Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
The playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon was one of several literary giants who appeared simultaneously on the Japanese scene during the early half of the Tokugawa period (1600-1867). He wrote the books (called jruri) for puppet theater, which came into its own in Osaka because of the happy appearance of Chikamatsu, a great chanter (Takemoto Giday), a talented samisen accompanist (Takezawa Gon’emon) who put Chikamatsu’s words to music, and a superb puppeteer (Tatsumatsu Hachirobei) who boldly appeared on the stage with his puppets and yet, through sheer artistry, made the audience forget his physical presence in the movements of the puppets he manipulated. Chikamatsu also wrote for the Kabuki theater then centered in Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo).
Chikamatsu’s dramatic works fall into two classes, according to the subject matter treated: the historical and the domestic, the latter dealing with contemporary events and with people chiefly of the merchant, or common, class. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki was the first of the domestic plays written by Chikamatsu. He was fifty years old at the time. First staged in Osaka in 1703, it is a dramatization, with additions, of events that actually occurred in Osaka earlier that same year. Originally written for the puppet theater, it was soon presented on the Kabuki stage as well. The play remains popular.
Although Chikamatsu has been called the most Western of the great Japanese dramatists, two obstacles—one cultural, the other artistic—confront the Western reader who attempts to understand and appreciate Chikamatsu’s dramas. The cultural gulf that separates the present-day Western reader from the eighteenth century Japanese characters frequently seems too great to bridge, and, since the West has almost no tradition of adult puppet theater, or even any highly stylized, ritualized drama comparable to Kabuki theater, it is very difficult for Westerners to visualize the plays theatrically on the basis of translated texts. Even so, moments of great feeling and dramatic power come through to interest and move the Western reader of Chikamatsu’s plays. Perhaps Chikamatsu’s most accessible play is his first domestic tragedy, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki.
This work established the basic plot line for all of Chikamatsu’s later domestic tragedies: A young tradesman and a prostitute fall in love; he is unable to “ransom” her (purchase her “contract”), and so, frustrated, the lovers eventually commit suicide together. Although the persistent choice of a prostitute for a heroine (an accurate reflection of social conditions) may strike the modern Western reader as peculiar, Chikamatsu’s antiheroic characterizations seem quite modern. It is through Chikamatsu’s domestic plays that realism can be said to have come to Japanese theater. Caught between intense human emotion (ninjo) and a rigid social morality (giri), the characters are inevitably destroyed by circumstances that are essentially beyond their control.
Tokubei is weak, volatile, erratic, and foolishly trusting; O Hatsu is, from the beginning, the more heroic—she decides on suicide long before he does and urges him to it. He vacillates and postures; she offers him her strength and example. Ultimately the only choice for them is suicide; they carry it out with great courage and mutual devotion, thereby achieving a tragic dignity. If the social context of their behavior is not completely clear and their fatalistic attitudes seem psychologically obscure, the purity of their love and the nobility of their suicides are convincing and touching. In the reading and the presentation, the high point of the dramatic arc in The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, as in all the shinj (double-suicide) plays, is in the poetic lovers’ journey (michiyuki) to their appointed end.
Although Chikamatsu uses the love-suicide formula with greater flexibility, subtlety, and complexity in later plays, the poetic immediacy and dramatic impact of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki have kept this play a permanent favorite with the Japanese public. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki began a theatrical vogue (in addition to Chikamatsu, many other Japanese playwrights exploited the formula), and it produced widespread public reaction. Originally inspired by a real incident, the play and its successors provoked so many real-life double suicides that in 1722 the Japanese government felt it necessary to ban the production of any play containing the word shinj in its title.