Ihara Saikaku Critical Essays

Hirayama Tōgo


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Ihara Saikaku was a poet who turned to writing prose fiction late in his life. As a haikai poet he had distinguished himself as a daredevil maverick with his rapid-fire performances. Yet his focus in haikai was the real world of the commoner’s life. Unlike the poems of his contemporary Matsuo Bash, which tended to be sublimated, Saikaku’s poems deal squarely with the diurnal activities of the men and women of the cities. When he turned to fiction, he continued to draw his materials directly from the commercial, urban society of his day.

Saikaku was a consummate storyteller who told his stories with relish. He was also a supreme stylist who wrote in a terse, innovative style that was emulated by his contemporaries and followers. To a large extent, Saikaku’s style derived from his training as a haikai poet whose medium required communication by splashes of imagery rather than articulated narrative. (Unfortunately, such matters of style are usually lost in translation and can be seen only in the original text.) Saikaku’s genius lay in the brilliant insight with which he wrote about sex and money in the life of the townsmen. His earliest work was imbued with optimism and an exuberant air, while his later works turned increasingly pessimistic. Yet throughout his writing career, Saikaku displayed a rare talent of intermingling the comic with the tragic.

Five Women Who Loved Love

Five Women Who Loved Love is generally considered to be Saikaku’s masterpiece. It is a rather carefully crafted collection of five scandalous love stories. In contrast to Saikaku’s other works on “love,” which were in reality about mere sexual encounters, these are stories that dwell more extensively on the portrayals of men and women in love and the often tragic consequences which follow. All but the last of these love stories end tragically; the protagonists pay for their indiscretions with their lives. Punishments for crimes considered subversive to the hierarchical order were harsh in the Tokugawa period. A hired hand who had illicit intercourse with his master’s daughter, for example, could have been sentenced to death. Adultery by a married woman was also punishable by death, and a husband who caught his wife in the act could kill her and her lover on the spot. Death was also often the penalty for kidnapping, or even for the embezzlement of ten ry or more. These stories acquired additional poignancy as each of them was based on actual scandals, some still very fresh in the minds of Saikaku’s readers. Saikaku freely altered and embellished the incidents and, in typical Saikaku style, added comical touches.

The first story is that of Onatsu, the younger sister of a shopkeeper in the regional town of Himeji, who falls in love with Seijr, a clerk in her brother’s employ. At an outing carefully staged by Seijr, they fulfill their desire. The liaison cannot go unnoticed, however, and fully aware of the penalty for Seijr, they flee by boat to reach Osaka but are tracked down and brought back to face the consequences. When Seijr is executed, Onatsu loses her mind; at one point she tries to kill herself but is restrained. She then becomes a nun in order to care for Seijr‘s grave, and she prays for his soul day and night. Saikaku comments, “This then is my creation, a new river and a boat for the lovers to float their love downstream, like bubbles in this sad fleeting world.” He makes no comment on the harshness of the punishment or the injustice of the law. Yet this final line makes it clear where his sympathy lay: They had violated no moral law; they were simply two hapless lovers caught in an unreasonable legal system.

The second story is about adultery between a barrelmaker’s wife, Osen, and her neighbor Chzaemon. Osen is falsely accused of adultery by Chzaemon’s wife. Incensed, she vows to give the accuser real cause to worry. Her desire for revenge, however, soon turns to lust. One evening after a party, when Chzaemon follows her home, she invites him in. They are no sooner in bed when the barrelmaker appears and discovers them in the act. Chzaemon flees the scene, only to be caught and later executed. Osen chooses a more heroic path to death, plunging a carpenter’s chisel-like plane into her heart. Osen had acted out of vengeance, rather than love. Chzaemon’s conduct, too, was deficient. Saikaku comments, “The scoundrel’s and her corpse too were put on public display at Togano to expose their shame. Their names, through countless ballads, spread to faraway provinces; there’s no escaping from one’s own misdeeds. Frightful, this world of ours!” Although Osen is spared the indignity of public execution, Saikaku leaves no doubt as to his disapproval of the conduct of Osen and Chzaemon: unmitigated adultery stemming from revenge or lust.

The third and perhaps most effective of the five stories is about Osan, the beautiful wife of an almanac-maker, and Moemon, a clerk in her husband’s Kyoto shop. The almanac-maker has hired Moemon specifically to look after the shop and Osan while he takes an extended business trip to Edo. During her husband’s absence, Osan and her maid Rin, who is attracted to Moemon, play a trick on him. The prank backfires, however, and Osan ends up in bed with Moemon. Moemon has come to Rin’s bed in response to a note from her; meanwhile Osan has taken Rin’s place in her bed to surprise him. Osan, however, falls asleep and is taken unaware. In the morning, when Osan realizes what has happened, she is mortified about the “shame” as well as the nature of her transgression. The only honorable way to salvage the situation, she believes, is to “sacrifice her life in order to save her honor,” and she asks Moemon to “join her in her journey to death.” They elope, stage a mock suicide to fool pursuers and flee to a mountain hamlet where they find momentary bliss. One day, unable to suppress an urge to reconnoiter the situation back in the capital, Moemon slips back into the city and is spotted; the misadventure leads to their demise: They are paraded through the streets and executed.

In spite of the essentially tragic nature of the incident, the story is told with humorous turns of phrases and is sprinkled with comic interludes. In less skilled hands, it could easily have become a farce; in Saikaku’s, it has been crafted into a thoroughly enjoyable tragicomedy. The adultery is unintended, but Osan has made an irrevocable mistake. To validate her good-faith effort to maintain her honor, Saikaku portrays her as an admirable woman, truly in love with Moemon. She is further portrayed as a spirited woman, full of life, who makes the most of the last days of her life and does not regret her action. Saikaku’s final comment: “At dawn of the twenty-second of the Ninth Month they met their end as in a fleeting...

(The entire section is 2810 words.)