Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) is best known for his tragedies involving ordinary men and women in the kansai, or western part, of Japan, where his works were first presented in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. During his career, Chikamatsu wrote about 100 puppet and kabuki stage plays. In these works, natural human emotions keep the characters alive as their human passions come into conflict with the rational principles and ethics that serve as the foundations of society. The plays go on to treat human weakness and the need for maintaining dignity in the face of crisis.
Chikamatsu's use of lower class characters in his tragedies is rather unique in world drama, where tragic characters have most often been members of the upper classes. In Chikamatsu's most famous plays, his characters violate the rules of society—often by committing a crime such as theft, adultery, or murder—and occasionally end up meeting a tragic end, either by their own hand or by society's. But in most of the works, the tragic hero is redeemed by his or her love, confession, or penitence.
Chikamatsu's plays were printed during his lifetime to allow people to practice his singing roles or read the poetry. The chanter, who described the setting of the acts, was given the most beautiful passages to recite.
Chikamatsu Monzaemon was born in 1653 in the Echizen province, what later became Fukui, Japan. Of aristocratic descent, Chikamatsu was the second son in a prosperous samurai family. (The samurai were professional warriors traditionally bound to a lord or daimyo.) When Chikamatsu was around ten years old, his father became a masterless samurai (ronin) and moved the family to Kyoto. Without a formal relationship to a feudal lord, Chikamatsu's father was deprived of a fixed stipend.
At the age of eighteen, some of Chikamatsu's poems appeared in a poetry collection entitled Takaraura (The Treasure House) published by Yamaoka Genrin. Chikamatsu studied a traditional form of poetry known as haiku and Japanese classical literature with Genrin, while serving as a page for a nobleman in Kyoto. It has been suggested that Chikamatsu first became acquainted with the celebrated actor Uji Kaganojo while running errands for this nobleman.
Chikamatsu's decision to enter the theatre could not have pleased his wellborn parents. But he may have been constrained in his choice of occupation by his father's ronin status, which left the son with few options for achieving samurai rank. And although Chikamatsu's association with the Japanese nobility certainly enriched his understanding of the world, it probably provided very little in the way of financial remuneration. It has been surmised that Chikamatsu's other option would have been to become a poetry teacher. Some have suggested that he may have been persuaded to pursue a career in the theatre after he saw Uji Kaganojo's success.
Although it is not known when Chikamatsu first began writing puppet plays, his earliest known work of this genre was Yotsugi Soga ( The Soga Heir ), which was written for Uji Kaganojo in 1683. The play met instant success and brought fame to the 30-year-old playwright. The rather crudely written piece treated a well-known story involving two brothers, Onio and Dosaburo, who had formerly served as retainers to another pair of brothers, the Sogas, before the Sogas were put to death. In most versions of the story, the subject was the successful revenge of the two retainers and their subsequent deaths. But in Chikamatsu's treatment, the story became more complex.
Chikamatsu adds a scene in a brothel where the two lovers of the late Soga brothers are employed. The two women are distressed at not having heard from their sweethearts, unaware that they have both been killed. When the two alleged murderers of the brothers show up wanting to sleep with the women, the retainer Onio chases them away, not knowing who they are.
Having now learned of their lovers' deaths, the two prostitutes next travel to the Soga brothers' village, intending to tell their lovers' mother of her sons' deaths. After the old woman learns that her sons are dead, one of the prostitutes informs her that she has given birth to her son's child, a boy named Sukewaka. The boy is at the time staying with an aunt.
A short while later, the villains visit the prostitutes, looking for Sukewaka. After the two women pretend to be in love with them, the murderers try to enlist their help in killing Onio and Dosaburo. Hiding inside large chests, they wait for the two retainers to show up. But when Onio and Dosaburo arrive, they are accompanied by an enormously strong friend, who places large boulders on the chests. When one of the villains tries to get out, he is crushed to death by the weight of the stones. The second villain is taken captive, and the victors leave for the capital to celebrate.
In the final scene, the surviving villain is released so as not to mar the festivities with bloodshed. Sukewaka is given the Soga family lands. The emperor's consort declares that she has come to realize that prostitutes, far from being debased creatures, are in fact the models of fidelity in love. At the emperor's request, the prostitutes do an improvisational dance to retrace the history of courtesans. At the end of the play Sukewaka and his mother exit amid assurances that the Soga clan will flourish for years to come.
Chikamatsu's next puppet play, entitled Shusse Kagekiyo (Kagekiyo Victorious), was written for a younger rival of Kaganojo in 1686. In the play, Kagekiyo's mistress learns that her lover is going to marry a woman of high birth. Out of revenge, she betrays Kagekiyo's hiding place to his enemies. After Kagekiyo is captured and bound, his mistress appears before him with their two sons to beg his apology. But he disowns his children, and she kills the children and then herself before his eyes. In the final scene, it is revealed that the goddess Kannon has substituted her own head for Kagekiyo's at his execution, so Kagekiyo is safe. He then makes peace with his old enemy.
