beginning one of Chikamatsu's longest and most important professional and artistic relationships. In 1686 Chikamatsu wrote Shusse Kagekiyo (Kagekiyo Victorious) for Takemoto, a work innovative enough to be considered the first of the new-style joruri, or puppet plays. Despite his success in this genre, however, Chikamatsu focused much of his attention in his early career on writing Kabuki plays, particularly in the years between 1695 and 1705. He wrote mainly for Sakata Tojuro, one of the leading actors of the time, with tremendous success. Nonetheless his preference was for joruri, and he reestablished his earlier connection with his old mentor Takemoto in 1703. In that year, his puppet play Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki) was produced to great applause. Perhaps recognizing that his relationship with Sakata Tojuro was coming to an end, Chikamatsu left the Kabuki theaters of Kyoto for Takemoto's puppet theater in Osaka. His 1705 joruri, Yomei tenno shokunin no kagami (The Mirror of Craftsmen of the Emperor Yomei), was announced by Takemoto-za as written “By Our Staff Playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon.” From that point on Chikamatsu wrote only for the puppet theater, producing what is thought to be his greatest work in 1715, Kokusenya Kassen (The Battles of Coxinga), which ran for seventeen months. Chikamatsu wrote the play while still mourning the death of Takemoto Gidayu in 1714; tradition holds he wrote The Battles of Coxinga in support of the new chief reciter, Takemoto Masadayu, whose rise to prominence displeased older members of the Takemoto-za troupe. Chikamatsu wrote several of the plays considered to be his finest in the last decade of his career, among them Shinju Ten no Amijima (1720; The Love Suicides of Amijima). Chikamatsu died in 1724, a widely admired and respected playwright. In a career spanning over forty years he had written well over 100 plays, and would eventually be considered the national playwright of Japan.
Chikamatsu's plays are often divided into two categories: jidaimono, or historical dramas, and sewamono, or domestic tragedies. Of both his Kabuki plays and his joruri, the majority are considered jidaimono, and many of his greatest theatrical achievements fall into this category, among them The Battles of Coxinga. Yet as Donald Keene explains, in the modern era his sewamono are more likely to be classed among his major works: “Unlike the historical plays (which really require presentation as joruri for full effect), the domestic tragedies may be performed equally well by actors; this has meant that critics outside Osaka, where the last important puppet joruri theater is located, have no ready chance to see the historical plays in their most favorable setting.” Although the plays are historical, they do not aim at historical accuracy. In some cases, in fact, the events of the dramas are thinly veiled renderings of contemporary political events, set in the past to evade the censors. Chikamatsu's first play, The Soga Successor, was a history play, as was his first major success, Kagekiyo Victorious, based on the legend of a vengeful survivor of the Taira clan who had recently been defeated in the Gempei wars. Chikamatsu drew from three earlier plays about Kagekiyo, employing the traditions of old-style joruri and Noh theater, but the play also looked toward future trends with characterizations more realistic than those of earlier joruri. The play considered Chikamatsu's greatest masterpiece, The Battles of Coxinga, is also a history play, based on the legends of a seventeenth-century Chinese warrior who successfully and heroically battled the Manchus and the Dutch. The Battles of Coxinga took on a scope of history and emotion that marked a maturation both of Chikamatsu's style and of the puppet theater itself. The genuine pathos of the sewamono, most of which were written later in Chikamatsu's career, also reflects this development. (Some have suggested that the style of Takemoto Masadayu's recitation—less powerful than that of Takemoto Gidayu's—also contributed to Chikamatsu's turn toward a more emotional style.) The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, one of his earliest plays in the sewamono style, is based on a true story of young lovers who committed suicide (shinju), as are most of Chikamatsu's other love-suicide plays. The high point of these plays is the michiyuki, or the lovers' journey to the afterlife, envisioned in Sonezaki as a Buddhist paradise. Some scholars suggest that the michiyuki functions as a summation of the entire play, particularly starting with Love Suicides at the Sunken Well (1707), one of the eleven love-suicide plays Chikamatsu would write. Chikamatsu's sewamono were innovative for the joruri in their focus on contemporary events—sometimes dramatizing stories only a few weeks old—and in their focus on characters from the lower classes, sometimes merchants, often orphans and prostitutes. One of Chikamatsu's more important sewamono, however, depicts the samurai class in which he had been born. Horikawa Nami no Tsuzumi (1706; The Drum of the Waves at Horikawa) tells the story of a lonely wife who is cajoled into a one-night affair. Her pregnancy reveals her guilt, and her husband forces her to kill herself. The play touches on the double standard in Japanese society, according to which a husband was free to carouse, but an adulterous wife was subject to execution. Chikamatsu's Yari no Ganza (1717; Gonza the Lancer) addresses similar themes. The greatest of Chikamatsu's sewamono is generally considered to be another of the love-suicide plays, The Love Suicides at Amijima. While the lovers of Sonezaki were innocent and their death romantic, the lovers of Amijima are excessive in their passion; Jihei, the hero, is guilty of unfaithfulness. Amijima also veers from the path of earlier love-suicide plays by emphasizing the suffering of those whom the lovers abandon, including Jihei's wife. As he had in Shinju Mannenso (1710; The Love Suicides in the Women's Temple), Chikamatsu also implies that their arrival in paradise is in doubt, requiring them to surmount many obstacles. The lovers in Amijima die forgiven, but their death is not a romantic victory, nor do they die together. In the last of his major sewamono, Chikamatsu forcefully confronts the reality of shinju.
Western readers of Chikamatsu's plays have tended to focus on similarities to, and differences from, Western authors, particularly Shakespeare, but also John Dryden, George Lillo, and Racine. One of the chief differences critics have pointed out is in the treatment of individuality and the self. As both Margaret Barry and Raquel Sims Zaraspe have noted, Western authors throughout history have tended to place greater importance on self-realization; in a conflict between self and society, the Western hero will remain true to himself. In Japanese culture, particularly in Chikamatsu's era, individuals were expected to be secondary to the community; self-realization would not be a crucial step towards heroism. More recently, Takashi Sasayama has compared the role of emotion in Shakespeare's and Chikamatsu's tragedies, arguing that in Western drama pity often serves a moral or didactic function not present in Japanese drama. Scholars have also emphasized the importance of understanding the plays within their artistic and historical contexts. Because the puppet theaters of Renaissance Japan are unfamiliar to most twentieth-century readers, some have stressed the need to interpret Chikamatsu's joruri as performance pieces, keeping in mind the music and the special demands of the puppets. In this group are two of the leading Western scholars of Chikamatsu, Donald Keene and C. Andrew Gerstle, who have included studies of the use of music and scenery in their interpretations. They suggest that the melodrama and excessive emotion of the written text is necessary to bring the puppets of the joruri theater to life, cautioning modern readers that of all drama joruri in particular suffers when restricted to two dimensions. In addition, recent critics have explored what the plays reveal about Japanese history, and how they address contemporary concerns. Chikamatsu's depiction of the merchant classes and the denizens of the “Gay Quarter” has been of special interest to scholars, both as a literary innovation and as some evidence of the theater's role in society.