The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

by Sugimori Nobumori

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As a traditional bunraku, or large puppet, play, The Love Suicides is concerned with topics typical of Japanese theater in the 1700s. Among these subjects are the nature of true love, loyalty between friends, and the dangers of corruption. The protagonists, despite their different class backgrounds, are similar in being subordinate to older, powerful men and thus having little control over their own future lives. Despite their best efforts to behave honorably and remain steadfast in their love, the couple cannot see a positive way out of the problems that ensnare them. The combination of true love and honor pushes them to decide to end their lives, thus joined finally in death.

Because Tokubei occupies a lowly position in his uncle’s company, he owes dual loyalty to him both as an older male relative and as his employer. While his own aspirations are modest, the uncle and his wife have a plan to help the young man move up the social ladder as well as keep the family wealth under their control. Tokubei understands the advantages of the proposed arranged marriage to the aunt’s niece, but he chafes at being a pawn in their social schemes. At the same time, he has lost his heart to Ohatsu, a lovely geisha. While the audience sees Tokubei’s struggles to behave honorably, they also observe the strongly contrasting, dishonorable behavior of his friend, Kuheiji.

After wrestling with his conscience, Tokubei refuses the proposed marriage to the niece, only to discover that the dowry money is compromised. The plot complications around the characters’ borrowing and lending of the dowry—which the aunt has already spent—would likely have been familiar to the audience. The young woman, even more than her intended groom, becomes a pawn in the older adults’ machinations.

The systemic corruption also affects the younger generation; Kuheiji not only takes advantage of Tokubei and lies about owing him money, but frames his generous friend and thus effectively makes him an outlaw. Honesty has not helped the young lover; he must face the fact that he is ruined. Although Ohatsu is a courtesan, she too behaves honorably. Rather than forsake her true love, she shields him from the law. The contrast between right behavior and a corrupt social system, including abuses of the law, is thereby confirmed in their choice of double suicide.

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