Chikamatsu Monzaemon

Chapter 4--Renaissance--CHIKAMATSU MONZAEMON (1653-1725)

        We are still in Kyoto, where Japanese literature has been from its beginnings a thousand years earlier, but now in a much more stable environment than Chomei's, as we enter "The Floating World" of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868).  I choose Chikamatsu because he is the greatest dramatist of this Tokugawa Period, probably of Japanese literature--and that's where the literary action is in this period.  Chikamatsu is even sometimes called the "Japanese Shakespeare," though he is certainly not that.  He has nothing of the range through comedy, tragedy, and history of Shakespeare, or of Shakespeare's language complexity (but, then, neither does anyone else in world literature).  No, once the Japanese discovered Shakespeare in the late 19th century, Shakespeare himself became the Japanese Shakespeare, so that you can no doubt see as much Shakespeare in Tokyo as in London or New York any given year (certainly more Shakespeare than Chikamatsu).  But, Chikamatsu did write 130 plays (to Shakespeare's 37), and, as Shakespeare is the quintessential Elizabethan, Chikamatsu may be seen as the quintessential representative of the Genroku period (1688-1703), the Japanese Renaissance period which comes about 100 years later than the Elizabethan period in England, and has much the same character, as Tokugawa Ieyasu, after his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, established the Tokugawa bakufu, absolute political control, much as Henry Tudor did in England after his victory at Bosworth Field in 1485. In each case, the period of civil war was over and a strong royal (shoganate) family was clearly in control, so that, after this period of stability had been in place about a hundred years, it generated, in each case, a middle-class urban environment in which the arts, particularly literature, and particularly dramatic literature, began to flourish.
        And flourish they did.  Chikamatsu's contemporaries include Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), an important writer of middle-class fiction, and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) the great haiku poet (judged by most to be Japan's greatest poet), and, since the Tokugawa bakufu endured longer than the Tudor monarchy did, lasted for 268 years, it finally included such writers as the great comic novelist, Jippensha Ikku (1766-1831), whose Hizakurige has been called the Japanese Huckleberry Finn-- with its rascally Edoites traveling down, not the Mississippi River, but the Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto, living by their wits--and it culminates in the high Edo period, just before Perry arrives in the "black ships" and opens up Japan, which some lovers of things Japanese see as the period of high vitality and values in the life in Tokyo (Edo), particularly in the pleasure quarters, the world that Kafu gives such a realistic picture of in his largely autobiographical fiction, the most charming Japanese "world" of them all--Japan just before it is transformed by the West.

Kabuki and Bunraku

        But Chikamatsu himself did not live to see any of that--just its beginnings in Kyoto--for he was a dramatist in the early Tokugawa, or Genroku, period, when Japanese theatre, mature in the Edo period, was first being revolutionized.  The three great classical forms of Japanese drama are the Noh, the Kabuki, and the Bunraku.  The Noh had been developed as largely aristocratic theatre, with Buddhist themes, in good part by one family of actors and playwrights--primarily Kaname, the father, and Zeame, the son--contemporary with Chomei in the medieval period, and offers an almost religious theatre experience.  But the other two developed as part of this middle-class, secular Renaissance--this floating world with the geisha activity, and hedonism, at the center.  Chikamatsu wrote plays about middle-class characters with domestic love problems--a merchant falling in love with a geisha and ruining his life, until the only way out seems to be a double suicide--after which the lovers expect to spend eternity on the same lotus leaf, a strange kind of religious hold-over in this distinctly secular world.  Two of his most famous plays follow this plot, as if coming out of the daily newspaper--the early The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (1703), and the late The Love Suicides at Amijima (1721), which are sometimes compared with Shakespeare's early and late love- suicide plays Romeo and Juliet (1596) and Antony and Cleopatra (1608), (I did it myself when I took my first course in Japanese literature in 1973), but the style in Chikamatu is middle-class realism--in which he and his contemporaries are about a hundred years ahead of developments of realism in the West, as if the stories are copied from contemporary domestic experience.
        Chikamatsu wrote many of his plays for the kabuki theatre, which had developed into a substantial enterprise much as the London professional theatre had in Shakespeare's time, and, as Shakespeare's company built the Globe theatre based on their success in drawing a paying audience that would justify the investment, so the kabuki, with its revolving stage, hanamichi, and highly stylized costume, make-up, and acting conventions developed a popular base that supported building theatres and training acting companies in a tradition that still exists today, often in the same places in those great cities of the period, Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo.  It, too, was popular theatre, catering to the groundlings, and, again as Shakespeare's theatre was, was primarily an actors' theatre (Chikamatsu worked with the famous kabuki actor, Sakata Tojuro, much as Shakespeare must have worked with Richard Burbage).  But then the last twenty years of his career Chikamatsu wrote almost entirely for the bunraku, or puppet, theatre, which, though it had a somewhat longer historical development, now became a popular theatre in these cities, particularly Osaka, competing with the kabuki for the same audience and some of the same resources.  Chikamatsu's reason for prefering bunraku was probably that, while the maker of the puppets, and the trained puppeteers are certainly also important artists involved in the production of a puppet play, when it comes to the dynamics of performance, all is in the service of the playwright's script, which is most highly honored.  Though each has its own traditions in music and dance, the plays the two theatres were doing were often the same plays, but, as Chikamatsu came to write for the most part for the puppet theatre, he developed a critical theory for the special qualities of the experience, and has a famous essay setting out the aesthetic advantages of that theatre.  Perhaps nowhere else in the world has puppet theatre been more important, in fact, as adult theatre, nor, in its modern variations, more highly developed.
        If we take as perhaps his most representative play, at least among those available in English translation, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, it is typical in being a contemporary domestic tragedy.  Tokubei, the young hero, is in love with the prostitute, Ohatsu, and, still single, but in rejecting a wife-to-be his family has picked, is sacrificing his middle-class, domestic future for her.  In the later play, The Love Suicides at Amijima, on much the same plot, Jihei is betraying his wife, Osan (who is the most interesting character in the play--one reason it is seen as a more mature play than The Love Suicides at Sonezaki).  Both heroes promise to reform, but are obviously too weak--hardly heroes in any sense except their devotion to their love.  Death is the only way out--double suicide with Ohatsu for Tokubei, or, in Jihei's case, with Koharu--leaving Osan to pick up the pieces.  These double-suicide plays came out of actual double-suicides, but were so popular that they provoked others, until the Tokugawa government forbid the use of shinju (double suicide) in the title, for the death itself was romanticized in highly sentimental terms, the poetry of that passage known as the michiyuki (lovers' journey).  The most famous one is the one in The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, which Donald Keene calls "one of the loveliest passages in Japanese literature," a hundred line lyric in a largely prose drama, as performed by the puppet theatre narrated in good part by a skilled reader.  I will give Ohatsu's closing lines, shortly before the double suicide:

  It's strange, this is your unlucky year
  Of twenty five, and mine of nineteen.
  It's surely proof how deep are our ties
  That we who love each other are cursed alike.
  All the prayers I have made for this world
  To the gods and to the Buddha, I here and now
  Direct to the future: in the world to come
  May we be reborn on the same lotus!
        So, in this mundane world we still have touches of the Heian period lyric, and medieval Buddhist belief.

[Quote some of his theory on the puppet theatre, back a page.]
[Comment on his other plays, particularly The Battles of Coxinga.]

See Donald Keene, Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu (Columbia University Press, 1961)