Although The Life of an Amorous Man entertains more than it educates, Saikaku’s novel can be seen as a critique of the moral and spiritual degeneration that accompanied the decay of the feudal system and the growth of modern popular culture. During the Kamakura-Muromachi era, which extended from approximately the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the aristocratic samurai warrior controlled the political and economic worlds and the Buddhist priest was the leader of the spiritual and the intellectual worlds. During the peaceful and prosperous years of the Tokugawa shogunate, however, the Bushido code of the warrior fell into disuse, and the ardor and integrity of the Buddhist and Shinto faithful diminished. As the world became more comfortable, strict spiritual and ethical codes became less important.
In The Life of an Amorous Man, Saikaku reveals a rural world of genuine corruption where virtue is the exception: samurais turned bandits or male whores; base cozeners posing as Shinto oracles and Buddhist monks; nuns who live by whoredom; and villagers who value nothing more than survival and live by theft, deception, self-prostitution, or the exploitation of others. The urban world is more prosperous and more pleasant than this rural world, but it, also, is morally empty. In the society of Saikaku’s cities, the emphasis is on form rather than substance. The trappings of medieval aristocratic aesthetic ideals exist in the sophisticated gay world, but the focus is on surface beauty. The traditional concerns of promoting virtue and reproving vice, of forging a bond between inner and outer beauty, and of living an honorable life have given way to a preoccupation with questions of fashion, style, and reputation. The merchant class virtue of iki (smartness) has supplanted such venerable ideals as giri (ties of obligation) and ninjo (human feeling).
Saikaku has no illusions about the moral and spiritual quality of life in the gay quarters, but neither does he seem particularly disturbed by what he sees. He is not a satirist or a reformer; he is a storyteller whose chief interest is in a faithful and engaging representation of life. Saikaku, like Yonosuke, is not interested in the deeper implications of his story. He does, however, have a genuine awareness of and sensitivity to the full humanity of women and to the tragic dimensions of their plight in a male-dominated world. He is a sensitive, witty, and good-humored writer with, given his class and historical setting, an exceptional sympathy for women and others who suffer inordinately because of the inequities of the world.