The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

by Sugimori Nobumori

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The basic plot of this Japanese puppet (bunraku) play is one of ill-fated love that ends tragically. The play is also a work of social commentary: the reasons for the lovers’ demise are intertwined with deceit, corruption, and hypocrisy in eighteenth-century Japan. The audience is first introduced to Ohatsu, a noted geisha, and Gihei, a wealthy gentleman who desires her favors and then learns of her love for a poor but respectable young man, Tokubei. Not only is he caught in the geisha’s world, but he is being urged to marry for money. Tokubei feels that he should not refuse the match because the young woman in question is a relative through marriage, and Kyemon, the uncle who is pushing this marriage on him, is also his boss.

When Tokubei decides to do the right thing, however, and decline the arranged marriage because he loves Ohatsu, the situation takes a bad turn; his uncle’s wife has already spent the dowry money. Tokubei tries to rectify the situation by saving this money, but he foolishly lends it to a friend, Kuheiji. When he tries to recover the loan, Kuheiji makes up a story that Tokubei is lying and trying to defraud him. Ohatsu almost gets caught in the middle of the men’s fight, but Gihei takes her away in his carriage. Tokubei is compelled to go on the run.

Kyemon finds Ohatsu and tries to persuade her to give up Tokubei, blaming her for his troubles. When Tokubei reappears, Ohatsu hides him under the stairs of a porch where she is sitting. Kuheiji also turns up, offering to free Ohatsu from Gihei—essentially buying her services using the illicitly borrowed money. As the young lovers realize that the situation has become hopeless, Ohatsu and Tokubei manage to communicate through verbal and tactile codes that they are prepared to die for each other. In the end, both lovers take their own lives.

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