Kabuki is a form of Japanese drama in which the actors use stylized movements, dances, and songs to perform comedies or tragedies. Many critics feel that Chikamatsu's early kabuki plays were inferior to his puppet plays, possibly because he had to write for conventional roles that did not allow for the complexity of some of his puppet characters.
Chikamatsu wrote most of his plays for the kabuki theatre between 1688 and 1703. Although he had written Yugiri Shichiren Ki (The Seventh Anniversary of Yugiri's Death) in 1684, in the ensuing four years he wrote mostly for the puppet theatre.
The best known of Chikamatsu's kabuki plays was Keisei Mibu Dainembutsu (roughly translated Courtesans and the Great Recitation of the Name of Buddha at the Mibu Temple). The play was written to coincide with the public display of a secretly kept statue of Buddha at a famous temple. The strength of the play derived from the freedom it gave to the actors to display their own particular strengths. In this play within a play, a loyal retainer is assigned the role of a woman. So disguised, the retainer overhears a plan by his master's stepmother and her brother to steal the family treasure, a religious statue. Pursuant to winning the villains' confidence, the retainer is required to kill his daughter to protect his master's reputation.
In 1703, Chikamatsu shifted his efforts back to the puppet theatre. He may have been motivated by the departure of the actor who appeared in his kabuki works from the stage, or possibly by the tendency of kabuki actors to take liberties with his text while performing his works. In any case, Chikamatsu's decision to return to the puppet theatre would have long-lasting impact. It meant, for example, that the puppet theatre would be the most popular form of drama for the next 50 years because it would be puppets who performed the works of the country's pre-eminent dramatist.
At the time that Chikamatsu was writing, audiences were accustomed to spending an entire day at the puppet theatre and were not always attentive to everything that was happening on the stage. For Chikamatsu, the challenge of the puppet theatre was to impart lifeless puppets with a variety of emotions and thereby capture the audience's attention. Chikamatsu did not hesitate to have his characters say things that a real person would not utter in order to maximize the pleasure in the play's performance.
Chikamatsu scored a major success in 1703 with a play about a lovers' double suicide entitled Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki). In the play, which was based on an actual event, Tokubei is in love with the prostitute Ohatsu. After he refuses to marry the woman chosen for him by his uncle, he is obliged to give back her dowry money. But Tokubei is tricked out of the money by a friend, and Tokubei and Ohatsu, facing separation, decide to commit suicide together.
In 1715, Chikamatsu achieved his greatest success up to then with the puppet play Kokusenya Kassen (The Battles of Coxinga), which tells the story of Coxinga, the son of a Chinese father and Japanese mother, who leaves Japan with the intention of restoring the Ming rulers to the throne of China and defeating the Tartar usurpers.
Chikamatsu's masterpiece, Shinju Ten no Amijima (The Love Suicides at Amijima) was written in 1721. Again dealing with a lovers' double suicide, the play tells the story of Jihei, who is in love with two women, his wife Osan and a prostitute named Koharu. To keep Jihei and Koharu from committing a double suicide, Osan suggests her husband buy Koharu's contract. But the plan is thwarted by the arrival of Osan's father, who takes his daughter away. Jihei then has no choice but to go through with the lovers' suicide. But out of concern for his wife, he arranges the suicide so that it appears that the lovers have died independently.
Between 1720 and 1722, the 70-year-old Chikamatsu wrote ten plays in 25 months. In the earlier of these plays, the male heroes come across as depraved as they proceed to destroy the world around them. But the later plays in this group involve more noble characters of a higher social class. According to C.A. Gerstle, writing in Hero as Murderer in the Plays of Chikamatsu, the playwright decided to look at the persons at the top of society who were ultimately responsible for the depravity among the lower classes.
Following this prodigious two-year output, Chikamatsu produced nothing for 16 months until his last play was performed in 1724. This final play, Tethered Steed and the Eight Provinces of Kanto, addresses the familiar theme of rivalry over love, with the hero willing to die for his honor after stealing his brother's fiancée. In the ensuing conflict between honor and love, the offended brother offers mercy in an exchange for an apology. The offending sibling finally gives up his pride and submits to his brother's demands. Chikamatsu's final statement as a playwright turned out to be a paean to idealism over self-destruction.
Chikamatsu died in the early part of 1725, less than a year after Tethered Steed and the Eight Provinces of Kanto was performed.
Gerstle, C.A., Hero as Murderer in the Plays of Chikamatsu, University of London, 1994.
Keene, Donald, Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu, Columbia University Press, 1998.
—, World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1978.