Chikamatsu Monzaemon

If it' human nature to try to define the unfamiliar in familiar terms, perhaps it was inevitable that Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Japan's most revered dramatist, would be labeled by the West as the "Japanese Shakespeare." While of course there will never be another Shakespeare, this assessment is not entirely wide of the mark.

Chikamatsu was born Sugimori Nobumori in 1653, in the province of Echizen (modern-day Fukui Prefecture.) His father, a samurai, gave up his feudal responsibilities in the late 1660s and moved the family to Kyoto. Chikamatsu may have had his first brush with the theater while serving in a nobleman's house as a teenager; probably he met a patron of joruri (puppet theater).

In 1683 he completed his first known play, Yotsugi Soga ("The Soga Heir"), for joruri. It was highly acclaimed, and his 1686 play Shusse Kagekiyo ("Kagekiyo Victorious") attracted even more attention for its originality, breaking the predictable formulas that then dominated joruri.

A fair portion of Chikamatsu's writing was for kabuki, most of it for Sakata Toujuuro, a top actor of the time. In fact, between 1695 and 1705, Chikamatsu primarily wrote for kabuki. Still, his biggest hits seem to have been puppet plays, such as Sonezaki Shinju ("The Love Suicides at Sonezaki"), a ripped-from-the-headlines story appearing just two weeks after an actual double suicide in 1703. This was one of many "domestic plays" he wrote, dramatizing actual current events.

In 1705, for reasons unknown, Chikamatsu turned his energies exclusively to writing puppet plays. He moved to Osaka, the center of the joruri world, and became staff playwright at the Takemotoza. While Shakespeare probably never considered writing for puppets, it is notable that, like the bard, Chikamatsu did often write historical plays. Kokusenya Kassen ("The Battles of Co Xin Ga"), for example, is loosely based on the adventures of a Chinese-Japanese who attempted to restore China's Ming Dynasty.

The comparison to Shakespeare is fitting in terms of the quality of Chikamatsu's prose. Japan scholar Donald Keene writes that, considering Chikamatsu wrote each play within a few weeks, "we can only marvel that he could produce such astonishing textures of language" in such a short time.

While these topical plays attracted contemporary audiences in droves, they tended to lose their appeal as the events depicted faded into history. After his death in 1725, several developments in joruri, including the introduction of the three-puppeteer puppet, caused Chikamatsu's plays to be largely set aside. The domestic plays are now partially lost, mostly surviving only when adopted in part by others. Some of the history plays remain popular and are still presented on the stage intact, though often as kabuki rather than joruri (a.k.a. bunraku). Ultimately, though, like Shakespeare, Chikamatsu has become known as a great playwright of the distant past whose work is difficult for many to understand today.

Tim Young

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